If we’d been intent on eating only from the happy-hour menu, we could have filled up on more substantial starters — fried calamari (which chef Stephen Clickner handles expertly, assuming he’s using the same recipe he did when he was opening chef at Soleil @k a few years ago), sautéed mussels, pepper steak brochettes. And there were more salads to try, too — a Caesar, of course, and particularly, “Salade Bleu,” with an iceberg wedge, bleu-cheese dressing, heirloom tomatoes, and Point Reyes bleu-cheese crumbles. Couldn’t be bad.
Had we stayed wholly with happy-hour noshing (before the bell tolled for us at 6:00 p.m.), we could have gotten away for about $25 per person, including beverages. But time ran out, so we moved on to the regular menu for a few more grazes and then a couple of entrées — which included the house masterpiece. This drove up the bill to about $50 each, all told, about the same as at the latest spate of “neighborhood restaurants” I’ve reviewed. (In this case, the extra dishes were necessary because it’s my job to taste a lot of things, and the doggie bags afford helpful scrutiny of the leftovers under the mass spectrometer, aka a bright kitchen light.) You can easily split the price difference, eating the best and skipping the rest. And let me point you to the Sunday supper ritual, an ever-changing three-course prix-fixe meal with several choices for each course, for $25 (plus $17 for matched wines). Sheesh, what a deal!
Our non-“happy” grazes were a plate of canapés and an ahi tartare. Indeed, both left us somewhat unhappy. I ordered the ahi hoping for something like the visceral roundhouse-right that hit me with this dish at Molly’s a few weeks earlier, where the fish was superb and the dressing drove me to delirium. Here it featured ordinary raw tuna chunks in an unremarkable fusion dressing (sesame, sweet soy, ginger, simple syrup). The canapés, presented on a Gallic triple-tier server, consisted of the “chef’s selection” of bite-size hors d’oeuvres. Six bites, nearly $2 a bite. That night’s selection: two tiny Manila clams, lightly dressed nothingness. Two little baked poufs of lump crab, pleasing. Two tablespoonfuls of duck confit in some very sweet dressing. Nice confit, 86 the sauce. After our dinner, I read somebody else’s review (a respectable pro), noting that the two-way duck entrée (breast and confit) was classic and good, by which I hope the reviewer meant that the skin on the confit was ultra-crisp and the meat moist. (Too often, locally, it’s the opposite, with soggy skin and dry flesh.)
For entrées, zeroing in on the “Bistro Specialties,” I chose bouillabaisse, just to be mean, since the failure rate on this dish is ridiculously high in San Diego. I probably overemphasize authenticity in my view of this dish, so if you don’t care, just skim all this stuff. Café Bleu’s version is a minimalist sketch of the Provençale classic, rather than the Technicolor live-action version — although it’s not terrible by any means. In Marseilles, a bouillabaisse is made from the day’s by-catch and trash fish off the fishing docks on the Mediterranean, including a fair amount of net-bruised crustaceans that aren’t quite pretty enough for restaurants to feature on their entrée plates. In San Diego, what you’re likely to get instead are whatever entrée fish species are in the restaurant’s fridge. At Café Bleu, where the chef buys fresh fish daily, you’ll get what he wants to use up before tomorrow’s fish comes in — and that includes species that have no relation to the sea life of the Mediterranean.
You receive a bowl containing poached pieces of a white fish species (the catch of the day), one single jumbo shrimp, one little scallop, a few mussels and Manila clams, and a pink hunk of mild-flavored Atlantic farm-raised salmon. (Salmon is a cold-water fish, so you’d never find it in an authentic bouillabaisse.) Having all the seafood precooked separately is a great idea, guaranteeing that each species is done just as much as it should be, not overcooked in the broth as so often happens. Riding across the bowl, like a Sherpa rope-bridge over the Dudh Khosi River, is a long, lightly toasted halved baguette, with a pile of rouille (red pepper aioli) in the center.
The waiter poured on the golden broth from a teapot — the standard fish-stock/tomato/fennel broth, a little light in flavor. Mark pinned it down: “I don’t taste any crustacean shells contributing their flavors to this fish stock, or any saffron.” Classic bouillabaisse usually includes shellfish shells to enrich the stock — not only more shrimps, but typically a clutch of langoustines — spare parts in the stock, best parts in the soup. In the U.S., many chefs substitute Maine lobster “culls” for pricey langoustine. (Missing a claw, about $6 a pound wholesale on this coast — wrong ocean, but a good substitution. Who could object to Maine lobster in anything?) “I agree,” the chef told me later. “It’s the downside of being such a small place. If I’m gonna keep the price-point down, I don’t have the ability to bring items in just for one dish.” Facing our bouillabaisse, the posse looked upon it and then, almost regretfully, broke the Sherpa baguette-bridge so that the rouille part of the crouton melted into the broth, as it should. It was more bouillabaisse lite than the authentic thing, but it was decent eating.
Our other entrée was brilliant. As soon as the waiter set down the beef short ribs, Lynne’s fine nose — from all the way across the table — could detect the vanilla bean that went into the marinade. The meat had been marinated in vanilla, black pepper, and wine, then braised to a fall-off-the-bone state before the sauce was reduced and the whole megillah plated over a scrumptious creamy mixture of celery-root purée and mashed potatoes. The vanilla raises it from comforting to sexy. This masterpiece, by the way, costs just $19.50.