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The Westgate Room

Westgate Hotel, 1055 Second Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Let’s have one more chorus of “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” The hellish economy is kickin’ out the jams in the restaurant biz, especially in upscale hotel restaurants that locals tend to overlook, thinking they’re too posh or snobby. But the new Westgate Room is NOT the hotel’s stuffy old upstairs Le Fontainebleau (so stiflingly ornate, even Marie Antoinette might have fled to play with her sheep).

While Le Fontainebleau is still used for Sunday brunches and private parties, the primary action has shifted to the vast new street-floor Westgate Room, which replaces the former casual-elegant Westgate Café. The aim of the change, according to chef Fabrice Hardel, was to bring upstairs “fine-dining” food quality downstairs to a less formal, “ordinary dining” venue, while maintaining the same reasonable price structure as at the café.

With windows to the street along one wall, the handsome new dining room indeed feels like a safer place for people who love good food, not historic fancies. This would be a great place to take visitors for a non-bankrupting dinner splurge, but you don’t need Aunt Cora from Peoria as an excuse — just treat your own selves. Our dishes ranged from very good to thrilling. The restaurant was nearly empty during the dead week leading up to Thanksgiving, but it’s a popular breakfast and lunch destination, often jamming at dinnertime when there are shows at the Curran and other nearby cultural milieus.

We gathered in the bar for happy hour, old friends Samurai Jim and Michelle and new friend musician “Emmy” (short for her initials, M.E.). I’d just come from a doctor visit and on general principles needed a stiff drink. The denlike bar is not a “creative mixology” hot spot but a classicist site. “What’s your best cocktail?” I asked. The tall, dark bartender thought for a minute. “The peach Cosmo,” he said in a slightly downscale English accent (better than Cockney, well short of Etonian). The drink hit the spot — fresh, subtly fruity, and big. Just what the doctor didn’t order.

The bartender escorted us a few steps into the Westgate Room and introduced our server, who seated us. In addition to the wall of windows, the dining room sports huge crystal chandeliers, Frenchy floral paintings, and plenty of banquettes, though we preferred the comfortable, well-cushioned wooden chairs of a roomy four-top.

The chef’s amuse, served on warm plates, offered a bit of rare, delicious duck breast with mysterious sweet ’n’ tangy garnishes. Facing a pricey wine list, I ordered a reliable, unexciting Chardonnay for our first course, but luckily, it was all gone. The sommelier, with our permission, substituted a Chateau St. Jean. And my, how little Jeannie has grown up since I last sipped a bottle, years ago, when she was a top-shelf supermarket wannabe! It smelled like honey and tasted like liquid gold — not sweet, but rich and unctuous — sustained on shapely glycerin legs like a Betty Grable pinup. For the second round, I was tempted by a French Viognier and a South African Chenin, but the sommelier assured me neither was as spectacular. Begone, dull care! — the right wine at a passable price ($40), a great quaff if you love your Chards rich, plump, and flirty.

We were talking about “molecular gastronomy” when our appetizers arrived. “Now that El Biz’s chef has left, is there any place to get it in San Diego?” Michelle asked. “Look on your plate,” I said. She was the first to sample the “Big Eye Yellow Fin Ahi Tuna Sashimi,” with mango pearls, soy sauce cubes, and lime foam.

For the past two years, chef Fabrice Hardel has been discreetly experimenting with techniques pioneered by wild-man chef Ferrán Adrià in Barcelona, ever since some of Adrià’s favored chemicals have become available in the U.S. “It’s quite fun,” Hardel says. “There are so many things you can do with molecular gastronomy. It’s like going back to school.” The cilantro-flavored foam on this dish comes in a tall, narrow glass, bubbly at the top, like a jade-green witch-potion to poison a fairy-tale princess. You can pour it over everything or just use it for dipping. Center of the plate are slices of exquisite tuna sashimi — fish velvet. Next to them is a porcelain Chinese tablespoon containing tiny beads of fresh mango (another complex miracle of modern gastro- chemistry). There are fresh local greens in the center and, along the edge, a few small, trembly ebony “soy sauce cubes,” an intense reduction of soy, fish stock, and mirin (Japanese cooking wine) gelatinized in agar. Brilliant and pure fun. All evening, Samurai Jim (a nascent creative cook) kept coming up with ideas for using the cubes as a “shock and awe” element in a variety of dishes. Inspired food is, well, inspiring.

The creamy seafood chowder (scallops, clams, tiger shrimp, lobster, Parmesan, and thin-sliced black summer truffles), served with an airy, puffed vertical poppy-seed cracker (like some playful god’s heavenly breadstick), was endlessly interesting and, despite its richness, demolished at record speed.

“Bergundy Escargot” was a surprise, a whimsical cartoon restatement of the garlic-heavy Burgundian classic. It offered five deep-fried dim-sum wrappers, each containing a snail with a touch of Brie cheese, braised endive, pancetta, and parsley oil, with a shimmy of subtle garlic cream slicking the plate beneath them — all the ingredients of the classic, totally changed. You wouldn’t know they were snails inside, just some sort of plushy tastiness.

Grilled squab and veal sweetbread is a great idea, since squab is a gamey, liverish-tasting all-dark fowl, while sweetbreads (the thymus gland) are offal, with their own faintly intimate scent. It’s a great combo for culinary adventurers. The accompaniment is a miniature Granny Smith Apple tarte tatin, along with red currants and a few braised chestnuts. But imperfect execution interfered that evening: the squab, a lean bird, was a tad overcooked and dry, compromising the composition.

Last time I ate at Fontaine-bleau, in 2002, that very night the management and head chef decided to part ways forever. The executive sous-chef, 27-year-old Fabrice Hardel (cooking professionally since age 15, in the French apprenticeship system), had been doing most of the heavy lifting since joining the staff a year earlier, so he asked for a tryout as top toque, got it, and passed his trial period. Hardel hails from Normandy, on France’s North Atlantic coast, where fish is the favorite dish. “It was just seafood, seafood, seafood,” he says. “My neighbor was a fisherman, and he’d stop at the door and say, ‘Hey, I got too many scallops, you want some scallops?’ and my parents would say, ‘Yeh, for sure!’ ” Fabrice once went out on a local scallop boat for three days, a total misery of seasickness, and he was astonished at the fishermen’s 20-hour days.

He started his apprenticeship at a local restaurant and went on to the Culinary Institute in Caen, which also stressed seafood cookery, then served a journeyman period at distinguished restaurants in France, Germany, and Luxembourg. He moved to the U.S. to work under chef Pierre Chambrin at the private St. Louis Club — subsequently the St. Louis Ritz-Carlton — before coming to San Diego. Now 36, he runs marathons for fun.

The menu hints that Hardel is free to create but also must maintain a few old comforts for old customers. (The Fontainebleau, way back when, was populated by blue-haired charity-circuit ladies in expensive pastel polyester skirt-suits from Saks. I imagine they’re still hidden in some closet, emerging for Sunday brunches. The ladies, that is, not the suits.) The entrée menu maintains a balance between the fresh maritime creations the chef enjoys cooking and old-style “hotel restaurant classics,” such as steaks, chops, and (on the piscine side) Atlantic Dover Sole with Beurre Meunière, which was slightly overcooked and boring — I just don’t get what’s so great about it.

Vastly better, the sesame-crusted Pacific sea bass was an extraordinary dish (yes, five stars’ worth) that had us all wondering what the chef had done to produce such unearthly tender flesh. (It’s lightly seared in a touch of olive oil on one side only in a nonstick skillet, then finished off in the oven. The topside stays pure white.) The black sesame seeds were not a crust after all (that would be boring, ordinary), but a light nutty scattering over a golden sauce of subtly curried roasted fennel, stock, and mirin, puréed and fine-strained to the texture of a silky mousseline. Next to the fish was a curl of “sea urchin emulsion” — not some disappointing little drip of liquid as we feared, but a slippery, ethereal semisolid (it’s got shallots, reduced sake, a bit of cream made into a sort of beurre blanc, but mainly lots of uni), allowing full savoring of the sneaky maritime sexiness of this species. Putting an earthy crown on this creation: a separate mound of semi-crisp julienned Napa cabbage, its pale jade shreds mingling with salty, black-green hijiki “sea-beans” — something crunchy and fun for your palate.

Another surprise came with the Day Boat Scallop Cannelloni (just $20!). It’s not a stuffed pasta shell with scallops inside, but a dark, tropical lotus pond, with dreamy soft slices of sweet Maine day-boat scallops floating over Burgundy black truffle coins and truffled Vermouth sauce. (These were gentle summer truffles, the texture of soft parsnip slices, but we ate a week too soon: through December, Fabrice is bringing in genuine black winter truffles from France — the precious of precious!) The pasta? It’s served on the side, thin cigars filled with a firm mousse of chopped scallops and pesto.

Meaty fare is more conservative and less inspired. A vast veal chop, fed on genuine organic cow’s milk (albeit not its very own mom’s), doesn’t taste like bovine Simulac, but it’s still just a hunk of nicely done meat, despite fun garnishes of butternut squash mousseline and baby chanterelle mushrooms. Prime beef tenderloin (which we didn’t try) is at least partly grass-fed and was a nostalgic temptation with garnishes that included port wine caviar (i.e., “caviar” micro-gastronomically made from port) and Rossini sauce. You may also want to consider Colorado lamb chop with Provençale garnishes of olives, tomato, fava beans, and panisse, chickpea fritters.

Our server was sweeter than the berries, quiet, exuding neither pomp nor subservience but the kindest hospitality. Laotian, he’s been here in the U.S. for 35 years, much of that working at the Westgate. We talked about the lack of good Laotian restaurants in San Diego — the similarities of Lao food to Issan Thai food.

French-trained pastry chef Sylvain Haage (whom Fabrice stole from Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s resort outpost in Bora-Bora) does the sweets. His crème fraîche cheesecake (no cheese in it) is rich but ethereal, with a topknot of electrically tart citric sorbet to cut the not-excessive sweetness. A coconut parfait resembled a coconut meringue-marshmallow, soft and quite sweet. Jim opted for a comforting coffee drink with vanilla-flavored booze. My espresso was hot, rich, with the proper crema foam on top.

The thing about hotel restaurants is that even if they’re not quite as chummy as upper-midscale neighborhood places, plutocratic room-rates subsidize the ingredients and skilled European staffs that the “nabes” can’t afford: in-house guests pay for much of your dinner. Prices and dress-styles have come way down. Clean, decent clothes and sensible shoes will do on weeknights; the celebs have gone back to L.A.

With a “free entrée with each paid entrée” coupon (from that slick coupon magazine in the mailbox; it probably will show up again in the next issue), we ended up paying less than for a mediocre meal at a trendy “Frenchie joint” uptown. (Food came to $34 each.) Without coupon, figure about $12 more per person, given less spendy ordering. Sure, you lose the fun local-bar scene; instead you get food so superior, it’s scarcely on the same planet. Enjoy both if you can afford them, but otherwise — as those old-time carnival barkers used to say — “Ya pays yer money, ya takes yer choice.”

Local Chef Cookbooks
Cookbooks make lavish gifts when well matched to the recipient. Two local restaurant chefs and a local cookbook author all have new books out for the season.

Bernard Guillas, the longtime executive chef at the Marine Room, and his chef de cuisine, Ron Oliver, share recipes gathered during their worldwide travels in Flying Pans: Two Chefs, One World. It looks gorgeous, and for Marine Room fans yearning to reproduce the spectacular cooking, it’d be just the thing. (I wouldn’t give it to a rank beginner.) Order online at twochefsoneworld.com for $34.99. Free shipping, and book autographed by both chefs if ordered by December 15.

The latest from Su-Mei Yu, owner-chef of Saffron on India Street, is The Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living. It’s based on Asian health principles, the four elements of earth, fire, wind, and water (which are you?), and eating according to your own element. Again, probably not for total neophytes, but ambitious cooks who’ve been trying their hands at Thai are likely to welcome it. It lists for $47, but online (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) it’s under $25.

Local food writer Kitty Morse (well known for her Moroccan cookbooks) offers a thoroughly revised second edition of her 1999 Biblical Feast: Ancient Mediterranean Flavors for Today’s Table, featuring 50 easy recipes for foods mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, along with discussions of the history of the ingredients, a treat for amateur food scholars. Available online at abiblicalfeast.com and at local bookstores for $18.95.

The Westgate Room

  • 4 stars
  • (Excellent)

Westgate Hotel, 1055 Second Avenue (Broadway), downtown, 619-238-1818.
HOURS: Daily, breakfast and lunch 6:30 a.m.–4:00 p.m., dinner 5:00–9:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $8–$15; entrées, $18–$37; desserts, $8–$10.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: French-California cuisine ranging from standard classics to fusion-y surprises with ultra-modern techniques. Global wine list of great depth, few under $45, but some great bargains on mature reds (e.g., Mouton, Heitz).
PICK HITS: Big-eye tuna sashimi; seafood chowder; sesame-crusted Pacific sea bass; Day Boat Scallop Cannelloni; crème fraîche cheesecake. Other good bets: smoked Thai snapper, soy-glazed King salmon, possibly Prime beef tenderloin with Rossini sauce.
NEED TO KNOW: Ornate but not excessively formal room, business-casual dress. Validated valet parking ($3). One lacto-vegetarian entrée; hog heaven for seafood-lovers. Superb service. Not that spendy for the quality.

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