The dish that drew me to Bleu Bohème, above all others, was a soi-disant "vrai bouillabaisse marseillaise" (genuine Marseille seafood stew). That's a dish that's way too much trouble to cook at home. And it did include hints of an authentic bouillabaisse -- with saffron, garlic, and tomatoes in the broth -- but the seafood stock seemed sparse in quantity and anemic in taste. One of the cardboard-textured fish species was salmon -- a strong-flavored North Atlantic denizen never found in the warm Mediterranean. It's not only inauthentic but tastes all wrong in a bouillabaisse. (I might forgive its inclusion at some struggling mom'n'pop shop, but not this hopping bistro.) The other fish chunks, halibut, were so overcooked you couldn't imagine what species they might have been when they were still swimming in the sea. Halibut is another cold-water denizen that wouldn't normally go into a bouillabaisse -- but salmon and halibut happen to be the two finfish on Bleu's regular menu. They're in the soup because they're in the fridge -- not because they fit the dish. Shellfish added close to serving time, and hence reasonably tender, included clams, shrimp, and Carlsbad mussels. Certainly no langoustines (which contribute the lobster flavor to the authentic dish -- Bleu uses Maine lobster carcasses to make the stock), no monkfish (a Mediterranean classic that's become pricey), and of course no delicious little rougets (red mullets), nor even an attempt at a local substitute. At least there were a few miniature slices of French baguette and rouille to spread on them -- a vital ingredient that many local chefs omit -- to melt atop the miserly broth. I wanted larger bread slices, more rouille, more stock, as well as more appropriate fish with some life left in it. "Pouf!" I muttered in a Peter Sellers accent, "I have had le vrai bouillabaisse, and zis is no vrai bouillabaisse."
My friends and I steered clear of the other fish entrées (salmon and halibut), which had been described in local food blogs as either excessively salty or nearly flavorless. Going to the menu clichés (and following the recommendation of the Lynnester, who'd eaten at the restaurant several times), we chose coq au vin, which proved a nice, saucy rendition, subtler and more refined than Julia Child's recipe, but still no great revelation. Although I appreciated the lighter-than-usual broth and the firm-tender (non-soggy) vegetables, the chicken meat had a loose, slippery mouth-feel. Beltran says it's free-range chicken, so I suspect it might be a "Rocky," a relatively cheap, greasy-textured free-ranger common in Bay Area supermarkets when I was living there and sold here at Whole Foods.
Tender and mild-mannered as usual, filet mignon arrived in a thin portion cooked nearly as rare as ordered. Its best attribute is that it comes with ramekins of three different sauces to apply at will: a sweetish, mustardy curry mixture; a semisweet dark red-wine sauce with green peppercorns; and best of all, a classic dry red-wine bordelaise studded with bits of black truffle. (From their flavor and texture, I believe the truffles are canned shavings.) Alongside were slim, sautéed haricots verts (green beans) and a roasted tomato. The two vegetables were good but almost begged to be married by a chef willing to put in an extra few minutes (plus some garlic and basil) to unite them into southern France's haricots provençale, rather than this unconstructed version. In the past, the steak has also come with fries, and probably still ought to. The spuds are on hand anyway for other dishes, so why deprive diners of their beloved steak frites?
I somewhat enjoyed a rack of lamb provençale, served not as a rack but as a heap of thick rib chops served rare as ordered, splashed with a rosemary jus and surrounded by a pleasant if rather soggy eggplant and tomato ratatouille and a bit of pallid-tasting potato gratin. The meat portion was generous enough to furnish a weighty doggie-bag. The bright fluorescents in my kitchen exposed the fat of the lamb. That is, the rack hadn't been "Frenched" (trimmed in the traditional French style), with only a thin layer of fat atop the chops and bared rib-bones -- a trim probably devised because this cut is served rare to medium-rare in France, so the fat doesn't have much time to melt away during roasting. Instead, I discovered about three-quarters of an inch of soft, wan blubber overlaying each chop. When I mentioned it to Herbeck, he insisted I'd just gotten a particularly fatty rack that night and that usually it's trimmed more closely.
The evening's sole knockout was a dessert: a chilled Grand Marnier orange soufflé, which arrived as a tall, thin cylinder of sweetness and light, surrounded by a few slices of fresh orange in citrus juices and a bit of lightly sweetened whipped cream. It was one of those rare, perfect restaurant desserts, living up to its name ("souffle" without the accent ague on the e means "breath"). But a dark chocolate cake served warm with raspberry sorbet was heavy going, yet another molten chocolate cake cliché pretending to be a cupcake. (In contrast, Herbeck's molten chocolate cake at Twins was a seductive knockout.) If you have wine left, or are willing to order some more, and haven't OD'd on animal fat, there's also a French cheese plate.
With still-vivid reminiscences of Herbeck's cooking seven years ago, I can't explain why Bleu Bohème's food seems so lackluster in comparison. The usual suspect is lesser-quality ingredients. (Would you buy a used car from a restaurateur who throws farmed salmon into a bouillabaisse?) I'm faintly annoyed at all the buzz Bleu Bohème has gathered, since it doesn't even compare to the most modest no-star bistros in the French provinces. For instance, it initially reminded me of the travelers' restaurant at the railway station in Beaune (Burgundy). But the meal there (30 years ago to the month) included a lovely rabbit in mustard cream sauce, which offered more memorable savor than any dish (except the soufflé) that we tried at Bleu Bohème.