2760 Fifth Avenue, San Diego
*** (Very Good)
2760 Fifth Avenue (between Nutmeg and Olive Streets), Bankers Hill, 619-542-0394, http://avenue5restaurant.com.
HOURS: Lunch Tuesday--Friday 11:30 a.m.--2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday--Sunday 5:30--9:30 p.m., Friday--Saturday until 10:00 p.m. or later.
PRICES: Salads and appetizers, $7--$16; entrées, $20--$26; desserts, $7.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Seasonal French-influenced California cuisine featuring local ingredients. Well-edited international wine list at low markups, with many good buys for the adventurous.
PICK HITS: Salads, scallops with pear, prosciutto-wrapped "devilfish" (monkfish), baked fromage blanc, chocolate decadence cake.
NEED TO KNOW: Decor amplifies noise, very loud when crowded. Classy-casual dress (e.g., jeans and twinsets). Street parking (not too hard). Half-price for second bottle of wine on Thursdays. Please make reservations. "Moderately priced neighborhood bistro" and "chic spot for seasonal cuisine" may seem like contradictory phrases -- in the neighborhood adjacent to Laurel and Mr. A's, you'd expect the chic but not "moderate" -- but Avenue 5 encompasses both descriptions. The cuisine has those idealistic Alice Waters values that have (finally!) dribbled down to the southland: food that's fresh, local, and organic where possible. And even if the dining room looks spiffy, the food and wine prices are more middle class than plutocratic. What an (oxymoronic) adventure!
I needed a pleasing destination for a half-blind date. That is, the gal in charge of "my" year of my high school alumnae association in Manhattan e-mailed during the fires to see if I was okay. She gave me the e-dress of another alum living on the other (better) side of Balboa Park. Margaret and I had been in the same homeroom but barely knew each other. I chose Avenue 5 for our mini-reunion, because it sounded like the perfect restaurant for it and was close to her house.
On the former site of the tranny nightclub Lips (which moved to North Park), Avenue 5 has all-new decor, including a shiny modern bar, which was well-filled at happy hour. Banquettes along the walls face linen-clad tables and wooden chairs with a Pottery Barn look. High above, exposed cylindrical heating ducts coated with shiny aluminum paint crawl across the ceiling, like the giant worms of Dune, in the industrial-moderne style of Paris's Pompidou Museum. The dining room flows into a second room in back with an unadorned brick wall, like a stereotypical comedy club. A semi-open kitchen is walled in glass. This decor may play a (too predictable) role in your dining pleasure (or distress) on certain nights; stay tuned for details.
Margaret chose the spring greens salad, a fine example of its kind -- several types of lettuce, bits of edible golden flowers (nasturtium petals or possibly Johnny-jump-up violas), glazed pecans, and chopped, cooked figs, plus a crouton spread with herbed goat cheese and fig confit, all perfectly and lightly dressed. At a later visit, my friend Sam mentioned that he'd tried the roasted-beet salad at a previous dinner and liked it very much. Evidently, salads are a forte.
The evening's cauliflower soup, smoothed with a touch of cream, was soothing and weighty, strewn with greaseless "toasted" shreds of Maui onion for textural and flavor contrast. I craved one more element to complete it, something a bit darker and more sophisticated, and for once, I could even name what I thought might be missing: a touch of white truffle in any form whatsoever, even oil, to supply a hint of "nasty" to balance all the "nice." But chacun à son goût, that's just my taste.
A killer entrée features seared scallops with risotto in a pear-and-chardonnay cream sauce. This was the sort of flashy chef-work I'd hoped to find here. The gentle sweetness of pear tastes almost like vanilla (a touch of rosemary provided the needed "edge"), and both the risotto and scallops were flawlessly cooked.
A salmon entrée showcased a tender topknot of flavorful fillet over a bricklike gratin of thick yam slices that looked as if it might be an additional salmon fillet with crisped skin on the bottom. (Margaret and I were rather sorry it wasn't.) The coral veggie-block was coated with thin, browned slices of potato (hence the resemblance to salmon skin). Alongside were succulent batons of parsnips, Margaret's first exposure to this fascinating vegetable, which resembles a white carrot, sweet but with a subtle, rooty sharpness. (If Tommy Lee Jones were a vegetable, he might be a parsnip.) "My family was German," Margaret said. "Every holiday we ate rutabaga. Ever since, I'm turned off on all forms of turnips. But parsnips -- these are interesting. I think I might buy them in the future."
The Gainey California house chardonnay available by the glass proved bright and sunny, a good match for our meal. For the entrées, we tried a French chardonnay that's also available by the glass (unfortunately, I didn't note the name). It was heavier-bodied and more alcoholic, but also pleasing and apt. Good to find house wines worth drinking. French-born manager Nick Carbonne (you may recognize his face from previous encounters at Tapenade or other local restaurants) is responsible for the user-friendly wine list. You can find plenty of wines you want to drink here without depleting your mortgage money. The list goes light on those ridiculously overpriced California boutique wines and is strong on undervalued European bottlings.
For dessert, we tried a "chocolate decadence," which took the form of a rich dark cake, rather than the original ten-ton truffle wedge invented in the '70s by Bay Area chef Narsai David. (I loved it back then, never want it now.) Cooked raspberries pooled along one side, and figs dotted the other. Margaret's coffee was strong, my decaf espresso decent.
I returned a week later with the full posse, after downloading the (outdated) menu from the website. I came loaded for bear, with a full meal plan for four. But my scheme came to naught, because the menu was suddenly much shorter. The kitchen is rather small, both in workspace and storage space, so dishes that hadn't been selling well had been ruthlessly pruned. (Those were, of course, the ones I most wanted to try.) Three appetizers were gone, two entrées vanished, and a third (pork belly, alas) was replaced with a more common and popular lamb rack, so my plan was shot all to hell. Some of the excised dishes will reappear from time to time as nightly specials, the chef says.
That night, the restaurant was heavily populated, and as I learned later, many of the diners hadn't reserved -- they'd started at the bar during happy hour and then moved on to a table when hunger struck. The kitchen wasn't prepared for so many walk-ins, which delayed food delivery to a pace slow enough to melt your pocket watch. Naturally, the diners (some already well-lubricated from bar sojourns) filled the long gaps between courses with more wine. With the hard-edged decor, a single loud table here makes the whole restaurant painfully noisy, and two such tables turn it into the soundtrack of Jumanji. In the brick-walled back room, which bounced all sounds around, there was a full-throated hyena octet (mainly the sort of surgically enhanced blondes who have more fun and everyone nearby has to hear about it). In the main dining room was the testosterone tetrad, bellowing like rogue elephants in mating season. And since the kitchen that night was so pokey, we were sentenced to spend a long evening with both parties of revelers. Sometimes I want to strangle all restaurant designers, or at least send them to Gitmo for a few months. (The chef-owner later told me that he's planning to install some sound-absorbing devices, like live trees.)
The food was mainly very good, although better in the entrées than the starters. Sam, who'd eaten at the restaurant before, counseled ordering not one but two of the foie gras torchon appetizers to share. Sage advice, since each plate had only a minuscule portion of foie gras versus an excess of toasted brioche bread. Garnishes involved a frizzle of microgreens, a spiced honey reduction, and a rather picante pear chutney, which diminished my pleasure in the rich liver. I love hot pepper, ditto foie gras, but not together. The tiny torchon segments, however, had a heavenly texture.
The soup du jour was pumpkin with apple -- sweet, festive, and again, a bit simple, like a liquid Little Mary Sunshine. As with the cauliflower soup, I felt it needed a touch of darkness or exoticism to jolt it out of the nursery (cardamom comes to mind). But again, this is a question of taste; most people would surely find it utterly lovable.
A vol-au-vent pastry filled with escargot was a welcome departure from the standard butter-garlic treatment for snails, but upon tasting, none of us loved it. The filling of the puff-pastry shells mingled snail meats with an equal amount of mushrooms (with shallots and cognac) in a variant of heavy sauce brun loaded with black pepper and salt. Interesting idea, but quite a lot was left over, and nobody at the table wanted to doggy bag the remnants to face another day.
Our wine choice for the first course was unexpectedly apt: From the section called "Whites of Interest," I whimsically picked a French pinot blanc that proved surprisingly on the sweet side, delightful with the foie gras, and palate relief for the lashes of heat in the snail sauce and foie gras. A well-priced Faiveley Mercurey (2003) Burgundy for the entrées was a tempting bargain but, still too young, it tasted somewhat clenched. If you order this, have it opened and poured to "air" in the glasses well before you need it; it did open up in the glass. (If I owned a bottle, I'd cellar it for another five years.)
Forget all that snobby folklore about "white wine with fish." If there was ever a fish made for red wine (try a Côte du Rhone), it's the "Devilfish," monkfish tightly wrapped with Spanish prosciutto and served with herbed-baked tomato slices and a slightly sweet, deep-flavored sauce of sherry with reduced chicken broth and veal glaze. This is a fish dish that tells your mouth it's meat. Alongside come perfect green beans and a mysterious golden mound resembling a light yellow yam, which turned out to be the chef's reinterpretation of Spain's tortilla española. Normally a rustic, chunky frittata of eggs, onion, and potato, here it's a compacted mound of mandoline-sliced potato and onion. It tasted faintly sweet but had an indefinable quality as well, as if the spuds had moved on to a higher social caste than their tuberous origins -- the Anatole Broyard of the root world.
One of the favorites of regular diners here is rack of lamb. Served rare as ordered and cut into three thick, juicy chops, it was daubed with a verdant garlic-parsley butter purée and surrounded by a red-pepper oil. Alongside was a newfangled ratatouille of small, solid eggplant chunks and some faintly bitter, firm dice of salsify, aka "oyster plant." (This rare, sublime root vegetable lives up to its name: slowly roasted or braised until tender, it takes on a flavor and texture vaguely resembling oysters.)
An organic chicken breast, just a bit dry, was food for the Inner Child, with a sweet, thin glaze of lavender honey, and accompaniments of mashed potatoes, young carrots, and a high-toned Mediterranean broccoli variant.
By the time we received our desserts, the noisemakers were departing and we could at last hear ourselves and our food talk. The sweetest voice of the evening belonged to a baked fromage blanc -- essentially a dense, flavorful mini-cheesecake on a cracker-thin sweet crust, surrounded by crème anglaise with caramelized pear. It was a platonic ideal of cheesecake, just barely anchored to the reality of mouths and bellies.
Lemon panna cotta surrounded by berry compote was also fine, but to my taste oversweet. Comparisons may be odious, but I couldn't help imagining the same dish as it might by prepared by the local Emperor of Panna Cotta, Jack Fisher (now dessert chef at Jack's La Jolla). I think Fisher would have more lemon and less sugar, for a subtler, more austere seductiveness. I found this one over-friendly, even a bit slutty.
My minor arguments with Avenue 5 are mainly questions of personal taste versus restaurant economics (and, of course, physical design). Even if I want more complex flavors in several dishes, the neighborhood patrons don't, and they're the restaurant's mainstay. Anybody who lives nearby is surely blessed by its proximity. Most neighborhoods, we have to make do with taquerías and pizzerias which, even if they're good, don't compare with the interesting pleasures offered at merciful prices by Avenue 5.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef-owner Colin MacLaggan grew up in San Diego. "I was the kind of kid who could always go into the kitchen and whip up something that tasted good. The restaurant lifestyle attracted me -- I was a busboy, then a waiter, then a bartender, but I finally realized that I wasn't that much of a people person. I'm more of an introvert. So I found my life in the back, in the kitchen. And I love music. I was a music major, and I figured one day I'll have my own restaurant and play my own music and have the freedom to do what I want to do. Have my own kitchen to do what I please. We play an iPod [over the sound system]. I probably have a thousand songs I collected in my travels, everything from Miles Davis to Latin to a really progressive but not-too-intense trance song. You can hear the music in the background at the restaurant. It's quite diverse, but I think that's what our restaurant is.
"I went to Catholic school here, and that's where I first met Nick [Carbonne], the GM, and we worked together in restaurants all through our lives. After high school, I got my associate's degree and didn't know where I wanted to go to college, and since I was working in restaurants, I decided to get a live experience of language and everything else I could get out of it -- but I couldn't get a visa for the Cordon Bleu in France, so I went to the one in London. I got the Grand Diplôme in April 1999, which is when you take both the pastry and the cuisine program at the same time. It's really tough -- you have to go through back-to-back finals. You go to an eight-hour final, take a ten-minute break, and then you have another final. I love the perfect science of pastry, but cuisine -- I love the fast pace, the creativity, and unlike pastry, you can always fix it if it goes wrong...So now, when it comes to pastries, I'm just a little bistro guy. I do homemade stuff, not super-garnished stuff.
"Meanwhile, I worked for Terrence Conran of the Conran Group in London. I was one of just a few students who worked the whole time I was studying. This made me who I am. Being the only American in a British-French kitchen, I got my skin toughened up quite right. They didn't just call me a Yank; at first they thought I was a Muslim because I'm big and dark, and I got all these bad looks from the waitstaff. I was starting to get real grief from those guys, until I finally told them that I'm Mexican and Scottish, and they were, like, 'Okay, that explains everything.'
"Then I found myself coming back home, and straightaway I worked for Doug Organ, first at Wine Sellar and then at Laurel...I went to work for Martin [Woesle] at Mille Fleurs, and...opening Bertrand at Mr. A's [as junior sous-chef], and that's where I met Carl Schroeder. We hit it off right away, we had the same theories about food and the same techniques, and then we opened Arterra together. I left because I didn't like working for the Marriott. Then I helped a friend open Crush, setting up the menu there, and went on to the La Jolla Country Club. All I wanted to do was cook and golf, not deal with the public. For a brief time, I worked at Rancho Valencia during that period of transition while they were renovating and shuffling chefs around. It wasn't for me. And then, with Nick as maitre d' and sommelier and business expertise from my brother, we were able to open this place.
"Most of my dishes are simple -- three-component dishes. Food is very personal: you put it in your mouth, you feel textures, you taste tastes. Maybe it's because of my Old World training, but -- I'm not trying to be on TV, and I'm not trying to do science projects on a plate. I want to eat and enjoy food, and that's it! If I don't personally eat it, I'm not going to serve it to you. And for this place, we're trying to train our service staff to build in all the fine-dining skills, but without the pretentiousness or the price tag attached. We know what we're doing, we like what we do, but we don't have to charge you extra for that."