2760 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
*** (Very Good)
2760 Fifth Avenue (between Nutmeg and Olive Streets), Bankers Hill, 619-542-0394, http://avenue5restaurant.com.
HOURS: Lunch Tuesday--Friday 11:30 a.m.--2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday--Sunday 5:30--9:30 p.m., Friday--Saturday until 10:00 p.m. or later.
PRICES: Salads and appetizers, $7--$16; entrées, $20--$26; desserts, $7.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Seasonal French-influenced California cuisine featuring local ingredients. Well-edited international wine list at low markups, with many good buys for the adventurous.
PICK HITS: Salads, scallops with pear, prosciutto-wrapped "devilfish" (monkfish), baked fromage blanc, chocolate decadence cake.
NEED TO KNOW: Decor amplifies noise, very loud when crowded. Classy-casual dress (e.g., jeans and twinsets). Street parking (not too hard). Half-price for second bottle of wine on Thursdays. Please make reservations. "Moderately priced neighborhood bistro" and "chic spot for seasonal cuisine" may seem like contradictory phrases -- in the neighborhood adjacent to Laurel and Mr. A's, you'd expect the chic but not "moderate" -- but Avenue 5 encompasses both descriptions. The cuisine has those idealistic Alice Waters values that have (finally!) dribbled down to the southland: food that's fresh, local, and organic where possible. And even if the dining room looks spiffy, the food and wine prices are more middle class than plutocratic. What an (oxymoronic) adventure!
I needed a pleasing destination for a half-blind date. That is, the gal in charge of "my" year of my high school alumnae association in Manhattan e-mailed during the fires to see if I was okay. She gave me the e-dress of another alum living on the other (better) side of Balboa Park. Margaret and I had been in the same homeroom but barely knew each other. I chose Avenue 5 for our mini-reunion, because it sounded like the perfect restaurant for it and was close to her house.
On the former site of the tranny nightclub Lips (which moved to North Park), Avenue 5 has all-new decor, including a shiny modern bar, which was well-filled at happy hour. Banquettes along the walls face linen-clad tables and wooden chairs with a Pottery Barn look. High above, exposed cylindrical heating ducts coated with shiny aluminum paint crawl across the ceiling, like the giant worms of Dune, in the industrial-moderne style of Paris's Pompidou Museum. The dining room flows into a second room in back with an unadorned brick wall, like a stereotypical comedy club. A semi-open kitchen is walled in glass. This decor may play a (too predictable) role in your dining pleasure (or distress) on certain nights; stay tuned for details.
Margaret chose the spring greens salad, a fine example of its kind -- several types of lettuce, bits of edible golden flowers (nasturtium petals or possibly Johnny-jump-up violas), glazed pecans, and chopped, cooked figs, plus a crouton spread with herbed goat cheese and fig confit, all perfectly and lightly dressed. At a later visit, my friend Sam mentioned that he'd tried the roasted-beet salad at a previous dinner and liked it very much. Evidently, salads are a forte.
The evening's cauliflower soup, smoothed with a touch of cream, was soothing and weighty, strewn with greaseless "toasted" shreds of Maui onion for textural and flavor contrast. I craved one more element to complete it, something a bit darker and more sophisticated, and for once, I could even name what I thought might be missing: a touch of white truffle in any form whatsoever, even oil, to supply a hint of "nasty" to balance all the "nice." But chacun à son goût, that's just my taste.
A killer entrée features seared scallops with risotto in a pear-and-chardonnay cream sauce. This was the sort of flashy chef-work I'd hoped to find here. The gentle sweetness of pear tastes almost like vanilla (a touch of rosemary provided the needed "edge"), and both the risotto and scallops were flawlessly cooked.
A salmon entrée showcased a tender topknot of flavorful fillet over a bricklike gratin of thick yam slices that looked as if it might be an additional salmon fillet with crisped skin on the bottom. (Margaret and I were rather sorry it wasn't.) The coral veggie-block was coated with thin, browned slices of potato (hence the resemblance to salmon skin). Alongside were succulent batons of parsnips, Margaret's first exposure to this fascinating vegetable, which resembles a white carrot, sweet but with a subtle, rooty sharpness. (If Tommy Lee Jones were a vegetable, he might be a parsnip.) "My family was German," Margaret said. "Every holiday we ate rutabaga. Ever since, I'm turned off on all forms of turnips. But parsnips -- these are interesting. I think I might buy them in the future."
The Gainey California house chardonnay available by the glass proved bright and sunny, a good match for our meal. For the entrées, we tried a French chardonnay that's also available by the glass (unfortunately, I didn't note the name). It was heavier-bodied and more alcoholic, but also pleasing and apt. Good to find house wines worth drinking. French-born manager Nick Carbonne (you may recognize his face from previous encounters at Tapenade or other local restaurants) is responsible for the user-friendly wine list. You can find plenty of wines you want to drink here without depleting your mortgage money. The list goes light on those ridiculously overpriced California boutique wines and is strong on undervalued European bottlings.
For dessert, we tried a "chocolate decadence," which took the form of a rich dark cake, rather than the original ten-ton truffle wedge invented in the '70s by Bay Area chef Narsai David. (I loved it back then, never want it now.) Cooked raspberries pooled along one side, and figs dotted the other. Margaret's coffee was strong, my decaf espresso decent.
I returned a week later with the full posse, after downloading the (outdated) menu from the website. I came loaded for bear, with a full meal plan for four. But my scheme came to naught, because the menu was suddenly much shorter. The kitchen is rather small, both in workspace and storage space, so dishes that hadn't been selling well had been ruthlessly pruned. (Those were, of course, the ones I most wanted to try.) Three appetizers were gone, two entrées vanished, and a third (pork belly, alas) was replaced with a more common and popular lamb rack, so my plan was shot all to hell. Some of the excised dishes will reappear from time to time as nightly specials, the chef says.