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Bleu Bohème

4090 Adams Avenue, Kensington

Bleu Bohème, the new hot spot in Kensington, opened this summer on the former site of Green Tomato, which apparently rotted on the vine and landed in the compost heap. Bleu's owner, Philippe Beltran, is a well-known local restaurateur, with a "love 'em and leave 'em" attitude toward his restaurants. Most recently divorced from South Park's Vagabond, this is his sixth restaurant in the ten off-and-on years he's been in the business. Although Beltran's name is so well known to foodies that many assume he's a chef, he doesn't actually cook -- except to cook up "concept" restaurants that generate a lot of buzz. He's like a smaller-scale, Gallic version of the Cohn Restaurant Group.

The concept at Bleu Bohème is a classic French-American neighborhood bistro, with the kitchen under the direction of near-legendary executive chef René Herbeck.

That's an impressive catch for a neighborhood spot. I missed Herbeck's famed, acclaimed stint at Marius (at Le Meridien in Coronado) but took delight in his cooking at Encinitas's short-lived Twins. Sorry to say, his food at Bleu Bohème seems less exciting, less exacting -- I don't know why. I can merely report, not diagnose.

For an upscale neighborhood (the mayor and the outgoing superintendent of schools are residents), Kensington is oddly poor in restaurants, so it's little wonder that Bleu Bohème has drawn crowds since opening day. The room is just right for a bistro: blue walls with wood beams and some limestone rock sheathing, rustic wooden tables with dripping candles, a large, loud bar, and a streetside patio wrapped around the front and one side. According to many blogs, one of the original waitresses on the patio was utterly clueless; Beltran says she's gone. I've also heard from neighborhood residents that the only way they could guarantee a reservation was by showing up in person to make sure the hostess wrote it down in her book. I think Bleu is probably past that stage now, too. (The pattern is familiar from the early days at Vagabond, which suffered the same insouciant chaos for its first two or three months.) And given the painful noise level at Vagabond, now nearly replicated at Bleu Bohème, it's obvious that Beltran actually likes an ambient din to create a party atmosphere. What can I say but "oy vey!" and take two aspirins when I get home.

The restaurant's popularity overamped my expectations compared to what I actually tasted there. The same metaphor that I applied to Vagabond comes to mind for Bleu: It's not exactly that the emperor has no clothes, nor even that the prince is waltzing around in his wife beater and tightie-whities -- it's more that the marquis is holding court wearing board shorts and a raggedy old Kiss tee.

The menu reminds me of a snooty custom of certain midpriced Parisian restaurants: They segregate all Americans into a dining room separate from the Europeans and furnish an English-language menu devoted to the most banal dishes of the French bourgeois repertory -- steak frites, coq au vin, canard à l'orange, boeuf bourguignonne, rack of lamb, etc. -- the very dishes that typical neighborhood French restaurants in America have always offered on their cookie-cutter menus. If, when seated in the Parisian "Yankee room" you ask (in passable French) for the French menu, you find it's utterly different and much more interesting, and if you order from it, the waiter will cast you a look of faint apology, as if to say, "I regret we didn't realize earlier that you were a civilized person, we might have let you sit with the grownups." Bleu Bohème has something close to that ubiquitous neighborhood-French menu, like Beltran's earlier La Vache, Encinitas's La Bonne Bouffe, and so many others that we all grew up with -- except (alas) there's no duck on it.

An old-fashioned menu isn't necessarily a disaster (although I prefer more adventurous choices); it depends on how well that menu is prepared. Bleu Bohème does offer a few specials every evening, but the evening I ate there, none were interesting to me or my posse. We started instead with classic escargots, snails in parsley-garlic butter. They were flawless, if a bit hard to eat: the snail meats were pushed deep into the large shells, which offered them protection from overcooking but made it difficult to extract them, even with the proper petite fork. I've heard from my friends Dave and Marty (who vacation frequently in France) that the onion soup is another fine starter, if you love onion soup (which I don't, je regrette), a startlingly sweet rendition made with honest beef consommé. (On the other hand, they were thoroughly disillusioned by the lunch entrée of salade Niçoise. I trust their palates. You should, too.)

A plateau des cochonailles ("pig things platter," alias charcuterie) was disappointing. I was hoping for a sampling of house-made pâtés, terrines, etc. Instead, the array was dominated by purchased deli meat slices of no compelling excitement or quality (salami, prosciutto, etc.), plus the usual cornichons and pickled onions. There were only two house-made treats -- a fine country-style pork paté and a tiny, marble-size ball of something pinky-brown and soft that I couldn't quite identify. When I phoned and asked, it turned out to be a mousse. Who could hang a name on it, based on such a minuscule portion? One bite and it's good-bye, ruby Mousse-Day.

Calamari frits (deep-fried calamari) were crisp and tender and came with two amiable dips: a Provençale rouille (red pepper aioli) and a clean, herbal housemade tartar sauce. Good, not riveting. Ditto moules marinière, small black mussels steamed in white wine and basil, with narrow, salty herbed fries on the side, already cooled to tepid upon arrival. Nice, well cooked, a yawn. (My mind wandered back to compare these dishes with the previous night's appetizers at Kensington Grill, where the calamari was spicy-fine and the mussels were in a ravishing coconut milk broth.) I think of France as the land that invented flavor -- so where's the flavor?

The dish that drew me to Bleu Bohème, above all others, was a soi-disant "vrai bouillabaisse marseillaise" (genuine Marseille seafood stew). That's a dish that's way too much trouble to cook at home. And it did include hints of an authentic bouillabaisse -- with saffron, garlic, and tomatoes in the broth -- but the seafood stock seemed sparse in quantity and anemic in taste. One of the cardboard-textured fish species was salmon -- a strong-flavored North Atlantic denizen never found in the warm Mediterranean. It's not only inauthentic but tastes all wrong in a bouillabaisse. (I might forgive its inclusion at some struggling mom'n'pop shop, but not this hopping bistro.) The other fish chunks, halibut, were so overcooked you couldn't imagine what species they might have been when they were still swimming in the sea. Halibut is another cold-water denizen that wouldn't normally go into a bouillabaisse -- but salmon and halibut happen to be the two finfish on Bleu's regular menu. They're in the soup because they're in the fridge -- not because they fit the dish. Shellfish added close to serving time, and hence reasonably tender, included clams, shrimp, and Carlsbad mussels. Certainly no langoustines (which contribute the lobster flavor to the authentic dish -- Bleu uses Maine lobster carcasses to make the stock), no monkfish (a Mediterranean classic that's become pricey), and of course no delicious little rougets (red mullets), nor even an attempt at a local substitute. At least there were a few miniature slices of French baguette and rouille to spread on them -- a vital ingredient that many local chefs omit -- to melt atop the miserly broth. I wanted larger bread slices, more rouille, more stock, as well as more appropriate fish with some life left in it. "Pouf!" I muttered in a Peter Sellers accent, "I have had le vrai bouillabaisse, and zis is no vrai bouillabaisse."

My friends and I steered clear of the other fish entrées (salmon and halibut), which had been described in local food blogs as either excessively salty or nearly flavorless. Going to the menu clichés (and following the recommendation of the Lynnester, who'd eaten at the restaurant several times), we chose coq au vin, which proved a nice, saucy rendition, subtler and more refined than Julia Child's recipe, but still no great revelation. Although I appreciated the lighter-than-usual broth and the firm-tender (non-soggy) vegetables, the chicken meat had a loose, slippery mouth-feel. Beltran says it's free-range chicken, so I suspect it might be a "Rocky," a relatively cheap, greasy-textured free-ranger common in Bay Area supermarkets when I was living there and sold here at Whole Foods.

Tender and mild-mannered as usual, filet mignon arrived in a thin portion cooked nearly as rare as ordered. Its best attribute is that it comes with ramekins of three different sauces to apply at will: a sweetish, mustardy curry mixture; a semisweet dark red-wine sauce with green peppercorns; and best of all, a classic dry red-wine bordelaise studded with bits of black truffle. (From their flavor and texture, I believe the truffles are canned shavings.) Alongside were slim, sautéed haricots verts (green beans) and a roasted tomato. The two vegetables were good but almost begged to be married by a chef willing to put in an extra few minutes (plus some garlic and basil) to unite them into southern France's haricots provençale, rather than this unconstructed version. In the past, the steak has also come with fries, and probably still ought to. The spuds are on hand anyway for other dishes, so why deprive diners of their beloved steak frites?

I somewhat enjoyed a rack of lamb provençale, served not as a rack but as a heap of thick rib chops served rare as ordered, splashed with a rosemary jus and surrounded by a pleasant if rather soggy eggplant and tomato ratatouille and a bit of pallid-tasting potato gratin. The meat portion was generous enough to furnish a weighty doggie-bag. The bright fluorescents in my kitchen exposed the fat of the lamb. That is, the rack hadn't been "Frenched" (trimmed in the traditional French style), with only a thin layer of fat atop the chops and bared rib-bones -- a trim probably devised because this cut is served rare to medium-rare in France, so the fat doesn't have much time to melt away during roasting. Instead, I discovered about three-quarters of an inch of soft, wan blubber overlaying each chop. When I mentioned it to Herbeck, he insisted I'd just gotten a particularly fatty rack that night and that usually it's trimmed more closely.

The evening's sole knockout was a dessert: a chilled Grand Marnier orange soufflé, which arrived as a tall, thin cylinder of sweetness and light, surrounded by a few slices of fresh orange in citrus juices and a bit of lightly sweetened whipped cream. It was one of those rare, perfect restaurant desserts, living up to its name ("souffle" without the accent ague on the e means "breath"). But a dark chocolate cake served warm with raspberry sorbet was heavy going, yet another molten chocolate cake cliché pretending to be a cupcake. (In contrast, Herbeck's molten chocolate cake at Twins was a seductive knockout.) If you have wine left, or are willing to order some more, and haven't OD'd on animal fat, there's also a French cheese plate.

With still-vivid reminiscences of Herbeck's cooking seven years ago, I can't explain why Bleu Bohème's food seems so lackluster in comparison. The usual suspect is lesser-quality ingredients. (Would you buy a used car from a restaurateur who throws farmed salmon into a bouillabaisse?) I'm faintly annoyed at all the buzz Bleu Bohème has gathered, since it doesn't even compare to the most modest no-star bistros in the French provinces. For instance, it initially reminded me of the travelers' restaurant at the railway station in Beaune (Burgundy). But the meal there (30 years ago to the month) included a lovely rabbit in mustard cream sauce, which offered more memorable savor than any dish (except the soufflé) that we tried at Bleu Bohème.

Philippe is a charmer, René even more so -- but if you want serious bistro cuisine in San Diego, possibly even worthy of a precious Michelin star, zip up the I-15 to fabulous Bernard'O in Rancho Bernardo or Vincent Grumel in Escondido, or north on the I-5 to Savory in Encinitas, or the marvelous Cavaillon in Santa Luz, where the coq au vin is actually something to write home about. And for zesty "neighborhood food" in Kensington, I much preferred the meal that I ate at Kensington Grill the night before my Bleu dinner. The difference brought to mind a song from childhood: "Make new friends but keep the old/ One is silver, the other gold." And another song, voiced by Billie Holliday, sounded in my head as, after the otherwise disappointing meal, I regretfully reached the end of the soufflé: "Am I blue? You'd be, too...."

ABOUT THE CHEF

Born in Paris's hilly, rakish Montparnasse district, owner Philippe Beltran's earlier local restaurants, which flourished about ten years ago, were the French Side of the West (where Modus is now) and Alizé. He abandoned them to venture into the import business in Vietnamese teak, then returned to the local scene, doing time at La Vache and the short-lived Voyage until he cofounded South Park's Vagabond. Then he left Vagabond, in turn, to open Bleu Bohème. "Vagabond was a very big success, but really, I like to work on my own," he said. He has more restaurants coming up: Beltran Restaurant Concepts has two more restaurants aborning, one in Mission Hills (international food) scheduled to open in December, and another in Point Loma (Latin American cuisines). The latter is an especially interesting possibility because Beltran's Peruvian mother-in-law furnished a superb recipe to Vagabond for seco de carne.

"What I tried to do here [at Bleu Bohème] was something really close to my roots, food that I love," he said. "I grew up on the Left Bank of Paris, and I really wanted to do French country classics, something representative of both Paris and the countryside of France, so that's why we have the traditional menu. I'm going to keep those icons of the food, like the escargots; those I'm never going to change, because people come for that. At the same time, we do a seasonal menu -- right now it's summer food from Provence, a little more earthy and mushroomy. We have a small kitchen, so we're keeping the menu as small, simple, and as consistent and good as we possibly can. We can't have 40 entrées on our menu. We wanted to concentrate on making our stocks. If you walk by here in the mornings, it smells like lobster, as we're making the seafood stock for our bouillabaisse. People think, 'It's Philippe, it's René, it's gonna be modern and new.' But we're focused on tradition, tradition, tradition."

Philippe dictates the format, executive chef René Herbeck devises the menus within those guidelines. Born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and French father, René (who'll be in charge of all three new Beltran restaurants) studied cooking in France through the classic French apprenticeship system. Before coming to San Diego, as a young sous-chef he was working at Oak Grill in London when it won a coveted Michelin star. Le Meridien Hotels, home to Oak Grill, granted him a two-year transfer to San Diego, where he was top toque at the legendary Marius (at the Coronado Le Meridien). After the hotel became a Marriott, he stayed in America and did a stint teaching at the C.I.A. in Hyde Park, New York. Many of you may remember his cooking from the ill-fated Twins in Encinitas. (As I learned chatting with fellow sippers at an Encinitas wine bar, North County locals loved his food and angrily blame the restaurant's businessman-owner for Twins' early demise.) He cooked at the Fontainebleau at the Westgate, and, starting while he was at Le Meridien, he and chef Amiko Gubbins were paired romantically and then professionally for several years at her Parallel 33. (She has since run away with the circus -- to cook for a rock star.)

"I liked Philippe's concept. It's not so stuffy," said Herbeck in his pleasant, gravelly baritone. "We focus on the food. When you come here, you don't need to mortgage your house.... We focus on the taste, less on the presentation. We try to make it simple and put everybody at ease. People don't have to worry about what fork to use." The chef de cuisine at Bleu Bohème is Beltran's longtime employee Baltazar Montero, who has followed his boss from restaurant to restaurant over many years, leaving Vagabond when Beltran did.

When I asked René why the menu concentrated on not merely traditional but overfamiliar French bourgeois--cuisine dishes, he flatteringly told me that few San Diegans were as culinary sophisticated as I am. (The glow lasted overnight, until I woke up thinking that Kensingtonians probably indulge from time to time at Laurel, Bertrand at Mr. A's, Milles Fleurs, etc. -- restaurants offering genuinely sophisticated French or French-California cooking.)

Hot Stuff: The annual Chef Celebration Dinner Series returns. Top local chefs cook superb five-course meals together to raise funds for a culinary scholarship program for local culinary workers eager to learn more at cooking schools. It benefits us all. Meals are $75 (before beverages, tax, tip); speaking as a veteran eater, they are spectacular. Contact the host restaurants: Savory (October 9), Thee Bungalow (October 16), Azul La Jolla (October 23), and Terra (October 30). Check www.chefcelebration.org for details.

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