2550 Fifth Avenue, 12th floor, Bankers Hill
A few months ago, some guy from some burg like Dubuque emailed the paper, asking which restaurants he should try during a few days’ visit here, price no object. Bertrand at Mr. A’s was one of my most emphatic recommendations: “This has the best view in the city, and it’s not a tourist trap — locals come here to celebrate any excuse they can think of. Good easygoing French food from a serious French chef, but if you don’t want dinner, at least have a drink on the wraparound patio to watch airplanes breeze by you at eye-level, then swoop down to land at Lindbergh Field. Skip this treat, and you haven’t experienced the San Diego that San Diegans love.”
That point was proven on a recent Monday night. Mondays are dead at most restaurants, especially during this recession. Not here: It was nearly a full house, and most diners were eating à la carte. In fact, we had to ask for the prix-fixe menu. Some of our neighbors were speaking Russian, maybe. Some were Zonies, maybe. (Probably none were Comic-Con conventioneers, as they didn’t look bluish or greenish or webbed.) Many seemed to be recession-proof locals just out for fun.
“I’ve been wanting to come here ever since it was renovated, what, ten years ago?” said Samurai Jim. That was when French-born restaurateur Bertrand Hug took over the former “continental cuisine” premises and turned the velvet-flocked Storyville bordello decor into a clean-limbed modern eatery. (“Hug” is pronounced “oog” with a tight Gallic smile: “Ewwg.”) The chefs here have been a line of classically trained French dudes — connected like a family tree of Biblical “begats” — who worked with or for each other at Coronado’s famed Marius Restaurant at Le Meridien Hotel (a Marriott since the year 2000) and then at Sally’s. Current chef Stéphane Voitzwinkler picked up the banner from previous head chef Fabrice Poigin (later at Laurel), of this same lineage.
Our own celebration excuse was that Jim had just won his black belt in swordsmanship. The cocktail list was tempting, but at $15 per drink it made more sense to start with a wine that would keep us hydrated through dinner, if the weenie three-ounce prix-fixe pours (you get two glasses for $12) ran out before the food did. Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc (a reasonable $50 here) was the tried-and-true answer. (On Mondays, you can BYO with free corkage. Don’t try it other nights. I’ll explain the baroque rules in an upcoming review when we visit Hug’s Mille Fleurs.)
After a basketful of good breads, first courses arrived quickly, highlighted by a velvety, creamy corn soup studded with sweet kernels, spiked by chopped chives and minced chervil, with a pure-comfort airy corn fritter in the center, ooh la la! Heaven to sip, hell to pass on to posse-mates. For my first prix-fixe quaff I chose a Prum Riesling out of curiosity. It was quite sweet, mouth filling, and went well with corn. Jim tried the excessively dry (“Refreshing!” he said) Pinot Grigio, and I wished I’d strong-armed him into ordering the more civilized Joseph Drouhin French White Burgundy instead.
Escargot de Bourgogne (snails in garlic butter) had very tender snail meats in an exceedingly mild sauce: Maybe it’s all the courtships happening at this restaurant, but it’s drastically light on garlic. A nice dish — too nice. Escargots speak of Burgundy, so Michelle’s Tantara Pinot Noir (from the same grape as red Bourgogne) should have been perfect — but it was too light and “nice” as well.
Mac and cheese is rich with black truffle bits, white truffle oil, and discreet streaks of invaluable spinach, lending darker character to the insouciant Comté cheese — sophisticated comfort food.
At a nearby table, a techie-looking dude (beard, specs, plaid shirt) seemed increasingly nervous over his dinner with a voluptuous black-haired, golden-skinned beauty in a strapless mini, resembling the gals in Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings. “Watch that table!” whispered Michelle. “He’s gonna propose tonight!”
Meanwhile, we were enjoying wonderfully professional service. If our waitress wasn’t nearby, we had only to whisper our needs to the comely buser, and they were fulfilled in seconds. No walkie-talkies on view — is telepathy one of the job requirements? In fact, our buser (looks aside) way outclassed the waitstaff skill level at most trendy new eateries in North Park.
Entrées swiftly followed. I started with pan-roasted sole with lobster mousse stuffing (also on the regular menu). The sole, lightly panéed, was perfectly cooked tender, the mousse a thin, subtle layer hidden in the center of the fillet, lightly sauced with a champagne and chives beurre blanc. Didn’t notice the advertised caviar. For that matter, I’d have liked more lobster mousse in the middle. I’m getting a little tired of playing “where’s Waldo” with the prime garnishes on everybody’s bargain dinners and the truffles on everybody’s truffled fries. Do it or don’t do it, but don’t say it if you’re not doing it enough for everybody to taste it.
Both of the other entrées were hearty braises (neither from the regular menu, although they should be), and both were wonderful. Lamb osso buco (shank) came with two links of irresistible Moroccan-style lamb sausage (merguez). Alongside were white flageolet beans, favas, and tiny blue Peruvian and white new potatoes — all a bit undercooked — plus a few vibrant caper berries (resembling big, sour, juicy capers), dark-flavored and pickly, brilliant against the faint fattiness of lamb cut from low-on-the-sheep. Even better were the fork-tender veal cheeks, gentle-flavored but deeply satisfying, topped with substantial slices of Parmesan for a jolt of sublimely funky aged-cheese flavor. Surrounding the cheek-meats were broccoli rabe, sautéed red peppers, and delicate puffs of potato mousseline (Tater Tots, minus browned-flour coating). With these, we drank the house pours of Cab (a bit tannic), Merlot (ultra-mild), and Tobin James “Ballistic” Zinfandel (just right).
Meanwhile, dessert arrived at the table of the nervous bearded guy: a large pastry with “Will You Marry Me Caroline?” written in chocolate syrup. Caroline blushed and giggled. Bearded guy pulled out shiny rock, bride-to-be buried her face in his shoulder, all surrounding tables applauded. (Hate to imagine: What if she wanted to say no?)
Before dessert, I headed for the balcony for a breather and to sneak a postprandial smoke (and an eye-filling unfiltered view of the view). Big kiss and “ewwg” to Monsieur Hug for being a Frenchman and not a Puritan about le tabac.
When I went back inside, the buser brought my fine espresso precisely (as requested) as the waitress delivered desserts. A white chocolate Chambord crème brûlée had a thick, crackly crust and a garnish of berries; the Chambord (black raspberry liqueur) added interest. A strawberry shortcake was topped with caramelized marshmallow fluff. (But òu sont les marshmallows d’antan? Even the whole ones don’t taste the same now that they’re made with HFCS in place of cane sugar. And the fluff? It actually hasn’t changed much since its invention nearly a century ago, though the current version does include corn syrup.) A triple chocolate dessert was splendid — three little multilayer pastries. One seemed to be a lemon cheesecake with a thin white chocolate glaze. Another reveled in dark bittersweet chocolate, and the third showcased not-too-sweet milk chocolate. Inside, at this restaurant, everything’s for your pleasure, everything and everyone spoils you. And it’s so sweet to be spoiled — especially for a bargain price!
I returned a few days later with Sam and his friend Jerry to check out the happy-hour grazes and patio/bar menu (the latter consisting mainly of the “happy” grazes for a few bucks more, plus extras at cut price from the à la carte appetizers). “Ooh, I have to bring my girlfriend here,” said Jerry, taking in the view from the balcony. We started with unidentified $6 vinous happy-hour objects — passable-not-great Chardonnay for Sam and me and an anonymous red for Jerry. Out in the wild, service was a little less perfect: one waitress apparently had to cover the whole balcony area and was running around frantically. Our first buser was so-so; another, later, was calm and smart.
These menus consist mainly of upscale pub-grub clichés, albeit well executed, with a few Frenchie variations. Almost everything is fried, battered, or breaded, to leave you feeling full but thoroughly buttered and greased. There are no clean, fresh choices such as ceviches or salads, even though the regular menu abounds in these starters. For instance, the niçoise, the baby iceberg and arugula salad and/or the heirloom tomato salad would be terrific alternatives to this phalanx of flour, fat, and fauna.
Our best graze had swordfish sliders on brioche, with tartar sauce, cornichons, and a pile of ethereal tempura red onions (the latter the outstanding taste of the evening). The fish was tender, the sweet brioche complementary. But slightly greasy fried spring rolls (with dips of golden peanut sauce and sweet-tart red sauce) sported a rich pork confit filling rather than lighter Asian-style seafood and crunchy vegetables. Good confit, not so good a context.
Croque Monsieur mini-sandwiches had thin layers of serious French ham and cheese swamped by heavy country bread with a ramekin of béarnaise sauce on the side. Brioche might be better here (given that this dish is the basis of America’s gooey white-bread Monte Cristo). These (and the Kobe sliders) both came with “our famous truffled fries.” (Actually famous?) They’re excellent slim, fresh-herbed fries. None of us tasted any truffle.
I used the béarnaise as a “shmear” for Kobe sliders, instead of the ketchup-mustard yin-yang on that plate. The sliders were plump little pillows, pink inside, served on mini-buns — yet somehow not fabulous. They tasted more like mini sirloin-burgers. Maybe Kobe sliders have outlived their moment. When frozen American-Kobe burgers first appeared in Trader Joe’s food case, they were astonishingly soft and fatty. (They vanished soon, like all TJ’s fabulosities.) Now that everybody’s doing Kobe sliders, they all taste like normal good beef. Either the meat has changed or the smaller size changes the meat.
Fried calamari were flawless, normal — excellent, boring. Best part were slabs of tempura fresh-fennel root. “I remember eating really great grilled calamari…” Jerry reminisced. There you have it: Frying turned squid into a fashionable fast food that’s outworn its welcome over 20 years, given the many other interesting, neglected possibilities the species offers.
When happy hour expired, we ordered a couple of patio-menu specialties. The char-cuterie plate ($14.50) included ethereal slivers of house-made chicken-liver mousse, along with excellent prosciutto, bresaola, mortadella, and something that looked like salami but must have been house-made salumi instead — tender, salty, delicious thin slices. But I was disappointed by a lobster “strudel” ($16) because it really was a strudel: a flaky, puff-pastry crust crammed with big chunks of none-too-tender lobster tail meat, swathed in melted butter, with incidental veggie bits. “Rich enough for you?” teased Sam. “Rich, but not the way I wanted,” I said. “I guess I envisioned a puff-pastry shell filled with lobster in a cream sauce. This is too dense. I’m mad for lobster, but with something more than just pastry and butter.”
Just then, the strangest thing happened: the soft-jazz Muzak on the sound system played an instrumental version of Charlie Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus.” Mingus wrote this furious musical outburst after Arkansas Governor Orville (or Orval) Faubus, in 1957, resisted the federal order to desegregate public schools by calling out the National Guard to physically bar nine African-American students from entering Little Rock High Central School. The lyrics start: “Name me someone who’s ridiculous — FAUBUS!” It was strange to hear even the melody of this subversive stuff in an upscale restaurant — I wondered if Hug had any idea of what his sound system was doing behind his back. But then, not that long ago, this same restaurant required jackets and ties.
Bertrand at Mister A’s
**** Excellent (See Need to Know)
2550 Fifth Avenue at Laurel, Banker’s Hill, 619-239-1377, bertrandatmisteras.com.
HOURS: Lunch weekdays 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; happy hours weekdays 2:30–6:00 p.m. Dinner weekdays from 5:30 p.m. — weekends from 5:00 — until closing (about 10:00 p.m.).
PRICES: Three-course prix-fixe dinner, $40, including two three-ounce wines for $12 more, Sunday–Tuesday. À la carte menu starters, $12–$19.50; entrées, $24.50 (burger)–$50 (made from Prime-grade Angus loin); most about $35. Desserts, $11.50. Happy-hour menu, $7 per graze, discounted generic beverages. Patio/bar grazes, $7–$16. Lunch dishes, $10–$30, special quick lunch, $20.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Easygoing French food with an American accent (or vice versa). Classic and creative cocktails; huge, serious wine list at standard markups, strong on French bottlings, wines by the glass about $15. Free corkage Mondays, otherwise high-risk sliding corkage rules.
PICK HITS: From prix-fixe: corn soup, veal cheeks, lamb. Happy-hour and patio menus: swordfish sliders, fries, charcuterie plate. À la carte best guesses: lobster/crab leg; duck confit and breast; grilled Kobe rib-eye with béarnaise sauce.
NEED TO KNOW: Star rating applies to $40 prix-fixe only, not to à la carte menu or bar menus. Ask for weeknight prix-fixe menu if not provided automatically. A few shallow stairs to dining room and to patio; staff will help with wheelchair access. Validated parking $7.50 (entry on Fourth Avenue). Heated patio with super views, smoking okay at northwest end. Business-casual dress, all hours and venues. Reserve for dinner, not needed for happy hour.