Philippe is a charmer, René even more so -- but if you want serious bistro cuisine in San Diego, possibly even worthy of a precious Michelin star, zip up the I-15 to fabulous Bernard'O in Rancho Bernardo or Vincent Grumel in Escondido, or north on the I-5 to Savory in Encinitas, or the marvelous Cavaillon in Santa Luz, where the coq au vin is actually something to write home about. And for zesty "neighborhood food" in Kensington, I much preferred the meal that I ate at Kensington Grill the night before my Bleu dinner. The difference brought to mind a song from childhood: "Make new friends but keep the old/ One is silver, the other gold." And another song, voiced by Billie Holliday, sounded in my head as, after the otherwise disappointing meal, I regretfully reached the end of the soufflé: "Am I blue? You'd be, too...."
ABOUT THE CHEF
Born in Paris's hilly, rakish Montparnasse district, owner Philippe Beltran's earlier local restaurants, which flourished about ten years ago, were the French Side of the West (where Modus is now) and Alizé. He abandoned them to venture into the import business in Vietnamese teak, then returned to the local scene, doing time at La Vache and the short-lived Voyage until he cofounded South Park's Vagabond. Then he left Vagabond, in turn, to open Bleu Bohème. "Vagabond was a very big success, but really, I like to work on my own," he said. He has more restaurants coming up: Beltran Restaurant Concepts has two more restaurants aborning, one in Mission Hills (international food) scheduled to open in December, and another in Point Loma (Latin American cuisines). The latter is an especially interesting possibility because Beltran's Peruvian mother-in-law furnished a superb recipe to Vagabond for seco de carne.
"What I tried to do here [at Bleu Bohème] was something really close to my roots, food that I love," he said. "I grew up on the Left Bank of Paris, and I really wanted to do French country classics, something representative of both Paris and the countryside of France, so that's why we have the traditional menu. I'm going to keep those icons of the food, like the escargots; those I'm never going to change, because people come for that. At the same time, we do a seasonal menu -- right now it's summer food from Provence, a little more earthy and mushroomy. We have a small kitchen, so we're keeping the menu as small, simple, and as consistent and good as we possibly can. We can't have 40 entrées on our menu. We wanted to concentrate on making our stocks. If you walk by here in the mornings, it smells like lobster, as we're making the seafood stock for our bouillabaisse. People think, 'It's Philippe, it's René, it's gonna be modern and new.' But we're focused on tradition, tradition, tradition."
Philippe dictates the format, executive chef René Herbeck devises the menus within those guidelines. Born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and French father, René (who'll be in charge of all three new Beltran restaurants) studied cooking in France through the classic French apprenticeship system. Before coming to San Diego, as a young sous-chef he was working at Oak Grill in London when it won a coveted Michelin star. Le Meridien Hotels, home to Oak Grill, granted him a two-year transfer to San Diego, where he was top toque at the legendary Marius (at the Coronado Le Meridien). After the hotel became a Marriott, he stayed in America and did a stint teaching at the C.I.A. in Hyde Park, New York. Many of you may remember his cooking from the ill-fated Twins in Encinitas. (As I learned chatting with fellow sippers at an Encinitas wine bar, North County locals loved his food and angrily blame the restaurant's businessman-owner for Twins' early demise.) He cooked at the Fontainebleau at the Westgate, and, starting while he was at Le Meridien, he and chef Amiko Gubbins were paired romantically and then professionally for several years at her Parallel 33. (She has since run away with the circus -- to cook for a rock star.)
"I liked Philippe's concept. It's not so stuffy," said Herbeck in his pleasant, gravelly baritone. "We focus on the food. When you come here, you don't need to mortgage your house.... We focus on the taste, less on the presentation. We try to make it simple and put everybody at ease. People don't have to worry about what fork to use." The chef de cuisine at Bleu Bohème is Beltran's longtime employee Baltazar Montero, who has followed his boss from restaurant to restaurant over many years, leaving Vagabond when Beltran did.
When I asked René why the menu concentrated on not merely traditional but overfamiliar French bourgeois--cuisine dishes, he flatteringly told me that few San Diegans were as culinary sophisticated as I am. (The glow lasted overnight, until I woke up thinking that Kensingtonians probably indulge from time to time at Laurel, Bertrand at Mr. A's, Milles Fleurs, etc. -- restaurants offering genuinely sophisticated French or French-California cooking.)
Hot Stuff: The annual Chef Celebration Dinner Series returns. Top local chefs cook superb five-course meals together to raise funds for a culinary scholarship program for local culinary workers eager to learn more at cooking schools. It benefits us all. Meals are $75 (before beverages, tax, tip); speaking as a veteran eater, they are spectacular. Contact the host restaurants: Savory (October 9), Thee Bungalow (October 16), Azul La Jolla (October 23), and Terra (October 30). Check www.chefcelebration.org for details.