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Bleu Bohème

4090 Adams Avenue, Kensington

Bleu Bohème, the new hot spot in Kensington, opened this summer on the former site of Green Tomato, which apparently rotted on the vine and landed in the compost heap. Bleu's owner, Philippe Beltran, is a well-known local restaurateur, with a "love 'em and leave 'em" attitude toward his restaurants. Most recently divorced from South Park's Vagabond, this is his sixth restaurant in the ten off-and-on years he's been in the business. Although Beltran's name is so well known to foodies that many assume he's a chef, he doesn't actually cook -- except to cook up "concept" restaurants that generate a lot of buzz. He's like a smaller-scale, Gallic version of the Cohn Restaurant Group.

The concept at Bleu Bohème is a classic French-American neighborhood bistro, with the kitchen under the direction of near-legendary executive chef René Herbeck.

That's an impressive catch for a neighborhood spot. I missed Herbeck's famed, acclaimed stint at Marius (at Le Meridien in Coronado) but took delight in his cooking at Encinitas's short-lived Twins. Sorry to say, his food at Bleu Bohème seems less exciting, less exacting -- I don't know why. I can merely report, not diagnose.

For an upscale neighborhood (the mayor and the outgoing superintendent of schools are residents), Kensington is oddly poor in restaurants, so it's little wonder that Bleu Bohème has drawn crowds since opening day. The room is just right for a bistro: blue walls with wood beams and some limestone rock sheathing, rustic wooden tables with dripping candles, a large, loud bar, and a streetside patio wrapped around the front and one side. According to many blogs, one of the original waitresses on the patio was utterly clueless; Beltran says she's gone. I've also heard from neighborhood residents that the only way they could guarantee a reservation was by showing up in person to make sure the hostess wrote it down in her book. I think Bleu is probably past that stage now, too. (The pattern is familiar from the early days at Vagabond, which suffered the same insouciant chaos for its first two or three months.) And given the painful noise level at Vagabond, now nearly replicated at Bleu Bohème, it's obvious that Beltran actually likes an ambient din to create a party atmosphere. What can I say but "oy vey!" and take two aspirins when I get home.

The restaurant's popularity overamped my expectations compared to what I actually tasted there. The same metaphor that I applied to Vagabond comes to mind for Bleu: It's not exactly that the emperor has no clothes, nor even that the prince is waltzing around in his wife beater and tightie-whities -- it's more that the marquis is holding court wearing board shorts and a raggedy old Kiss tee.

The menu reminds me of a snooty custom of certain midpriced Parisian restaurants: They segregate all Americans into a dining room separate from the Europeans and furnish an English-language menu devoted to the most banal dishes of the French bourgeois repertory -- steak frites, coq au vin, canard à l'orange, boeuf bourguignonne, rack of lamb, etc. -- the very dishes that typical neighborhood French restaurants in America have always offered on their cookie-cutter menus. If, when seated in the Parisian "Yankee room" you ask (in passable French) for the French menu, you find it's utterly different and much more interesting, and if you order from it, the waiter will cast you a look of faint apology, as if to say, "I regret we didn't realize earlier that you were a civilized person, we might have let you sit with the grownups." Bleu Bohème has something close to that ubiquitous neighborhood-French menu, like Beltran's earlier La Vache, Encinitas's La Bonne Bouffe, and so many others that we all grew up with -- except (alas) there's no duck on it.

An old-fashioned menu isn't necessarily a disaster (although I prefer more adventurous choices); it depends on how well that menu is prepared. Bleu Bohème does offer a few specials every evening, but the evening I ate there, none were interesting to me or my posse. We started instead with classic escargots, snails in parsley-garlic butter. They were flawless, if a bit hard to eat: the snail meats were pushed deep into the large shells, which offered them protection from overcooking but made it difficult to extract them, even with the proper petite fork. I've heard from my friends Dave and Marty (who vacation frequently in France) that the onion soup is another fine starter, if you love onion soup (which I don't, je regrette), a startlingly sweet rendition made with honest beef consommé. (On the other hand, they were thoroughly disillusioned by the lunch entrée of salade Niçoise. I trust their palates. You should, too.)

A plateau des cochonailles ("pig things platter," alias charcuterie) was disappointing. I was hoping for a sampling of house-made pâtés, terrines, etc. Instead, the array was dominated by purchased deli meat slices of no compelling excitement or quality (salami, prosciutto, etc.), plus the usual cornichons and pickled onions. There were only two house-made treats -- a fine country-style pork paté and a tiny, marble-size ball of something pinky-brown and soft that I couldn't quite identify. When I phoned and asked, it turned out to be a mousse. Who could hang a name on it, based on such a minuscule portion? One bite and it's good-bye, ruby Mousse-Day.

Calamari frits (deep-fried calamari) were crisp and tender and came with two amiable dips: a Provençale rouille (red pepper aioli) and a clean, herbal housemade tartar sauce. Good, not riveting. Ditto moules marinière, small black mussels steamed in white wine and basil, with narrow, salty herbed fries on the side, already cooled to tepid upon arrival. Nice, well cooked, a yawn. (My mind wandered back to compare these dishes with the previous night's appetizers at Kensington Grill, where the calamari was spicy-fine and the mussels were in a ravishing coconut milk broth.) I think of France as the land that invented flavor -- so where's the flavor?

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