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A few years ago, during a telephone interview with chef Strauss about that year’s Chef Celebration, he told me he was such good friends with Eleanor Widmer that he often accompanied her to dinner at other restaurants she was reviewing. Eleanor was hugely influential but not good at anonymity. Not only did she appear on TV, but after she enjoyed a dinner, she’d insist that the chef come out from the kitchen for a kiss. Back when she started reviewing at the Reader, quite likely a decent meal was worth a kiss — San Diego really was a culinary wasteland. Well, this is now: I don’t kiss chefs (except in print) or recruit them as restaurant escorts. And when it comes to the food at Pamplemousse, I’m with Max Nash. Thousands may love it to death, but I find it overrated and overpriced.

Pamplemousse Grille

  • 3 stars
  • (Very Good)

514 Via de la Valle, Solana Beach, 858-792-9090, pgrille.com.

HOURS: Lunch Friday only, 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; dinner nightly, 5:00 p.m.–closing (about 10:00 p.m., later on weekends or when busy).

PRICES: Appetizers, $18–$24 (sampler plate $39); soups, $13–$15; salads, $10–$21; entrées, $24–$45 (most around $40); desserts, $12; cheese plate, $15; weeknight happy-hour bar snacks menu, $8–$18.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: French-California bistro cuisine and grilled meats, garnishes of local-grown veggies. Huge wine list (mainly California and France) with many great bottlings, slim pickings under $50. Full bar.

PICK HITS: Smoked-salmon salad, roast beet and goat cheese salad, game mixed grill. Possible good bets: day-boat scallops, cowboy rib eye, vegetarian platter, panna cotta, happy-hour bar menu.

NEED TO KNOW: Many dishes heavily salted; desserts very sweet. One vegan entrée, plenty of veggie starters and sides. Rating based on Restaurant Week dinner, adjusted to compensate for extra pressures on kitchen from crowds.

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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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