Do you remember the days when you could enjoy dinner and a movie without refinancing your home? The days are all long gone when $10 would buy dinner and movie for two, pay the baby sitter and still leave change clinking in your pocket. Entertainment and dining costs have have both kept pace with the rate of inflation, perhaps even exceeding it.

There is one place that brings back those wonderful memories of yesteryear. A few nights ago, I wandered into the dark interiors of the Landmark Theater in Hillcrest to view one of the customarily excellent films. Then I had the good fortune to stop by Pizza Nova Restaurant for dinner.

“Pizza Nova” means “new pizza” and, when the chain was first started, its creations were new and different. Over the years that passed, other restaurants also jumped onto the “woodfired” bandwagon. The difference is that Pizza Nova has maintained high standards of flavor and excellence in its products while sticking to a very reasonable price level. As I ate, I kept wondering, “How can they charge these prices and stay in business?”

Pizza Nova has three locations – Hillcrest, Solana Beach and Point Loma. They are all easy to reach. The Hillcrest location is probably most convenient, with validated underground parking serving the small center that includes the theaters.

On entering the Hillcrest location, the first thing to see is the open kitchen. Chefs are busy preparing the wonderful dishes. Pizza is assembled and then inserted into the woodfired ovens for the alchemy that occurs when heat is added. They emerge with the cheese and other ingredients looking beautiful and smelling divine. The process is fascinating to look at. In fact, at that time, four children were sitting at the small counter, absolutely absorbed by the cooking ballet they were observing.

The restaurant has a large dining room and an outdoor enclosed heated patio. Noise levels were high but bearable.

The extensive menu lists a variety of pizza and pasta dishes. Pizzas come in two sizes and the crusts are medium thick. Pastas are prepared inhouse and are cooked al dente.

The “Pizza Nova” pizza ($14.25) is made of smoked salmon, red onions, capers, and goat cheese. The goat cheese offset the taste of the lox, giving the dish a sensational taste. The Mexican Lime Chicken ($14.95) made with chicken breast, onions, cilantro, and topped with salsa, sour cream, and guacamole tasted like a cross between a Mexican and a Vietnamese dish and was a hit at the table.

Custom pizzas are available. Ask for it and you can probably get the exact combination of ingredients that you enjoy.

Pastas come in all the standard shapes and sizes – spaghetti, fettucine, linguine, rigatoni and so on. The Sundried Tomato and Pesto Linguine ($7.95) with toasted pine nuts tossed with sundried tomatoes, fresh pesto, and Parmesan appealed to the calorie counting diners but tasted rich and hearty. The garlic aroma of the Rock Shrimp Cilantro Fettuccine ($9.50), rock shrimp with tomatoes, onions, feta cheese, and cilantro tossed with white wine and garlic butter, was mouthwatering.

My favorite dish was the Half Roasted Chicken ($8.95), roasted half chicken with fresh rosemary and garlic, served with garlic mashed potatoes and sautrated vegetables. The chicken was fresh off the spit, rubbed and basted with tasty spices, tender to cut and full of flavor. The side dishes were wonderful, particularly the vegetables which were firm and glowing with a buttery sauce.

Pizza Nova is a good choice for a family. People can relax and be themselves. Children have things to watch. The food is good and prices are inexpensive. The Hillcrest location is at 3955 Fifth Avenue – 619/296-6682 The Solana Beach location is at 945 Lomas Santa Fe – 858/259-0666. The Point Loma location is at 5120 No. Harbor Drive – 619/226-0268. Now I know where I can be entertained and dine without calling my banker.

Todai Restaurant – Sample the Sushi Inexpensively

It was 11:15 and, inside the door, 12 people were lined up for inspection. The servers were all assembled for a check of their uniforms and a final pep talk by the manager before the doors opened to Todai Restaurant. Outside, over 40 people already were lined up at the door, patiently waiting to be admitted in 15 minutes.

Located at a highly visible spot on Camino del Rio South, beneath the Highway 805 overpass from Highway 8, Todai Restaurant offers a good reason for early arrival and enthusiastic patronage. The sushi and other dishes are excellent, inexpensive and one can eat as much as desired. For sushi lovers, it is heaven on earth.

Sushi has become a very popular food, with a large discriminating and sophisticated following. Sushi chefs often go through years of training before they become qualified to work in better restaurants.

The style at Todai is buffet, self service. The restaurant is divided into two large sections on either side of the entry area. One side holds the sushi and seafood buffet line. The other side holds the dessert buffet line. Salads are handled on conical islands. Hot foods are located in the center section, just past the entry. Stainless steel gleams everywhere. The place is immaculately clean. Tables and chairs are Spartan but, who cares. The price is right.

In addition to servers, there is a small army of chefs behind the buffet lines, continually preparing and presenting more food. Platters of food are cleared quickly as satisfied diners reach forward with tongs and serving utensils to load up their plates. Kitchen Manager Philip Chou explained, “We have cooks from all over – China, Japan, Phillipines – each preparing their special dishes. Our sushi chefs are highly trained. This is also the kitchen where we continually create and try out new products. “Chou is the chef that creates the menus and sets up all the new kitchens for the restaurant chain.

Todai Restaurant is a franchisor, with over 14 locations running, and more openings scheduled throughout the United States and internationally. The idea is simple: sell good sushi, seafood and other dishes in a comfortable atmosphere at moderate prices. With successful locations in Hawaii, Texas, Washington and throughout California, the idea seems to be working.

More than 40 varieties of sushi are available. If one doesn’t know what one likes, this is a good place to try different presentations. Diners who are into sushi really love the dishes and consider the food to be very healthful. There are books and websites offering advice on how to prepare and eat the various types of sushi that the talented chefs create.

Most new sushi eaters begin to develop their tastes for the dishes with the “rolls”, like California Roll or Tekka Maki (tuna roll). Little bits of fish and sometimes vegetables or avocado are wrapped in a bed of rice, held together by seaweed or other binding. But preparations can include salmon, kani (crab), unagi (eel), hotategai (scallops), uni (sea urchin) and other denizens of the deep. The fish is usually raw or smoked and attached to a small bed of sticky rice. The flavors depend on the type of fish used, the preparation and the condiments the dish is eaten with.

I love the California Rolls and Todai’s version was very good. The salmon sushi was very fresh and flavorful, making me feel loaded with good health. A tofu sushi was new to me and interesting. The tufo was prepared in the shape of a large ravioli, open on one side, covering the rice like a small tent. The unagi (eel) was also very fresh and tasty. The whole sushi line was a blaze of color and taste.

Hot dishes included lobster, grilled beef, chicken teriyaki, sukiyaki and sea bass. Over 15 items were available. The chicken teriyaki tasted a bit overcooked but the grilled beef was very good, as was the imitation crableg, breaded and deep fried and looking just like the real thing. My favorite hot dish was the vegetable tempura, with a light and tasty batter that melted in my mouth after dipping in soy sauce. Tuna cakes were small, but I could make repeat trips if I so wished. Dumplings were spicy, which I enjoyed and the “sweet and sour” pork was well done to a crunch.

The available salads included shrimp, oysters and snow crab, but I was saving room for dessert. The buffet dessert line was almost as long as the sushi line, with over 30 items displayed. These include cheese cake, carrot cake, and a “mango surprise” that was overpowering with fruity taste. Most desserts are small, bite size piece, like sushi and very satisfying.

Beer, sake and wine are available, including Kirin and Sapporo Japanese beer brands. Parties as large as 500 guests can be handled for corporate events. Todai Restaurant is comfortable and service is attentive. The real draw of Todai is the beautiful and good tasting large variety sushi which may be enjoyed at a such affordable price. Lunch costs $12.95 and dinner $21.95, with prices slightly higher on weekends.

Todai Restaurant is located at 2828 Camino del Rio South. There is lots of free parking. Call 619-299-8996 for information and directions.

Jyoti Bihanga

There is a small restaurant in San Diego where, by the simple act of dining, we can contribute to world peace. The cuisine is very good and very healthful, to boot.

The restaurant is Jyoti Bihanga, located in a storefront building on Adams Avenue in North Park. The name is a Bengalese (now part of Bangladesh) phrase that means “the cool bird of the absolute light supreme”. It is stenciled on a wall high up near the ceiling, next to drawings of flying birds.

The name was given to the restaurant by Sri Chinmoy, the leader of a worldwide movement with thousands of followers, who dedicate themselves to the principles of love and world peace. Some of the profits of the restaurant’s operation go towards supporting this work. There are 16 such restaurants around the world, each with a different name but united in this mission.

Sri Chinmoy’s name is not as readily recognizable as the names of other spiritual leaders but his influence is broad. He has been supported by such luminaries as Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana, among others. Twice weekly, he travels from his headquarters in Jamaica, New York to the UN Building in Manhattan to conduct meditation programs for the many diplomats whose activities directly impact on the state of the world.

The cuisine at Jyoti Bihanga is strictly vegetarian. No animal products of any sort are used. Recipes use only natural ingredients and the preparation is relatively simple. However, the tastes, textures and colors of the dishes are very gratifying. For carnivores who enjoy “meat” most, there are several fake-meat dishes offered that have a remarkable similarity to the real thing.

The restaurant is comfortable and decorated with plants and flowers. Tall church-like window allow a great deal of light to enter during the day. The walls are painted a mellow, relaxing light blue color. A very large photograph of Sri Chinmoy hangs on the wall.

The ambiance at Jyoti-Bihanga is very calm and serene. Service is quick and efficient. The menu lists a daily special called the Peace Special, in honor of Sri Chinmoy. Appetizers include “Never Say No Nachos” and a tasty Hummus Dip.

Both wraps and sandwiches are served. The wraps are particularly good. The Grilled Portobello Wrap consists of grilled marinated Portobello slices with red bell peppers, fresh spinach and cheddar wrapped in an organic whole wheat chapati. It comes with a tofu sauce that is wonderful.

Thai stir fry dishes come with sautˇed vegetables, tofu, and peanuts on brown rice. The peanut sauce is totally tantalizing.

For the carnivore, BBQ mock duck actually tastes like duck sautˇed with a barbeque sauce. The “neatloaf” dishes are takeoffs on “meatloaf” with a similar look, texture and taste. Buddha Burger is a patty made of soy protein that is a tasty burger without the fat and excess calories.

If you still have room for dessert after the large portions are finished, the carrot cake is made from scratch with fresh grated carrots and walnuts. It is topped by a terrific cream cheese frosting.

Prices at Jyoti-Bihanga are very inexpensive. It would be easy to enjoy a delicious meal for less than $10.

One good reason to frequent the restaurant, though, is to help support the ideas of world peace. Sri Chinmoy advocates meditation, prayer and athletics. Training of the body is one of his important messages. The manager of Jyoti Bihanga, Mahiyan (his adopted first name) Savage, was once a star tennis player who competed in the French Open.

The organization put together a Peace Run in 2001 that covered over 11,000 miles in all 50 states and went through more than 2000 communities carrying a “Peace Torch” to promote world harmony. It has a worldwide yearly schedule of marathons and races that it sponsors, the largest scheduled program operated by one organization, to bring people together in the idea of harmony.

The Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run is a biennial, international torch relay founded by Sri Chinmoy in 1986. The large participation athletic event unites people of diverse races, cultures and social backgrounds to share their aspirations for peace. A flaming torch is passed from hand to hand and heart to heart across six continents to spread the message.

So, by the simple act of dining, we have the opportunity to bring about positive change in the world. In addition to good food, free classes in meditation and vegetarian cooking are offered. Jyoti Bihanga is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. It is located at 3351 Adams Avenue. Call 619-282-4116 for information and directions.

CyberEater Restaurant Reviews may be found published in the Daily Transcript. In addition to Dining San Diego’s Guide to Fine Restaurants in San Diego, please visit the San Diego Cyber Concierge web site for help finding the ideal restaurant for your needs. Copies of Dining San Diego Magazine are FREE at major hotels.