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We all loved the moules frites — black mussels in an intriguing, slightly tart and dark-flavored broth based on Sauvignon Blanc, assertive herbs, and that trendy new condiment, fennel pollen. The ingredients created a sinuous and sophisticated new flavor that somehow evoked, for me, the Parisian bohemia that used to drink absinthe — a Modigliani for the mouth. You get fries with that, of course, and they’re narrow and good for as long as they’re hot.

Caramelized five-onion soup is a whole new twist on the classic, and it’s heartbreakingly wonderful. It’s actually a meat soup, filled with tender shreds and bites of short ribs among the very sweet onions and tangy liquid, plus (somewhere) black truffles. Instead of the traditional melted Gruyère, it’s topped with a crouton spread with roasted beef–marrow butter. If I wanted a light but utterly fulfilling dinner (or breakfast!), this soup, along with a warm buttered roll and a glass of wine, would do it for me — and for those 50 million Frenchmen who can’t be wrong. I feel sorry for the weary Greyhound passengers debarking at the station next door who almost certainly don’t know about this.

Shrimp pizzette with arugula, basil pesto, crisp pancetta, and Parmesan sounds good, tastes nice, but finally registers as an adept home cook’s “raid the fridge” desperation dinner, though its leftovers make a fun breakfast. Other starter choices include salads, ahi tartare, and share-plates of seafood, cheeses, charcuterie (which includes some house-made items), and hummus. Once the chef has time to start stretching out, he intends to do more with house-made charcuterie.

While the chef reworks or replaces the entrées, starters alone would make an ace grazing dinner! Mussels, onion soup, beet salad, perhaps ahi tartare, if you’re not too bored with the genre, or a charcuterie plate and/or cheese plate, or maybe the sautéed calamari and shrimp share plate, plus a shared dessert — and voila, a meal of all good things for about $30 a person, plus wine, tip, and tax. If the appetizers were rated separately from the entrées, they’d get at least a half star more — this chef has some fresh ideas.

The entrée we liked best — the only one mainly devised by the current Currant chef — offered fresh salmon lightly smoked in applewood. It’s not very smoky but is as tender at its narrow parts as in the thick center, surrounded by baby-veggie sprouts and plated over a revisionist succotash that substitutes carrot chunks and small chick peas for lima beans. The dish didn’t sing, but the fish fed us well.

Grilled Maine scallops were barely cooked, seared on the exterior and translucently melting at the centers. They were great, perfect. But beneath them (oh, far beneath them) was a sludge of butternut-squash risotto, the worst of all possible worlds. The squash purée was weighed down by the rice, and vice versa, a dysfunctional family soap opera on the plate. It is slated to disappear very soon.

Pork tenderloin, from a Duroc heritage-breed porker, comes well accompanied with braised fennel, Tuscan white bean purée, and currant gooseberry sauce. It has the potential for perfection, but when we asked for the pork “rosy, medium-rare,” it arrived well-done, 20 or 30 degrees too cooked. The chef has been torn between the camps of pork-fearers who want it cooked well done, and the foodies, who know that you can trust a well-reared heritage hog not to be carrying any nasty bugs. We talked about this issue when I phoned him, and he’s decided to go with rosy as the default in the future and to train the servers to ask if diners want it more cooked than that.

The lobster pot pie was the creation of the recently departed chef, and it ought to have departed from the menu yesterday. The menu says the sauce is béchamel, but our waiter warned us it would be brown sauce. We tried it anyway and regretted it thoroughly. Waste of good lobster meat, swamped in the mud.

Dessert is a strong suit, even though our first-choice “jasmine soufflé” wasn’t available that night. Pastry chef Maggie Nolan’s pumpkin profiteroles (mini cream puffs) with dark chocolate sauce offered spiced puréed squash as a velvety second sauce, with whipped cream as the filling. They were surprising and delightful with their perfect light pastry. A feuilleté (minus the accent mark on the menu) with persimmons, pears, and lemon verbena ice cream was rather heavy in comparison — not bad, but those cream puffs were dancing the cancan. Finding “saffron pistachio” ice cream on the menu was exciting — it was one of my favorite ice creams 20 years ago traveling in south Asia — in this case, the recipe comes from manager Sanjay’s mother. Highly enjoyable but subtle, it had big chunks of pistachios and merely a hint of saffron.

Currant’s food is not yet equal to original chef Jonathan Pflueger’s fiercely intelligent cooking (which earned four stars). This is a younger chef, newly freed from a corporate restaurant, still stretching his wings after years bound into slavery, and he’s just barely started to express himself here. But he’s hugely promising, and the restaurant itself remains a marvel of casual-chic enjoyment. I find myself envying travelers staying at the Hotel Sofia, who can hop downstairs for their meals and libations.

ABOUT THE CHEF
Like a lot of chefs born to the middle class, Michael Rubino fell into cooking because he didn’t like school. Raised in L.A., he was already in college and bored out of his gourd, floundering from one major to the next. After four years with no degree, his father finally told him, “You have to decide on something. Isn’t there something you like doing?” The answer was cooking. “I went to a community college in cooking, and then I was in the first Cordon Bleu class at the California Culinary in Pasadena.

“I was at Napa Valley Grille for 2 1/2 years, my first executive chef position. I came from Napa Valley Grille in Los Angeles, where I was chef de cuisine.” Before then he worked at a 100-year-old restaurant in Calabasas that specialized in game meats and at several fairly well-known Los Angeles restaurants. He and Currant manager Sanjay Parekh met by chance while he was working at NVG, and when Rubino saw the “help wanted” ad on craigslist, he answered it. Sanjay remembered their meeting and hired him.

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Comments

cantab Jan. 10, 2009 @ 8:32 a.m.

We couldn't recognize the restaurant that Naomi Wise reviewed.

Instead of "the tastiest late-’50s jazz" there is earsplitting noise from raucous happy-hour conversationalists and a crying baby (really). The decor is all hard surfaces and uncomfortable seating.

There is no detectable bone marrow in "the glorious five-onion soup with short-rib meat and beef marrow," just too much sugar.

The so-called cassoulet has undercooked al-dente beans, and strong inauthentic North African spices. The sausage and duck leg confit on the cassoulet were good, but they were obviously cooked separately. This dish is not cassoulet at all.

Prices are at the level of Rancho Santa Fe: $33 for the so-called cassoulet.

Service is friendly but uninformed. The menu says the cassoulet comes with a "crepiniere." (I may have misremembered the French word.) The waitress explained this incorectly. The kitchen did not produce it at all.

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cantab Jan. 14, 2009 @ 2:24 p.m.

Correction to my review: The cassoulet came with a "crépinette." According to Wikipedia, this is "a small, flattened sausage made of minced or ground pork, lamb, veal, or chicken, wrapped in caul fat. Usually breaded and sautéed in butter." Indeed, the crépinette was on the cassoulet, and it was delicious. Too bad the waitress couldn't explain this.

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