514 Via de la Valle, Solana Beach
Can you judge a chef’s palate by a single dish if that dish represents how he cooks when he’s showing off for his peers? Before moving to San Diego, ten years ago I came down from San Francisco on a two-month freelance assignment, a cover story on “The 10 Hottest Chefs in San Diego.” New to town, I used the Zagat guide, tourist guides, and local publications to point me to the highest-reputed restaurants. Most useful of all was that year’s Chef Celebration dinner series (then running twice a week at Thee Bungalow). Each dinner presented one or two dishes each by four top local chefs. I attended nearly all of them, and when a chef indeed seemed “hot,” I followed up with a dinner at his or her restaurant.
Pamplemousse (French for “grapefruit”) is perennially one of Zagat’s most popular restaurants, and chef-owner Jeffrey Strauss participated in the first week’s Chef Celebration lineup. His contribution was an entrée of squab stuffed with foie gras and bacon, a trendy dish invented by some big-time Manhattan chef. I don’t know how it turned out in New York, but Strauss’s rendition was unforgettable: I found it vile. I love squab, foie gras, and bacon, but combined like that, I was shocked by how clunky and overstated it seemed, what a waste of great foodstuffs, compared to the subtler, more graceful and creative food I’d been eating up north. I made a risky lightning judgment that I probably just couldn’t like Strauss’s palate, and I dropped him from my list of “hot chef” contenders.
A couple of months later, when I was back home scribbling the feature story, both my predecessors at the Reader (then alternating weeks) reviewed Pamplemousse in turn. First came Max Nash’s scorching debunking. (This came as something of a relief, supporting my judgment.) The next week, Eleanor Widmer rode to the defense with another rave for her favorite restaurant — her third, I believe.
Now I’ve finally eaten at Pamplemousse (another “better late than never”). The occasion was Restaurant Week, which (at $40 per meal, rather than an average of $40 per entrée) made it affordable. Unlike most, Pamplemousse offered four (not three) choices per course, plus “supplemental” additions for sturdy surcharges, so I invited posse regular Sam and his charming neighbors Rebecca and John to help me eat. (The posse kindly covered the wines this time, which would have blown my expense budget for the month, leaving me fighting Tin Fork for burger joints — yeah, that steep.) Commendably, just about everything on the Restaurant Week menu was drawn from the regular menu and (aside from a Kobe Burger with truffled fries, normally $24) not even the cheapest dishes.
The restaurant resembles a French country inn/Paris bistro/art museum. The room was full of celebrants all evening, taking advantage of Restaurant Week: birthday parties, anniversaries, engagements, whatever. We were seated at a spacious banquette and celebrated the bread basket’s delightful miniature corn muffins, miniature chived soft rolls, and baguette slices with soft chive butter for a spread. “These small breads are so much more civilized than big hunks you have to tear apart,” said John.
My tablemates took to the velvety puréed Sugar Baby pumpkin soup topped with toasted pumpkin seeds, but I found it cloyingly sweet and so heavy it filled me up in three tablespoons. I longed for a waft of cream to diffuse its weight and intensity. More sweetness arrived in the form of candied pecans, mingling with intriguing mini-crescents of chopped Belgian endive, hearts of palm (which I’m not sure I ever found on the plate), a pouf of Gorgonzola, and baby spinach, all couched atop ultra-thin slices of silky cold-smoked salmon of extraordinary quality. Lacking my ancestral lox addiction, my tablemates weren’t impressed. Every element in the combination was tasty, but we all agreed they didn’t add up to a harmony.
We’ve been eating roast-beet salad with goat cheese for a full 36 years now, ever since Alice Waters popularized it at Chez Panisse. I would like to see it go away for a long while, while chefs invent brand-new starters. That said, Pamplemousse does as fine a version as anybody ever has, with toasted pine nuts and crisp-surfaced warm patties of goat cheese plus balsamic-dressed slim-sliced grilled artichoke, arugula, and thick slices of pickle-sweet multicolored beets. Cliché or not, it’s scrumptious enough to justify another 36 years’ worth of table-life, if only it weren’t as common as dirt.
Last and strangest appetizer: a single large lobster-filled “ravioli” with a delicate wrapper, topped with a few succulent slices of shiitake mushroom and garnished with skinny asparagus spears, deep-flavored roasted baby tomatoes, and a thin, transient underlay of ginger-soy beurre blanc. The plump pasta pillow was overstuffed, but the stuffing was something other than lobster claw or tail meat. Neither tender nor buttery, it was shreddy and coarse, its texture resembling canned crabmeat — commercial lobster knuckle-meat, perhaps? There are no lobster entrées on the regular menu, so obviously there are no good spare parts around to make a filling from fresh lobster. “Where’s the sauce for this?” asked Rebecca. “There’s not enough of it to taste — and this really needs a sauce!”
The disadvantage of Restaurant Week meals is that popular restaurants are slamming, and this one had a full house all evening. That may explain the surprising slipups in the execution of the entrées. On the other hand, Pamplemousse is often crowded, a tough reservation during holiday season, tourist season, and with every new edition of the Zagat guide. The kitchen should be used to throngs.
Rebecca is English and I’m not, but both our mothers (typical of that era) were hopeless cooks, neither of them thinking to wring some extra flavor from a salt shaker. As adults, we both cook ambitiously but salt minimally, and John’s accustomed to that by now. So as we were tasting entrées, a repeated melody went around the table: “Ooh, so much salt!”
The best main dish was a “supplemental” entrée ($20 extra) of game mixed grill, combining a juicy medium-rare venison chop au poivre with a quail and lightly house-smoked Muscovy duck breast. “This is remarkably flavorful venison,” said Rebecca. Indeed, it was richer tasting than the usual bland farm-raised Cervena deer favored by most local restaurants, but not as gamy as wild deer. It most resembled New Zealand farm-raised elk. Its surface was salty — but the quail suffered an overdose: this most forgiving of birds was tender and savory in a lemon-thyme marinade, but the skin was so heavily salted it stung our lips like chilis. The duck breast’s light, house-smoked flavor was intriguing — but the meat ranged from chewy to unchewable. (One of the two small chunks saved in my doggie bag would require a canine’s canines to tear apart — a thin layer of meat overlaying an impenetrable wad of gray connective tissue.)
The dish also brought a varied vegetable array (probably from local Valdivia Farms, the chef’s favorite): a little bundle of green beans tied by a chive, baby carrots, a roast hunk of celery root, and a modest pile of lacy sliced cabbage happily soaking up the savory au jus. There was also a heap of lean and grainy “truffled mashed potatoes,” made without butter or milk, as far as I could tell, but evidently relying on soi-disant truffle oils (offering no discernible truffle flavor — but then, most truffle-oil brands nowadays include little or no actual truffle, merely chemical imitation-truffle flavor). Next night, with the leftover mash, I tasted and inhaled extra carefully — snuffling like a Perigordian truffle-hunting hog — but still detected no hint of the precious fungi, merely a trace of some oily emollient to smooth the sludgy spuds. At least they didn’t tempt me to gobble empty carbs.
From fine venison to, well, the opposite... Beef short ribs “osso bucco style” braised in red wine offered only two flavors — flesh and fat. The top side of the bones had shreddy, greasy beef. Even after braising, the underside retained a thick, jiggly coating of unmelted fat. The neutral white beans acting as garnish (along with a few green beans) contributed as much contrast as the freckles on the face of the cow that yielded the beef. The combination screamed for some acidic garnish (e.g., real osso bucco’s citrus-peel gremolata, or tomatoes in the beans, Tuscan-style). “Doesn’t compare to Quarter Kitchen’s short ribs,” I reflected. “Or to that great version at George’s,” said Rebecca. “Or to my mom’s Korean short ribs,” said Sam.
Our waiter had raved about the prime rib of pork. “You know how so many chefs don’t know how to cook pork, and they serve it all dried out? Our chef does it completely tender, like velvet!” But “our chef” happened to be spending the evening schmoozing (rather loudly) with the people at the table behind my head. The line chef who roasted our pork was less sensitive or maybe didn’t bother with a meat thermometer. (The secret: roast to 130°F, remove from heat, let stand five minutes while plating and garnishing — zap, perfect pink!) The huge slab (a double rib-chop) was mainly white all through, with traces of pink in the lucky spots and near the bone. Given the meat’s pedigree, it was still relatively flavorful, and my tablemates could tolerate the doneness, less so the shower of salt. I tried a bite from near the outside, chewed it to a pill of sawdust, and discreetly removed it to my bread plate. A bite nearer the bone was edible — dry but tender. Officially, the pork came with a mustard sauce, which was imperceptible, plus good “caramelized vegetables” and more grainy truffle-oil mash.
More surprising yet was the desiccated miso-glazed mahi-mahi, salty from the glaze and dried out in the cooking, with nice bok choy and ginger-glazed baby carrots. Should we have specified the fish’s doneness, as we usually do in the Gaslamp to counter conventioneers’ tastes for bone-dry fish? We shouldn’t have to specify here at Pamplemousse, we all agreed. It would be almost insulting at a restaurant of this caliber. Insulting, perhaps, but apparently necessary. Rebecca was sorely tempted to send it back to the kitchen, but we were already too tired of eating to face a redo.
Desserts come with Restaurant Meal dinners, want ’em or not. Our waiter paid attention to my request to bring my espresso along with the sweets, and it was a good-enough espresso. In the past few years, when Jeffrey Strauss contributes to charity eat-a-thons (which he does quite a lot), he’s been contributing lavish dessert arrays, possibly indicating a change in his culinary interests toward the sweet end of dinner. And most of the desserts were very sweet, indeed. A bittersweet chocolate bombe with a caramel-cake center was worthy of any patisserie in Paris or Vienna, although none of us felt transported by it. Chocoholic Rebecca fell hard for the molten chocolate cake with raspberry compote, and the tart fruit did make a major contribution to the balance of flavors. Normally I love tarte tatin but didn’t love the pear version here, so syrupy-sweet it overwhelmed the fruit flavor. We all enjoyed a trio of sorbets, especially the sprightly key-lime version. Not one of us could guess what fruits went into the red or orange-colored sorbets, tasting mainly cold and sweet. We did suffer palate fatigue by then. Still, not a clue from the flavors?
Strauss is hugely generous (other chefs call him “the gentle giant”), contributing time, effort, and money to numerous charity events (much like the Cohns of Cohn Restaurant Group). That’s good karma, but karma is beside the point in evaluating a restaurant. Perhaps he’s playing Robin Hood, overcharging the North Coastal rich to help the poor, but looking at the regular menu prices, Robbin’ the Hood is more like it — particularly in these lean times when nearly all our top local restaurants have lowered prices or offer regular bargain meals. Pamplemousse’s cuisine is neither classic haute cuisine (e.g., with fresh truffles and real lobster, et al., in elaborate, labor-intensive dishes), nor is it particularly inventive cuisine that offers a perceptible chef’s signature — a personal style with distinct authorship of the dishes. Instead, for what is basically bistro cuisine (unevenly executed at that), prices average ten bucks higher than at El Bizcocho, approaching those of the very top chefs in Manhattan, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. There, world-famous names with Michelin stars spilling from their apron pockets devise thrilling new creations and demand flawless execution from their sous-chefs and line chefs. (I eat up the NY Times Wednesday food section religiously and am amazed by the affordability of so many serious restaurants there that would probably eclipse every restaurant here.)
You’ve already picked up the theme: Pamplemousse is merely a nice local bistro, one that’s outclassed in cooking by other local bistros (e.g., Cavaillon, Tapenade, Farmhouse, et al.), not to mention high-end local restaurants that offer more modest pricing for more precise and original cooking. “Very good” is a very good rating, but this chef and his many fans would likely expect much higher.
A few years ago, during a telephone interview with chef Strauss about that year’s Chef Celebration, he told me he was such good friends with Eleanor Widmer that he often accompanied her to dinner at other restaurants she was reviewing. Eleanor was hugely influential but not good at anonymity. Not only did she appear on TV, but after she enjoyed a dinner, she’d insist that the chef come out from the kitchen for a kiss. Back when she started reviewing at the Reader, quite likely a decent meal was worth a kiss — San Diego really was a culinary wasteland. Well, this is now: I don’t kiss chefs (except in print) or recruit them as restaurant escorts. And when it comes to the food at Pamplemousse, I’m with Max Nash. Thousands may love it to death, but I find it overrated and overpriced.
514 Via de la Valle, Solana Beach, 858-792-9090, pgrille.com.
HOURS: Lunch Friday only, 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; dinner nightly, 5:00 p.m.–closing (about 10:00 p.m., later on weekends or when busy).
PRICES: Appetizers, $18–$24 (sampler plate $39); soups, $13–$15; salads, $10–$21; entrées, $24–$45 (most around $40); desserts, $12; cheese plate, $15; weeknight happy-hour bar snacks menu, $8–$18.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: French-California bistro cuisine and grilled meats, garnishes of local-grown veggies. Huge wine list (mainly California and France) with many great bottlings, slim pickings under $50. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Smoked-salmon salad, roast beet and goat cheese salad, game mixed grill. Possible good bets: day-boat scallops, cowboy rib eye, vegetarian platter, panna cotta, happy-hour bar menu.
NEED TO KNOW: Many dishes heavily salted; desserts very sweet. One vegan entrée, plenty of veggie starters and sides. Rating based on Restaurant Week dinner, adjusted to compensate for extra pressures on kitchen from crowds.