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Mille Fleurs

6009 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe

What a difference nine years makes, just 80,000 little hours. Over those years, Mille Fleurs has mellowed markedly, adapting to leaner times. This major mood change takes the restaurant out of the big-occasion realm of celebs and debs and plutocrats and opens it to regular foodies looking for a delicious night out. And the food (served in a lovely country setting) is certainly worth foodie attention — including the three-course $40 prix fixe.

When last I ate here in 2000, the food was more than fine, but my fellow diners left a faintly bitter aftertaste. All the older women had surgically converted to Anna Mae Wong dragon ladies with eyes pointing to their hairlines, while the young ones sported Anna Nicole Smith torpedo implants (bombs away!). Many flaunted great gleaming rocks for a midweek dinner at their country-style neighborhood restaurant. A Hollywood type in a charcoal cashmere turtleneck presented his little cupcake with a diamond tennis necklace; she put it on and ran squealing through the rooms, showing it off. I wore my best silk and a heavy Zuni petit-point turquoise necklace, but covert glances from a table opposite telegraphed: “Mere stones! No ice, no facelift? Tsk tsk, no belong here.”

Apparently that’s over — whew — at least on weeknights. In those days, the menu was upscale Continental haute cuisine — “Euro,” but mainly French. Now, there is not only an affordable prix fixe but also a new “bistro menu,” featuring less flamboyant French bourgeois cuisine, dishes that you might find in middle-class restaurants in the provinces (or Paris). The host (although we didn’t see him on a Monday) is now owner Bertrand Hug’s handsome son Julien, locally famed in gossip columns as an “eligible bachelor.” And the crowd vibes are different, too. Freed from suits and Manolo stilts, they turn sweet.

My posse and I went on a no-corkage Monday night to try out the bargain prix fixe plus a few à la carte dishes, bringing a couple of good French wines from my cellar. (Well, closet.) Most of our immediate neighbors seemed to be enjoying comfortable retirements, wearing comfortable clothing (men in long-sleeve plaid shirts, women in sensible shoes, nice pantsuits, costume jewelry). And the natives were friendly. As we sat down, Lynne set our shopping bag of wines on the floor with a resounding clank. “Did you drop an earring?” teased Ben. “That must be some earring!” laughed the lively lady at the nearest table. Other patrons were equally gentle — many minuscule acts of kindness. This time, I felt welcomed, included. Meanwhile, on the garden patio, one table was occupied by a slightly disreputable-looking male foursome: leading the pack of three unshaven guys in ball caps was a hatless, sexy-looking French chef whom I couldn’t quite identify — enjoying their Monday night off by eating together at another French restaurant.

The joy of no-corkage night is that you can bring good wines cellared back when you were flush, to enjoy with professional cooking that does them justice, leaving budgetary freedom to choose your foods: for instance, it was still affordable for three of us to order the prix fixe and one to eat à la carte. The à la carte two courses also totaled $40, and we had plenty of desserts from the prix fixe to share.

But you don’t want to risk corkage prices on other nights, due to owner Bertrand Hug’s painful rules (also in effect for Bertrand at Mr. A’s): if you bring a wine that’s already on the wine list — and the list is vast, so if it’s a good bottle, the risk is high — corkage is half the restaurant’s normal charge, bringing it to approximately current retail price. Example: years ago I gambled on some ’82 Lynch-Bages “futures” for about $60 a bottle. They currently retail for $240. If they’re on the wine list, they’ll probably cost double current retail price, e.g., about $480 per bottle, hence $240 corkage. So I’d be paying $300 (corkage price plus what I originally paid) to drink the wine I’ve cellared and aged for 26 years. Say, I wonder what the corkage is for “two-buck Chuck” — we know that one isn’t on the list. (Don’t even think about it.)

Okay, so when do we eat? This leisurely intro gives you a real-life idea of Mille Fleurs’ pacing. They don’t rush you at all. I don’t think you can rush them, short of announcing a plane to catch or an early-morning makeup call in Burbank. The charming maitre d’, Marco (accent sounds French, but he’s Serbian), dealt rapidly with the wines, opening and pouring our already-chilled Meursault and decanting the young fifth-growth Bordeaux that needed to breathe. Then came bread and water, and, at all deliberate speed, the menu. Another while passed before our order was taken. We had plenty of time to admire the charming French-country-inn decor, with nooks and rooms and crannies and window views of the cute village-style main street of rarefied Rancho Santa Fe. A lot more “view” happens en route. Don’t believe the website; it’s not five minutes from I-5. And there’s a curvy two-lane country road to negotiate. It’s worth an early arrival to enjoy the scenery before sunset.

The “amuse” was a shot glass of fresh green-tomato “soup” — sharp, vibrant but not sour, with bits of multicolored tomatoes, herbs, and avocado. We played guessing games about the liquid. Best guess: “tomato water,” saved and strained from the de-seeding process. However made, it was riveting.

The prix fixe offers three choices each for appetizers and entrées, two choices for dessert. All choices are drawn from the regular menus (which change daily with the seasonal produce), so this is not some dreary economy-fare spread. The star of our starters was a salad — ripe red and green Chino Farms tomato with grilled eggplant, chevre, basil, and a great olive-oil dressing. It’s the very essence of summer in San Diego, a reason to live here.

Also rewarding: an intense mushroom soup with dry sherry topped with a mandalic moiré pattern of light cream and parsley pesto. Every spoonful brought up thin mushroom slices — not button mushrooms, although we couldn’t guess the species. Whatever they were, they tasted pretty wild.

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