Everybody’s hurting in this economy except the fortunate few vulture capitalists and hedge traders who got the big tax breaks. But it’s a mighty plunge from a stylish stainless spoon to a grease-stained tin fork. If in better times you learned to love truffles and cabernet, then burgers and tacos and canned beer probably won’t provide enough pleasure to soothe your frazzled soul.
Happy-hour grazing at a wine bar with decent eats can be the foodie’s parachute — if not a CEO’s golden parachute, at least one serviceable enough to waft you down easy if your bank balance is blowin’ in the wind.
A recommendation a few weeks ago from posse newbie Inta sent us to Hillcrest’s Café Bleu, which has replaced the similar Crush. Inta was outta town, so our group consisted of the Lynnester; long, tall Ben-the-Stew; and rejoining us after long exile in a horribly boring Bay Area suburb, the much-missed Mark.
Despite its name, Bleu is physically a study in red, with unbroken, unornamented dark-red walls, except for the bar area along one side of the front, which is illuminated by twinkling blue lights left over from Crush. It’s a long rectangular room with dark-painted wooden floors and naked wooden tables, and the lack of soft surfaces makes the room a bit echoey, but not so noisy you’d need to shout. Classic jazz plays softly in the background.
If you’re at leisure to get there early (or if you call to reserve them), you may snag coveted seats at one of two mini-lounges: a big, plush couch near the front, which faces a table and two chairs; and, better yet, a parallel pair of chaise longues at the back, with a small table between them. Asking the waiter to peel you a grape would probably be pushing it. You certainly wouldn’t ask the waiter we had for that — there was something a touch graceless there, a hint of pressure to order up, eat up, and get out, though nobody was waiting for our table.
The dark secret about happy hour, our waiter made amply clear, is that you not only have to arrive before 6:00 p.m., but your order has to reach the kitchen by that witching hour or your gown will turn to rags, your eating posse into mice, and you’ll have to pay at least 25 percent more. We barely squeaked by.
Our choices varied from brilliant to just okay. None were awful, all were fun, and in aggregate we enjoyed our meal hugely — nibbling this, tasting that, gulping the other, while sampling interesting wines from a very smart, mainly affordable list that offers the chance to try most choices in half-glasses.
The appetizer knockout is the wild mushroom vol-au-vent, a buttery, crackling puff-pastry case containing wild mushrooms sautéed with garlic, herbs, and white wine, finished with cream sauce, truffle oil, and Parmesan. What makes the dish is that the mushrooms are really wild. No, they don’t take their tops off, but they’re not confined to supermarket “wild” varieties like portobello and shiitake. Here, the mixture included a generous portion of costly, succulent fresh cèpes (aka porcini) in long, thin slices. With their deep, suave flavor, these may just be the third-best mushroom variety in the world (after truffles and morels). There were plenty of them to savor in the memorable tart.
A charcuterie plate (none of it made in-house) also proved satisfying, offering slices of French saucisson sec (like a milder salami) and saucisson a l’ail (garlic sausage) along with deliciously rich rillettes (meat cooked slowly in fat until tender, then shredded), with tasty herbed French-bread croutons, huge, tart caper berries, and coarse-grain mustard. (At sister restaurant Market Street Café and French Bakery in San Marcos, the sausages are made by a local artisan.) We didn’t try the cheese plate (with honeycomb), but it, too, is clearly a winner: The choices from at least seven international cheeses are listed on a blackboard over the bar, and they’re interesting and a natural for a wine bar.
An assortment called “Olives, Almonds, and Dates” offers savory marinated green picholine olives, candied Marcona almonds, and Medjool dates stuffed with pecorino cheese and wrapped in applewood bacon. Problem, though, is the bacon was dried out, the dates withered with heat rather than plumped with the stuffing, and the cheese not gooey enough to compensate for the dryness. This doesn’t compare to the juicy chorizo-Mornay stuffed dates at Whisknladle — it’s more like a suburban hostess’s chic update of rumaki.
A salad of heirloom tomatoes with Italian water-buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto was rewarding. The garnet-colored tomato slices (perhaps one of those near-black, juicy varieties like Cherokee, or a Russian heirloom like Black Prince) were marinated in garlic and olive oil, served with pale-green chive olive oil and balsamic reduction, and both the cheese and prosciutto were fine. For me, a garnish of cantaloupe and honeydew balls slightly diminished the impact, their simple fruity sweetness stealing the stage from the dark, subtle impact of ripe seasonal tomatoes.
The corn chowder with lump crab was a disappointment. In late August, we all expected a blast of sun-drenched sweet corn, but the thin colloid was also thin in flavor. It just wasn’t corny enough. For that matter, it wasn’t quite crabby enough either, with merely a spoonful of the meat as a garnish in the center.
An onion tart was also a letdown, given my expectations, although many people like it very much, judging from other reviews and blogs. However, I ordered it imagining something along the lines of André Soltner’s fabled onion tart at New York’s Lutèce — a reputed marvel of rich custard, deeply caramelized sweet onion shreds, and light, buttery pastry. This was more of a schematic diagram: a useless pile of frisée lounged along one side of the plate like a discarded green fright wig, and in the center, some phyllo sheets were topped with lightly caramelized sautéed onions and red pepper strips, surrounded by black niçoise olives and some puffs of pesto. This was less like Lutèce, more like one of those ten-minute recipes that get published in cooking magazines’ “fast and desperate” recipe sections. My friends didn’t have Soltner’s creation on their minds as I did, but they didn’t much cotton to this shortcut version either.