The growing glamour of Little Italy is echoed in the changing incarnations of the site of Voyage. It started a century ago as a tool and die shop, then became a grocery. More recent old-timers remember it as a hair salon, which turned into a pottery shop, and then a Moroccan-looking coffeehouse/art gallery (complete with weekend belly dancers) called the Gargoyle Gallery and Cafe. Last fall, Gargoyle's owners got together with the owners of La Vache, a pair of French bistros in Hillcrest and La Jolla, and turned the location into Voyage (pronounced the French way, "vwy-AHjh"), a full-service Franco-Asian fusion restaurant.
The decor hasn't changed significantly since the Gargoyle era. An airy space is partitioned into a small bar (wine and beer only) and two separate dining rooms. The look is warm, with terra-cotta walls and hardwood floors. The back dining room boasts a wall-length, pillow-strewn banquette, a colorful cloth wall-hanging, and ornately framed mirrors suspended above. Tables are covered with butcher paper; at lunch each has a glassful of crayons to invite do-it-yourself tablecloth design, graffiti, or business notes. Salsa plays on the sound system, not too loudly, until the place fills up -- after which even a muted Mozart minuet would add too much to the existing din.
The opening chef was Louisiana-born Andre Bellard, chef/co-owner of the late Sassafras (the most recent restaurant to succumb to a difficult location farther north on India Street). At the beginning of March, Bellard moved on to cook at the Westgate. His sous chef, Gregorio Zavala, has moved up to head the kitchen, executing the recipes that Bellard and the La Vache contingent originated. Menu changes have been minor.
The table bread is almost certainly from Solunto Bakery, a couple of blocks south -- a dense, soft Italian loaf with a pale crust. It also stars in one of Voyage's best dishes, the shrimp po' boy sandwich served at lunch. At first bite, this became my number-one po' boy in San Diego, flattening all challengers. There are a zillion Louisiana recipes for the sandwich, but the first requisite is New Orleans-style French bread, with its crisp crust and light interior. That bread doesn't exist in San Diego, but Bellard found a way to turn local Italian loaves into NOLA loaves: toasting. The cut bread is smeared with remoulade sauce, and unbattered shrimp are cooked hot and fast to a blistered exterior. The slightly unconventional "dressing" omits the customary pickle slices but includes shredded lettuce and ripe tomato slices (more tomato than most NOLA restaurants put in). If it's not exactly what you'd eat at Casamento's or Uglesich's, the textures and flavors still say that this sandwich was invented by someone who knows his po' boys.
We began lunch with a couple of soups (both also available at dinner). Lemongrass-shiitake soup is a bliss-dish, a light Asian twist on cream of mushroom. Coconut- milk-based broth is suffused with lemongrass, which is then strained out and replaced by thin-sliced fresh shiitakes; these color and flavor the soup as they cook. The result combines power with refinement. My partner's cup of "signature lobster bisque" didn't compare. The Maine lobster entrée that Voyage used to serve left with the chef, and restaurants with no lobster entrées on the menu rarely make great bisque. Voyage's rendition lacks depth, intensity, or singularity. If I were a restaurant, I wouldn't want my autograph on it.
At our dinners, the best tastes came first, while the entrées ranged from slightly to severely disappointing. We were happily astonished by a starter of escargots à la Catalane -- the tenderest possible snail meats in a macho mixture of butter, garlic, black pepper, and a Spanish-Portuguese hot red pepper called piri-piri. We used our bread to sop up every drop, but the posse member with the most sensitive palate dropped out quickly, vanquished by spice.
An appetizer platter is available for two or four persons, with the two-size ample enough for three and adequate for four if you're ordering other dishes. This sampling of starters is more than the sum of its parts, because it includes numerous sauces -- if you don't like the "official" sauce for one of the finger foods, you can dip your tidbits in another.
The contents include "kung pao calamari," crumb-battered fried calamari fingers with a peanut-strewn hot-sweet-sour sauce. Avocado spring rolls are bland, but their red-brown puréed dipping sauce is spicy. We lucked out when the house ran out of the platter's third item, "firecracker shrimp," and substituted gorgeous, gooey triple-cheese crisp wontons, filled with a melted mixture of cream cheese, Brie, and pungent bleu, alongside a lush raspberry-plum sauce.
As for those "firecracker shrimp," they're a long way from the ethereal version that Sassafras fans may remember. Tough boiled prawns and a little vegetation are enveloped in lumpia wrappers, deep-fried, and served atop a splash of screaming red bottled Sriracha sauce crisscrossed with streaks of loud brown hoisin sauce. Like it or not, the wrappers suck up the harsh condiments. Both the sampler platter and this solo appetizer come with a haystack of tasty chopped Asian vegetable salad dressed in a sesame-ginger vinaigrette. The menu includes numerous salads, and the same dressing recurs on nearly half of them -- even on a soi-disant "traditional" Niçoise from France's olive-oil country.
With our appetizers, we thoroughly enjoyed a Vouvray, a "picnic wine" from the Loire made of Chenin Blanc grapes. California bulk-wineries gave this prolific grape a bad name by turning it into alcoholic Kool-Aid (a precursor to pink Zin) -- but when vinified in its home country, a good Vouvray is liquid sunshine, a fine match with Asian flavors.
Our entrées, however, never quite hit the spot. The chicken dishes were the tastiest. The breasts are brined before cooking, flavored all the way through, and very moist. Chicken-and-sausage jambalaya has half a juicy bone-in breast standing in a field of scallion-strewn rice mingled with smoky, peppery Cajun-style andouille. If jambalaya can encompass a range of textures, this one is at the dry end, made with minimal tomatoes and scant liquid. Perhaps it's just my imagination, but it seems less zesty than the version that Bellard served (stuffed inside a roast chicken) at Sassafras. Then, too, Louisiana cooking is so unique that I suspect you can't make jambalaya for long using anyone else's recipe. It's got to evolve or devolve. If you love the dish, you make it your own, and if you don't love it, it will always be lacking.