Westgate Hotel, 1055 Second Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Let’s have one more chorus of “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” The hellish economy is kickin’ out the jams in the restaurant biz, especially in upscale hotel restaurants that locals tend to overlook, thinking they’re too posh or snobby. But the new Westgate Room is NOT the hotel’s stuffy old upstairs Le Fontainebleau (so stiflingly ornate, even Marie Antoinette might have fled to play with her sheep).
While Le Fontainebleau is still used for Sunday brunches and private parties, the primary action has shifted to the vast new street-floor Westgate Room, which replaces the former casual-elegant Westgate Café. The aim of the change, according to chef Fabrice Hardel, was to bring upstairs “fine-dining” food quality downstairs to a less formal, “ordinary dining” venue, while maintaining the same reasonable price structure as at the café.
With windows to the street along one wall, the handsome new dining room indeed feels like a safer place for people who love good food, not historic fancies. This would be a great place to take visitors for a non-bankrupting dinner splurge, but you don’t need Aunt Cora from Peoria as an excuse — just treat your own selves. Our dishes ranged from very good to thrilling. The restaurant was nearly empty during the dead week leading up to Thanksgiving, but it’s a popular breakfast and lunch destination, often jamming at dinnertime when there are shows at the Curran and other nearby cultural milieus.
We gathered in the bar for happy hour, old friends Samurai Jim and Michelle and new friend musician “Emmy” (short for her initials, M.E.). I’d just come from a doctor visit and on general principles needed a stiff drink. The denlike bar is not a “creative mixology” hot spot but a classicist site. “What’s your best cocktail?” I asked. The tall, dark bartender thought for a minute. “The peach Cosmo,” he said in a slightly downscale English accent (better than Cockney, well short of Etonian). The drink hit the spot — fresh, subtly fruity, and big. Just what the doctor didn’t order.
The bartender escorted us a few steps into the Westgate Room and introduced our server, who seated us. In addition to the wall of windows, the dining room sports huge crystal chandeliers, Frenchy floral paintings, and plenty of banquettes, though we preferred the comfortable, well-cushioned wooden chairs of a roomy four-top.
The chef’s amuse, served on warm plates, offered a bit of rare, delicious duck breast with mysterious sweet ’n’ tangy garnishes. Facing a pricey wine list, I ordered a reliable, unexciting Chardonnay for our first course, but luckily, it was all gone. The sommelier, with our permission, substituted a Chateau St. Jean. And my, how little Jeannie has grown up since I last sipped a bottle, years ago, when she was a top-shelf supermarket wannabe! It smelled like honey and tasted like liquid gold — not sweet, but rich and unctuous — sustained on shapely glycerin legs like a Betty Grable pinup. For the second round, I was tempted by a French Viognier and a South African Chenin, but the sommelier assured me neither was as spectacular. Begone, dull care! — the right wine at a passable price ($40), a great quaff if you love your Chards rich, plump, and flirty.
We were talking about “molecular gastronomy” when our appetizers arrived. “Now that El Biz’s chef has left, is there any place to get it in San Diego?” Michelle asked. “Look on your plate,” I said. She was the first to sample the “Big Eye Yellow Fin Ahi Tuna Sashimi,” with mango pearls, soy sauce cubes, and lime foam.
For the past two years, chef Fabrice Hardel has been discreetly experimenting with techniques pioneered by wild-man chef Ferrán Adrià in Barcelona, ever since some of Adrià’s favored chemicals have become available in the U.S. “It’s quite fun,” Hardel says. “There are so many things you can do with molecular gastronomy. It’s like going back to school.” The cilantro-flavored foam on this dish comes in a tall, narrow glass, bubbly at the top, like a jade-green witch-potion to poison a fairy-tale princess. You can pour it over everything or just use it for dipping. Center of the plate are slices of exquisite tuna sashimi — fish velvet. Next to them is a porcelain Chinese tablespoon containing tiny beads of fresh mango (another complex miracle of modern gastro- chemistry). There are fresh local greens in the center and, along the edge, a few small, trembly ebony “soy sauce cubes,” an intense reduction of soy, fish stock, and mirin (Japanese cooking wine) gelatinized in agar. Brilliant and pure fun. All evening, Samurai Jim (a nascent creative cook) kept coming up with ideas for using the cubes as a “shock and awe” element in a variety of dishes. Inspired food is, well, inspiring.
The creamy seafood chowder (scallops, clams, tiger shrimp, lobster, Parmesan, and thin-sliced black summer truffles), served with an airy, puffed vertical poppy-seed cracker (like some playful god’s heavenly breadstick), was endlessly interesting and, despite its richness, demolished at record speed.
“Bergundy Escargot” was a surprise, a whimsical cartoon restatement of the garlic-heavy Burgundian classic. It offered five deep-fried dim-sum wrappers, each containing a snail with a touch of Brie cheese, braised endive, pancetta, and parsley oil, with a shimmy of subtle garlic cream slicking the plate beneath them — all the ingredients of the classic, totally changed. You wouldn’t know they were snails inside, just some sort of plushy tastiness.
Grilled squab and veal sweetbread is a great idea, since squab is a gamey, liverish-tasting all-dark fowl, while sweetbreads (the thymus gland) are offal, with their own faintly intimate scent. It’s a great combo for culinary adventurers. The accompaniment is a miniature Granny Smith Apple tarte tatin, along with red currants and a few braised chestnuts. But imperfect execution interfered that evening: the squab, a lean bird, was a tad overcooked and dry, compromising the composition.
Last time I ate at Fontaine-bleau, in 2002, that very night the management and head chef decided to part ways forever. The executive sous-chef, 27-year-old Fabrice Hardel (cooking professionally since age 15, in the French apprenticeship system), had been doing most of the heavy lifting since joining the staff a year earlier, so he asked for a tryout as top toque, got it, and passed his trial period. Hardel hails from Normandy, on France’s North Atlantic coast, where fish is the favorite dish. “It was just seafood, seafood, seafood,” he says. “My neighbor was a fisherman, and he’d stop at the door and say, ‘Hey, I got too many scallops, you want some scallops?’ and my parents would say, ‘Yeh, for sure!’ ” Fabrice once went out on a local scallop boat for three days, a total misery of seasickness, and he was astonished at the fishermen’s 20-hour days.