514 Via de la Valle, Solana Beach
Can you judge a chef’s palate by a single dish if that dish represents how he cooks when he’s showing off for his peers? Before moving to San Diego, ten years ago I came down from San Francisco on a two-month freelance assignment, a cover story on “The 10 Hottest Chefs in San Diego.” New to town, I used the Zagat guide, tourist guides, and local publications to point me to the highest-reputed restaurants. Most useful of all was that year’s Chef Celebration dinner series (then running twice a week at Thee Bungalow). Each dinner presented one or two dishes each by four top local chefs. I attended nearly all of them, and when a chef indeed seemed “hot,” I followed up with a dinner at his or her restaurant.
Pamplemousse (French for “grapefruit”) is perennially one of Zagat’s most popular restaurants, and chef-owner Jeffrey Strauss participated in the first week’s Chef Celebration lineup. His contribution was an entrée of squab stuffed with foie gras and bacon, a trendy dish invented by some big-time Manhattan chef. I don’t know how it turned out in New York, but Strauss’s rendition was unforgettable: I found it vile. I love squab, foie gras, and bacon, but combined like that, I was shocked by how clunky and overstated it seemed, what a waste of great foodstuffs, compared to the subtler, more graceful and creative food I’d been eating up north. I made a risky lightning judgment that I probably just couldn’t like Strauss’s palate, and I dropped him from my list of “hot chef” contenders.
A couple of months later, when I was back home scribbling the feature story, both my predecessors at the Reader (then alternating weeks) reviewed Pamplemousse in turn. First came Max Nash’s scorching debunking. (This came as something of a relief, supporting my judgment.) The next week, Eleanor Widmer rode to the defense with another rave for her favorite restaurant — her third, I believe.
Now I’ve finally eaten at Pamplemousse (another “better late than never”). The occasion was Restaurant Week, which (at $40 per meal, rather than an average of $40 per entrée) made it affordable. Unlike most, Pamplemousse offered four (not three) choices per course, plus “supplemental” additions for sturdy surcharges, so I invited posse regular Sam and his charming neighbors Rebecca and John to help me eat. (The posse kindly covered the wines this time, which would have blown my expense budget for the month, leaving me fighting Tin Fork for burger joints — yeah, that steep.) Commendably, just about everything on the Restaurant Week menu was drawn from the regular menu and (aside from a Kobe Burger with truffled fries, normally $24) not even the cheapest dishes.
The restaurant resembles a French country inn/Paris bistro/art museum. The room was full of celebrants all evening, taking advantage of Restaurant Week: birthday parties, anniversaries, engagements, whatever. We were seated at a spacious banquette and celebrated the bread basket’s delightful miniature corn muffins, miniature chived soft rolls, and baguette slices with soft chive butter for a spread. “These small breads are so much more civilized than big hunks you have to tear apart,” said John.
My tablemates took to the velvety puréed Sugar Baby pumpkin soup topped with toasted pumpkin seeds, but I found it cloyingly sweet and so heavy it filled me up in three tablespoons. I longed for a waft of cream to diffuse its weight and intensity. More sweetness arrived in the form of candied pecans, mingling with intriguing mini-crescents of chopped Belgian endive, hearts of palm (which I’m not sure I ever found on the plate), a pouf of Gorgonzola, and baby spinach, all couched atop ultra-thin slices of silky cold-smoked salmon of extraordinary quality. Lacking my ancestral lox addiction, my tablemates weren’t impressed. Every element in the combination was tasty, but we all agreed they didn’t add up to a harmony.
We’ve been eating roast-beet salad with goat cheese for a full 36 years now, ever since Alice Waters popularized it at Chez Panisse. I would like to see it go away for a long while, while chefs invent brand-new starters. That said, Pamplemousse does as fine a version as anybody ever has, with toasted pine nuts and crisp-surfaced warm patties of goat cheese plus balsamic-dressed slim-sliced grilled artichoke, arugula, and thick slices of pickle-sweet multicolored beets. Cliché or not, it’s scrumptious enough to justify another 36 years’ worth of table-life, if only it weren’t as common as dirt.
Last and strangest appetizer: a single large lobster-filled “ravioli” with a delicate wrapper, topped with a few succulent slices of shiitake mushroom and garnished with skinny asparagus spears, deep-flavored roasted baby tomatoes, and a thin, transient underlay of ginger-soy beurre blanc. The plump pasta pillow was overstuffed, but the stuffing was something other than lobster claw or tail meat. Neither tender nor buttery, it was shreddy and coarse, its texture resembling canned crabmeat — commercial lobster knuckle-meat, perhaps? There are no lobster entrées on the regular menu, so obviously there are no good spare parts around to make a filling from fresh lobster. “Where’s the sauce for this?” asked Rebecca. “There’s not enough of it to taste — and this really needs a sauce!”
The disadvantage of Restaurant Week meals is that popular restaurants are slamming, and this one had a full house all evening. That may explain the surprising slipups in the execution of the entrées. On the other hand, Pamplemousse is often crowded, a tough reservation during holiday season, tourist season, and with every new edition of the Zagat guide. The kitchen should be used to throngs.
Rebecca is English and I’m not, but both our mothers (typical of that era) were hopeless cooks, neither of them thinking to wring some extra flavor from a salt shaker. As adults, we both cook ambitiously but salt minimally, and John’s accustomed to that by now. So as we were tasting entrées, a repeated melody went around the table: “Ooh, so much salt!”
The best main dish was a “supplemental” entrée ($20 extra) of game mixed grill, combining a juicy medium-rare venison chop au poivre with a quail and lightly house-smoked Muscovy duck breast. “This is remarkably flavorful venison,” said Rebecca. Indeed, it was richer tasting than the usual bland farm-raised Cervena deer favored by most local restaurants, but not as gamy as wild deer. It most resembled New Zealand farm-raised elk. Its surface was salty — but the quail suffered an overdose: this most forgiving of birds was tender and savory in a lemon-thyme marinade, but the skin was so heavily salted it stung our lips like chilis. The duck breast’s light, house-smoked flavor was intriguing — but the meat ranged from chewy to unchewable. (One of the two small chunks saved in my doggie bag would require a canine’s canines to tear apart — a thin layer of meat overlaying an impenetrable wad of gray connective tissue.)