The dish also brought a varied vegetable array (probably from local Valdivia Farms, the chef’s favorite): a little bundle of green beans tied by a chive, baby carrots, a roast hunk of celery root, and a modest pile of lacy sliced cabbage happily soaking up the savory au jus. There was also a heap of lean and grainy “truffled mashed potatoes,” made without butter or milk, as far as I could tell, but evidently relying on soi-disant truffle oils (offering no discernible truffle flavor — but then, most truffle-oil brands nowadays include little or no actual truffle, merely chemical imitation-truffle flavor). Next night, with the leftover mash, I tasted and inhaled extra carefully — snuffling like a Perigordian truffle-hunting hog — but still detected no hint of the precious fungi, merely a trace of some oily emollient to smooth the sludgy spuds. At least they didn’t tempt me to gobble empty carbs.
From fine venison to, well, the opposite... Beef short ribs “osso bucco style” braised in red wine offered only two flavors — flesh and fat. The top side of the bones had shreddy, greasy beef. Even after braising, the underside retained a thick, jiggly coating of unmelted fat. The neutral white beans acting as garnish (along with a few green beans) contributed as much contrast as the freckles on the face of the cow that yielded the beef. The combination screamed for some acidic garnish (e.g., real osso bucco’s citrus-peel gremolata, or tomatoes in the beans, Tuscan-style). “Doesn’t compare to Quarter Kitchen’s short ribs,” I reflected. “Or to that great version at George’s,” said Rebecca. “Or to my mom’s Korean short ribs,” said Sam.
Our waiter had raved about the prime rib of pork. “You know how so many chefs don’t know how to cook pork, and they serve it all dried out? Our chef does it completely tender, like velvet!” But “our chef” happened to be spending the evening schmoozing (rather loudly) with the people at the table behind my head. The line chef who roasted our pork was less sensitive or maybe didn’t bother with a meat thermometer. (The secret: roast to 130°F, remove from heat, let stand five minutes while plating and garnishing — zap, perfect pink!) The huge slab (a double rib-chop) was mainly white all through, with traces of pink in the lucky spots and near the bone. Given the meat’s pedigree, it was still relatively flavorful, and my tablemates could tolerate the doneness, less so the shower of salt. I tried a bite from near the outside, chewed it to a pill of sawdust, and discreetly removed it to my bread plate. A bite nearer the bone was edible — dry but tender. Officially, the pork came with a mustard sauce, which was imperceptible, plus good “caramelized vegetables” and more grainy truffle-oil mash.
More surprising yet was the desiccated miso-glazed mahi-mahi, salty from the glaze and dried out in the cooking, with nice bok choy and ginger-glazed baby carrots. Should we have specified the fish’s doneness, as we usually do in the Gaslamp to counter conventioneers’ tastes for bone-dry fish? We shouldn’t have to specify here at Pamplemousse, we all agreed. It would be almost insulting at a restaurant of this caliber. Insulting, perhaps, but apparently necessary. Rebecca was sorely tempted to send it back to the kitchen, but we were already too tired of eating to face a redo.
Desserts come with Restaurant Meal dinners, want ’em or not. Our waiter paid attention to my request to bring my espresso along with the sweets, and it was a good-enough espresso. In the past few years, when Jeffrey Strauss contributes to charity eat-a-thons (which he does quite a lot), he’s been contributing lavish dessert arrays, possibly indicating a change in his culinary interests toward the sweet end of dinner. And most of the desserts were very sweet, indeed. A bittersweet chocolate bombe with a caramel-cake center was worthy of any patisserie in Paris or Vienna, although none of us felt transported by it. Chocoholic Rebecca fell hard for the molten chocolate cake with raspberry compote, and the tart fruit did make a major contribution to the balance of flavors. Normally I love tarte tatin but didn’t love the pear version here, so syrupy-sweet it overwhelmed the fruit flavor. We all enjoyed a trio of sorbets, especially the sprightly key-lime version. Not one of us could guess what fruits went into the red or orange-colored sorbets, tasting mainly cold and sweet. We did suffer palate fatigue by then. Still, not a clue from the flavors?
Strauss is hugely generous (other chefs call him “the gentle giant”), contributing time, effort, and money to numerous charity events (much like the Cohns of Cohn Restaurant Group). That’s good karma, but karma is beside the point in evaluating a restaurant. Perhaps he’s playing Robin Hood, overcharging the North Coastal rich to help the poor, but looking at the regular menu prices, Robbin’ the Hood is more like it — particularly in these lean times when nearly all our top local restaurants have lowered prices or offer regular bargain meals. Pamplemousse’s cuisine is neither classic haute cuisine (e.g., with fresh truffles and real lobster, et al., in elaborate, labor-intensive dishes), nor is it particularly inventive cuisine that offers a perceptible chef’s signature — a personal style with distinct authorship of the dishes. Instead, for what is basically bistro cuisine (unevenly executed at that), prices average ten bucks higher than at El Bizcocho, approaching those of the very top chefs in Manhattan, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. There, world-famous names with Michelin stars spilling from their apron pockets devise thrilling new creations and demand flawless execution from their sous-chefs and line chefs. (I eat up the NY Times Wednesday food section religiously and am amazed by the affordability of so many serious restaurants there that would probably eclipse every restaurant here.)
You’ve already picked up the theme: Pamplemousse is merely a nice local bistro, one that’s outclassed in cooking by other local bistros (e.g., Cavaillon, Tapenade, Farmhouse, et al.), not to mention high-end local restaurants that offer more modest pricing for more precise and original cooking. “Very good” is a very good rating, but this chef and his many fans would likely expect much higher.