He started his apprenticeship at a local restaurant and went on to the Culinary Institute in Caen, which also stressed seafood cookery, then served a journeyman period at distinguished restaurants in France, Germany, and Luxembourg. He moved to the U.S. to work under chef Pierre Chambrin at the private St. Louis Club — subsequently the St. Louis Ritz-Carlton — before coming to San Diego. Now 36, he runs marathons for fun.
The menu hints that Hardel is free to create but also must maintain a few old comforts for old customers. (The Fontainebleau, way back when, was populated by blue-haired charity-circuit ladies in expensive pastel polyester skirt-suits from Saks. I imagine they’re still hidden in some closet, emerging for Sunday brunches. The ladies, that is, not the suits.) The entrée menu maintains a balance between the fresh maritime creations the chef enjoys cooking and old-style “hotel restaurant classics,” such as steaks, chops, and (on the piscine side) Atlantic Dover Sole with Beurre Meunière, which was slightly overcooked and boring — I just don’t get what’s so great about it.
Vastly better, the sesame-crusted Pacific sea bass was an extraordinary dish (yes, five stars’ worth) that had us all wondering what the chef had done to produce such unearthly tender flesh. (It’s lightly seared in a touch of olive oil on one side only in a nonstick skillet, then finished off in the oven. The topside stays pure white.) The black sesame seeds were not a crust after all (that would be boring, ordinary), but a light nutty scattering over a golden sauce of subtly curried roasted fennel, stock, and mirin, puréed and fine-strained to the texture of a silky mousseline. Next to the fish was a curl of “sea urchin emulsion” — not some disappointing little drip of liquid as we feared, but a slippery, ethereal semisolid (it’s got shallots, reduced sake, a bit of cream made into a sort of beurre blanc, but mainly lots of uni), allowing full savoring of the sneaky maritime sexiness of this species. Putting an earthy crown on this creation: a separate mound of semi-crisp julienned Napa cabbage, its pale jade shreds mingling with salty, black-green hijiki “sea-beans” — something crunchy and fun for your palate.
Another surprise came with the Day Boat Scallop Cannelloni (just $20!). It’s not a stuffed pasta shell with scallops inside, but a dark, tropical lotus pond, with dreamy soft slices of sweet Maine day-boat scallops floating over Burgundy black truffle coins and truffled Vermouth sauce. (These were gentle summer truffles, the texture of soft parsnip slices, but we ate a week too soon: through December, Fabrice is bringing in genuine black winter truffles from France — the precious of precious!) The pasta? It’s served on the side, thin cigars filled with a firm mousse of chopped scallops and pesto.
Meaty fare is more conservative and less inspired. A vast veal chop, fed on genuine organic cow’s milk (albeit not its very own mom’s), doesn’t taste like bovine Simulac, but it’s still just a hunk of nicely done meat, despite fun garnishes of butternut squash mousseline and baby chanterelle mushrooms. Prime beef tenderloin (which we didn’t try) is at least partly grass-fed and was a nostalgic temptation with garnishes that included port wine caviar (i.e., “caviar” micro-gastronomically made from port) and Rossini sauce. You may also want to consider Colorado lamb chop with Provençale garnishes of olives, tomato, fava beans, and panisse, chickpea fritters.
Our server was sweeter than the berries, quiet, exuding neither pomp nor subservience but the kindest hospitality. Laotian, he’s been here in the U.S. for 35 years, much of that working at the Westgate. We talked about the lack of good Laotian restaurants in San Diego — the similarities of Lao food to Issan Thai food.
French-trained pastry chef Sylvain Haage (whom Fabrice stole from Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s resort outpost in Bora-Bora) does the sweets. His crème fraîche cheesecake (no cheese in it) is rich but ethereal, with a topknot of electrically tart citric sorbet to cut the not-excessive sweetness. A coconut parfait resembled a coconut meringue-marshmallow, soft and quite sweet. Jim opted for a comforting coffee drink with vanilla-flavored booze. My espresso was hot, rich, with the proper crema foam on top.
The thing about hotel restaurants is that even if they’re not quite as chummy as upper-midscale neighborhood places, plutocratic room-rates subsidize the ingredients and skilled European staffs that the “nabes” can’t afford: in-house guests pay for much of your dinner. Prices and dress-styles have come way down. Clean, decent clothes and sensible shoes will do on weeknights; the celebs have gone back to L.A.
With a “free entrée with each paid entrée” coupon (from that slick coupon magazine in the mailbox; it probably will show up again in the next issue), we ended up paying less than for a mediocre meal at a trendy “Frenchie joint” uptown. (Food came to $34 each.) Without coupon, figure about $12 more per person, given less spendy ordering. Sure, you lose the fun local-bar scene; instead you get food so superior, it’s scarcely on the same planet. Enjoy both if you can afford them, but otherwise — as those old-time carnival barkers used to say — “Ya pays yer money, ya takes yer choice.”
Local Chef Cookbooks
Cookbooks make lavish gifts when well matched to the recipient. Two local restaurant chefs and a local cookbook author all have new books out for the season.
Bernard Guillas, the longtime executive chef at the Marine Room, and his chef de cuisine, Ron Oliver, share recipes gathered during their worldwide travels in Flying Pans: Two Chefs, One World. It looks gorgeous, and for Marine Room fans yearning to reproduce the spectacular cooking, it’d be just the thing. (I wouldn’t give it to a rank beginner.) Order online at twochefsoneworld.com for $34.99. Free shipping, and book autographed by both chefs if ordered by December 15.
The latest from Su-Mei Yu, owner-chef of Saffron on India Street, is The Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living. It’s based on Asian health principles, the four elements of earth, fire, wind, and water (which are you?), and eating according to your own element. Again, probably not for total neophytes, but ambitious cooks who’ve been trying their hands at Thai are likely to welcome it. It lists for $47, but online (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) it’s under $25.