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Pamplemousse Grille

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.)

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Comments

millerowski Feb. 4, 2010 @ 9:57 p.m.

Alas! Although I haven't been able to afford Pamplemousse for a couple of years, I always think of it as one of my favorite dining spots in the county. Yes, El Bizcocho is great, and George's, and, and...(I haven't had the pleasure of dining at Cavaillon yet). But I have a real soft spot in my tummy for Pamplemousse.

Maybe it was the New Year's Eve dinner several years ago that was preceded by what felt like an intimate cocktail party in the bar and entry way--great appetizers, lovely champagne (and it was included in the price of the meal!) Everything that night was superb. And when we ordered a Roussanne, the sommelier said they were out of it and suggested a pricier Marsanne but charged us for the Roussanne.

On another occasion, when I shared the lobster ravioli starter with my cousin, we were on the verge of ordering a second one--the pasta was poofy with sweet, tender lobster. I recall savoring the mixed grill of game that night as well. And no dessert has been less than divine--even the trio of sorbets.

On the dinner menu, I have enjoyed the mix and match grill items (you choose the meat, pair it with a sauce, add a vegetable and starch. The approach reminded me of some steak houses in Buenos Aires.

For lunch, I fondly recall a lovely mixed fresh seafood salad tossed with field greens and a light yet sensuous vinaigrette. And you gotta love those bite-sized corn muffins and chived rolls. (I have been bold enough to request more. Encore, I say!)

I am hoping that perhaps the experience shared by Ms. Wise and Posse did not meet standards of excellence because the kitchen was too busy with the Restaurant Week scenario. (That wouldn't explain the over-salting, but I myself was never served an overly-salty dish at P-Mousse. On the other hand, unlike Ms. Wise, I grew up on a fairly salty So Cal beach diet--burgers, dogs, tacos, pizza, and PBJ sandwiches.)

I enjoy the ambiance at Pamplemousse, especially the whimisical murals of farm animals. And the wait staff has consistently been friendly, helpful, without hovering and certainly without condescension.

So, I am saving up my blue chip stamps so I can buy a lunch for two, hoping that the grapefruit is sweet and juicy.

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Posse_Dave Feb. 5, 2010 @ 8:26 p.m.

From the tone of the review, I think Naomi is being too generous with a 3-star rating. Sometimes it's difficult to fight the tidal wave of a high Zagat rating. Maybe it was the extra pressures of serving Restaurant Week crowds. We ate at Pamplemousse once or twice, years ago, and, in retrospect, agree that the other bistro-style restaurants she mentioned are considerably more interesting and satisfactory (from a cost and a culinary point of view).

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Visduh Feb. 9, 2010 @ 10:10 a.m.

Excessive salt in dishes served at restaurants that supposedly are ultra-conscious of their fare always makes me wonder where the chef's taste buds are. A few years ago, shortly after it opened, we went to Vincent's Sirinos Restaurant in Escondido. That is supposed to be owned by Vincent Grumel(?) who has been in San Diego since at least the early 70's. He went from restaurant to restaurant to restaurant for years before settling in Escondido. On our sole visit to this operation, we found everything salted to the point of preservation. The sauces were especially egregious.

While the North County lacks moderately-priced restaurants with creative fare, nothing will ever draw me back to that spot. And, if I learn that Vincent is the chef at any other eatery, I'll avoid it too.

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PistolPete Feb. 9, 2010 @ 1:30 p.m.

I'm the exact opposite, Visduh. If a restaurant doesn't salt their food enough for my taste buds, I avoid it. I LOVE salt.

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Russ Lewis Feb. 9, 2010 @ 2:11 p.m.

So do I, Pete. I understand. I love salt the way kids love sugar. But your taste buds are saturated. You need to go cold turkey. You'll hate it at first, but you'll end up wondering why you ever salted your foods so much. Cut back or you're on the fast track to the cardio ward. (Having your sternum cut open is no picnic. Trust me on that.) And by the way, salt makes your body retain water.

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PistolPete Feb. 9, 2010 @ 4:56 p.m.

The only way I'd give up salt is if it would kill me and even then I'd think very hard about doing so. Is life REALLY worth living if you can't enjoy the things you love?

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Naomi Wise Feb. 9, 2010 @ 9:08 p.m.

I enjoy saltiness, too -- I love anchovies, lox, olives, et al, and have a whole collection of interesting salts like fleur du sel (LOVE it), Malden sea salt, Hawaiian red salt, smoked black salt, Himalayan pink salt, truffled salt, et al TO APPLY LIGHTLY AT SERVING.
Most food needs the chemical qualities of some salt (preferably Kosher salt, to avoid the iodine off-taste of table salt) in the cooking process, (e.g., salting the water for boiling pasta or potatoes or blanching veggies balances the sodium native to these ingredients, preventing shrinkage and adding a hint of good, good flavor.) But when restaurants pour it on just before serving, to the point it actually stings your lips and obscures the natural flavors of the dish, that's bad for the dish (and bad for everybody's health.) The best compromise is so simple: the kitchen should salt LIGHTLY just before serving, and the restaurant should have salt on the table for patrons to add their own to taste.
Example: When Chez Panisse was new, Alice refused to have salt on the table, on grounds, "The food is salted properly in my kitchen!" After numerous complaints about undersalting from patrons and backers (Francis Coppola, Greil Marcus, etc.), she caved in and put out salt pigs on each table, with fleur du sel. And everybody was happy forever after.

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PistolPete Feb. 10, 2010 @ 12:35 a.m.

I'm not big on anchovies, never tried lox although I hear it's awesome and the only edible olives I like are black and that's only on pizza. The green olive in a martini makes it special but I've only eaten it once. Didn't like it. Might've been the vermouth aftertaste. I LOVE sea salt and always wanted to try the different salts out there.

Chex Mix makes a Sweet'n'Salty variety that's goes good with beer. I'm a sugar hound as much as I love salt so I like I like dipping Chips Ahoy cookies in my beer sometimes. I get strange looks at the bar but it's the German in me. :-D

My big complaint since I way more fast food than I should is that the fries aren't salted enough for my tastes. It's bad enough that took the trans-fat away from me. Now they're trying to do away with my beloved salt!

My GF is the exact polar opposite of me. She loves food that tastes like cardboard.

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SDaniels Feb. 10, 2010 @ 8:51 a.m.

re:#7

I ate at Chez Panisse a few years ago, Naomi, with a different outcome. It was planned ahead that, after presenting at a conference at Berkeley, I would have a celebratory meal there ---(just by myself, it ended up being around $150--generous tip counted).

NO SALT on the table--I had to request. I remember this distinctly, because I am always slightly embarrassed to have to ask, even though I know my tastebuds are not numb, and because it was a unique experience, dining so extravagantly by myself.

The food was otherwise exquisite, just the kind of fresh, uncomplicated, nourishing, yet elegant fare this pescatarian needed after a day of academic brain drain.

WARNING TO ANYONE WITH DENTAL WORK...OR TEETH:

I bought some Hawaiian black salt at Trader Joe's, to--yes--sprinkle lightly. Ack! It is like fine grade gravel, and I think I cracked another crown! Beware to anyone purchasing this stuff; I don't know if it even melts into a dish if you use it for cooking...

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Naomi Wise Feb. 16, 2010 @ 9:42 p.m.

Hey, SDaniels, good to see you again -- always one of the most interesting posters on this page.

I love the Trader, but sometimes (especially with exotic stuff) you get what you pay for, meaning cheap rather than authentic. His red Hawaiian sea salt is about 20% Hawaiian. His sulfurous black lava Hawaiian salt tastes like it was chopped out of Kilauea's latest excrescence -- pure "a-a" (the Hawaiian name for spiky lava as well as the cry of anyone who steps on it) -- the very stuff that buried my favorite little town of Kalapana, and the famous Walt's General Store, and the Hawaiian Girl Group I made up, The Kalapana Kitty-Kats. (While driving around the Big Island, take any Hawaiian tourist-tune and replace the words with "Meow meow meow...." Even my ex-husband to-be got a crush on those kitty cuties.) Anyway, I get my salt collection from Salt Trader, on the internet. More expensive. Actually a lot more -- but I for about 60 bucks all told, I think I've got a lifetime supply including black truffle salt. Seems a safer investment than anything else in these parlous times.

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