2550 Fifth Avenue, 12th floor, Bankers Hill
A few months ago, some guy from some burg like Dubuque emailed the paper, asking which restaurants he should try during a few days’ visit here, price no object. Bertrand at Mr. A’s was one of my most emphatic recommendations: “This has the best view in the city, and it’s not a tourist trap — locals come here to celebrate any excuse they can think of. Good easygoing French food from a serious French chef, but if you don’t want dinner, at least have a drink on the wraparound patio to watch airplanes breeze by you at eye-level, then swoop down to land at Lindbergh Field. Skip this treat, and you haven’t experienced the San Diego that San Diegans love.”
That point was proven on a recent Monday night. Mondays are dead at most restaurants, especially during this recession. Not here: It was nearly a full house, and most diners were eating à la carte. In fact, we had to ask for the prix-fixe menu. Some of our neighbors were speaking Russian, maybe. Some were Zonies, maybe. (Probably none were Comic-Con conventioneers, as they didn’t look bluish or greenish or webbed.) Many seemed to be recession-proof locals just out for fun.
“I’ve been wanting to come here ever since it was renovated, what, ten years ago?” said Samurai Jim. That was when French-born restaurateur Bertrand Hug took over the former “continental cuisine” premises and turned the velvet-flocked Storyville bordello decor into a clean-limbed modern eatery. (“Hug” is pronounced “oog” with a tight Gallic smile: “Ewwg.”) The chefs here have been a line of classically trained French dudes — connected like a family tree of Biblical “begats” — who worked with or for each other at Coronado’s famed Marius Restaurant at Le Meridien Hotel (a Marriott since the year 2000) and then at Sally’s. Current chef Stéphane Voitzwinkler picked up the banner from previous head chef Fabrice Poigin (later at Laurel), of this same lineage.
Our own celebration excuse was that Jim had just won his black belt in swordsmanship. The cocktail list was tempting, but at $15 per drink it made more sense to start with a wine that would keep us hydrated through dinner, if the weenie three-ounce prix-fixe pours (you get two glasses for $12) ran out before the food did. Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc (a reasonable $50 here) was the tried-and-true answer. (On Mondays, you can BYO with free corkage. Don’t try it other nights. I’ll explain the baroque rules in an upcoming review when we visit Hug’s Mille Fleurs.)
After a basketful of good breads, first courses arrived quickly, highlighted by a velvety, creamy corn soup studded with sweet kernels, spiked by chopped chives and minced chervil, with a pure-comfort airy corn fritter in the center, ooh la la! Heaven to sip, hell to pass on to posse-mates. For my first prix-fixe quaff I chose a Prum Riesling out of curiosity. It was quite sweet, mouth filling, and went well with corn. Jim tried the excessively dry (“Refreshing!” he said) Pinot Grigio, and I wished I’d strong-armed him into ordering the more civilized Joseph Drouhin French White Burgundy instead.
Escargot de Bourgogne (snails in garlic butter) had very tender snail meats in an exceedingly mild sauce: Maybe it’s all the courtships happening at this restaurant, but it’s drastically light on garlic. A nice dish — too nice. Escargots speak of Burgundy, so Michelle’s Tantara Pinot Noir (from the same grape as red Bourgogne) should have been perfect — but it was too light and “nice” as well.
Mac and cheese is rich with black truffle bits, white truffle oil, and discreet streaks of invaluable spinach, lending darker character to the insouciant Comté cheese — sophisticated comfort food.
At a nearby table, a techie-looking dude (beard, specs, plaid shirt) seemed increasingly nervous over his dinner with a voluptuous black-haired, golden-skinned beauty in a strapless mini, resembling the gals in Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings. “Watch that table!” whispered Michelle. “He’s gonna propose tonight!”
Meanwhile, we were enjoying wonderfully professional service. If our waitress wasn’t nearby, we had only to whisper our needs to the comely buser, and they were fulfilled in seconds. No walkie-talkies on view — is telepathy one of the job requirements? In fact, our buser (looks aside) way outclassed the waitstaff skill level at most trendy new eateries in North Park.
Entrées swiftly followed. I started with pan-roasted sole with lobster mousse stuffing (also on the regular menu). The sole, lightly panéed, was perfectly cooked tender, the mousse a thin, subtle layer hidden in the center of the fillet, lightly sauced with a champagne and chives beurre blanc. Didn’t notice the advertised caviar. For that matter, I’d have liked more lobster mousse in the middle. I’m getting a little tired of playing “where’s Waldo” with the prime garnishes on everybody’s bargain dinners and the truffles on everybody’s truffled fries. Do it or don’t do it, but don’t say it if you’re not doing it enough for everybody to taste it.
Both of the other entrées were hearty braises (neither from the regular menu, although they should be), and both were wonderful. Lamb osso buco (shank) came with two links of irresistible Moroccan-style lamb sausage (merguez). Alongside were white flageolet beans, favas, and tiny blue Peruvian and white new potatoes — all a bit undercooked — plus a few vibrant caper berries (resembling big, sour, juicy capers), dark-flavored and pickly, brilliant against the faint fattiness of lamb cut from low-on-the-sheep. Even better were the fork-tender veal cheeks, gentle-flavored but deeply satisfying, topped with substantial slices of Parmesan for a jolt of sublimely funky aged-cheese flavor. Surrounding the cheek-meats were broccoli rabe, sautéed red peppers, and delicate puffs of potato mousseline (Tater Tots, minus browned-flour coating). With these, we drank the house pours of Cab (a bit tannic), Merlot (ultra-mild), and Tobin James “Ballistic” Zinfandel (just right).
Meanwhile, dessert arrived at the table of the nervous bearded guy: a large pastry with “Will You Marry Me Caroline?” written in chocolate syrup. Caroline blushed and giggled. Bearded guy pulled out shiny rock, bride-to-be buried her face in his shoulder, all surrounding tables applauded. (Hate to imagine: What if she wanted to say no?)