Marinated flat-iron steak (the tenderest muscle of the shoulder chuck), which came very rare to our order, was chewy but lively with a blond béarnaise and was garnished with crisp, narrow, tasty fries — really good salty fries, and I don’t normally go nuts for frites (give me gratin or give me mashed!). Braised short ribs were, of course, tender, set atop a truffled polenta needing a bit of salt, but the ribs also needed something more to lift them from the land of the bland. The brown, weighty sauce seemed like another variant of the sweetbread gravy. All three of these entrées came with slender flageolet green beans and small, firm-tender brussels sprouts, served at cool room temperature, evidently cooked long before the start of the dinner hour.
The veggie exception came with a roast rack of lamb with a mustard crust in light rosemary sauce, accompanied by a nice gooey potato gratin and soulful greens. As far as I could tell, Hexagone is using the same recipe that mon cher chef Robert at little Le Bouc in the Sunset District of San Francisco (now in Alameda) was using in the ’70s for rack of lamb, so it was like meeting an old friend you assumed has passed away — or emigrated to the Seychelles. The rib-rack was rigorously “Frenched,” stripped of all extra fat on the rib bones and backbone, so that the scant bits of fat that remained were welcome. Served sliced into slim, separate chops, the ribs were beautifully rare to our order (merci to chef Robert for teaching me that good lamb is good rare). The meat was crusted with fresh baguette crumbs mixed with gentle mustard and sauced with a light meat deglace with a touch of rosemary. An oldie but a goodie.
At the start of the meal, the waiter offered a Grand Marnier soufflé that needed to be ordered ahead, and we jumped at the chance. At the end of the meal, he announced that it was unavailable and hinted at an anti-soufflé rebellion in the kitchen. We imagined toqued line-cooks waving cleavers, rhythmically chanting, “A bas les soufflés! Vive le crêpe, vive le tarte tatin!” Odd, because last week, Currant wouldn’t cook its jasmine soufflé. Is this some sort of underground mass movement? Can’t they protest against tiramisu, chocolate lava cake, and vanilla bean crème brûlée instead?
We switched to crêpes suzettes, which weren’t flamed at the table (the servers at this new restaurant don’t seem up to that level of showmanship yet, and maybe never will be). They were pleasant-normal. “Upside-down apple tart” was, of course, tarte tatin translated into English, with a puff-pastry crust, but somewhat mushier, darker, sweeter apples than usual. It tastes homey and unpretentious, as it should, but with a little less sugar and maybe a side of cinnamon ice cream, it would be more worthy of its calories — a little more “pro” and less “home.” The espresso, in any case, was good-normal, too.
The food at Hexagone seems, for better or worse, nearly indistinguishable from that at its suburban parent-restaurant. I found the food better — more strictly traditional and less compromised — than at, say, the slightly more expensive Bleu Bohème, or various other local bistros that have come and gone (or come and boringly remained). At the same time, even within its modest price range, it doesn’t match the local-food delights of Farmhouse, which offers a fresher, more imaginative take on Gallic rural cuisine — much less the somewhat more costly brilliance of a Tapenade, a Cavaillon, or a BernardO’s, with chefs well versed in modern haute cuisine who then kicked back to less exacting bistro fare.
I’d originally planned to eat at Hexagone twice, given the size of its menu, but the first dinner really told me what I needed to know. The restaurant was already mature, with no major kerfuffles unless you count the cold veggies, and I could imagine what most of the untried dishes would taste like. That is, the fare is generally very good, but/and quite predictable. Predictable is sometimes exactly what you want, especially during scary tough times. No accident that moderate-priced “little French places” are suddenly multiplying again. We’re ready to welcome them back, seeking out the sensual Continental caress of their indulgent, familiar, only faintly foreign comfort food.
Bargains of the Week: Speaking of Tapenade and Cavaillon, both are offering bargain bites. Tapenade (7612 Fay Avenue, La Jolla, 858-551-7500, tapenaderestaurant.com) is serving happy hour snacks (most about $7) such as escargots, wild mushroom ravioli with truffle foam, and a vegetarian plate, plus select half-price entrées (steak au poivre, coq au vin) at its cushy bar from 5:30–8:30 p.m., Sunday–Thursdays. Cavaillon (14701 Via Bettona, suite 200, Santaluz, 858-433-0483, cavaillonrestaurant.com), owned by Tapenade’s former chef de cuisine, is also featuring happy hour tapas, starting at $3.
*** (Very Good)
495 Laurel Street, Banker’s Hill, 619-236-0467; hexagonerestaurant.com
HOURS: Open daily, 11:00 a.m.–about 10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $5.50–$10; Dinner, entrées $17–$29; desserts, $6.50.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Classic French bourgeois cuisine, encompassing all the old favorites, plus a few creative dishes. Reasonable wine list with some bargains among the French bottlings. Corkage, $15.
PICK HITS: Frogs Legs Provençale, Sea Bass with Corn Risotto, Marinated Flat Iron Steak with Béarnaise, Roasted Rack of Lamb with Mustard Crumbs. Other good bets: Bouillabaisse; Calf Liver with Onions.
NEED TO KNOW: Dining room up a few stairs; wheelchair access from side entrance on Fifth Street (phone for instructions). Restrooms at street level (below stairs), so access requires help in chair-wrangling or a long roll-around on the street.