Steak tartare is the unexpected star at Cafe La Rue
Lord. Trying to concentrate. Ten percent, double it, aargh! Sixteen bucks. And that’s just the tip. Total for this lunch, $105.97.
I try not to let it show as I usher the two ladies out. I’m already composing my rent’s-gonna-be-late letter to the landlady. “Due to unforeseen circumstances…”
It started off innocently enough. Me ’n’ Carla wanted to thank her bud Mary Beth, who’s been driving us around all day. Like, take her out for a bite.
“Bedford,” Carla says. “What was that French place you told us about? In the pink hotel.”
1132 Prospect Street, La Jolla, CA
“Oh, yes,” says Mary Beth. “Café La Rue. Always wanted to go there. Used to be the Whaling Bar. Movie-star hangout. I can get you there.”
Cafe La Rue is La Valencia's legendary streetside cafe, once known as the Whaling Bar.
She’s driving. Couple of minutes later, bingo. We’re on the sidewalk outside La Valencia, the big “pink lady” of La Jolla.
I was here a year or two back. Except that was strictly happy hour. Blabbed too much to Carla. Name-dropped. How Raymond Chandler (Farewell, My Lovely and a zillion other noir classics) made this joint famous by getting drunk here most nights. Along with his friends like Gregory Peck.
“Oh, this is great,” says Carla. We’re sitting at a pink marble table. Murals of Paris around us, but we’re heads down in the menus. I keep trying to point to “the happy hour” section. But Carla’s telling Mary Beth, “You know what this place makes me feel like? Steak and pommes frites.”
“Hmm,” says Mary Beth. “I’m dieting. Gotta be fish for me.”
My short-rib sliders, three bucks each
Uh, hello! These aren’t on the happy-hour menu, ladies! There’s only six items on happy hour. Short rib sliders, $3. Okay, that’s a deal...except, no, that’s $3 each. Not the row of three you usually get. Then waffle chips, $5; soft pretzel bites, $6. (People actually buy pretzels?) Then a “seasonal bruschetta” for $7, charred steak tartare for $8, and a spinach “sunchoke” dip for $8 (turns out sunchoke’s a Jerusalem artichoke).
But Carla’s eyes are elsewhere. “Oh, yes! Here it is. Steak frites. Uh, darling. Could we for once just bust out of happy hour?
The brilliant salad that came with Mary Beth's salad
“Oh, yes!” says Mary Beth. “My favorite! ‘Local steelhead salmon.’ Local fish. I approve of local, don’t you, Carla?”
“And local, organic meat, looks like, too,” says Carla. “Hey, we’re helping the earth. You’re not against that...are you, Ed?”
It’s a conspiracy.
I check the main menu. Oh, man. Steak frites, 21.5. Salmon, 24.
“And what about you, sweetie-puss?” purrs Carla. “Just let go a bit. Seize the moment. Carpe momentum!”
The gals agree to get the flatbread du jour: smoked chicken.
“Ooh, look,” says Mary Beth. “Appetizers. They have dishes of the day. See? Quiche, crêpes, flatbread, fish. Why don’t we split a flatbread? Right, Carla?”
“Well, let’s see what the flatbread du jour is,” says Carla. She calls over the waitress, Catherine. Catherine says it’s smoked chicken. Costs $11.
“Let’s go for it,” Mary Beth says. “I’m paying for my meal.”
“No way, girlfriend,” says Carla.
Mary Beth sighs.
“And for entrée?” says Catherine.
La Rue's steak: big and bold, not that tender
“Steak frites,” says Carla.
“Salmon,” says Mary Beth.
“And you, sir?”
Me? Try to hold to two of those happy-hour sliders ($6), and then I get infected by these gals. Ask for the $8 happy-hour charred steak tartare.
“And something to drink?” asks Catherine.
Carla has iced tea ($4), Mary Beth goes for the house red ($5, happy-hour price), and I ask for a strong coffee ($4). Got work tonight.
While we’re waiting I can’t stop adding up what’s gone down already. Man, 21, 24, 11, 4, 4, 5, 6, 8. Already $80-something. Can feel panic rising in the craw.
Natch, the food is a great soother. The flatbread’s smoked chicken and pancetta (an Italian pork-belly bacon), plus lots of melted and smoked gouda cheese, some kinda delicious soft peppercorns, and...is that pesto aioli? Whatever, it’s a totally great combo. I try not to look at Mary Beth’s wine. That would go so-o good with this.
Carla's steak and frites
“Oh, yes,” Carla’s saying when they bring out her steak frites. It’s on a big plank of wood, with a pile of French-style thin-cut frites and a salad of iceberg lettuce, red and yellow pepper strips, red onion, tomatoes, and lots of blue-cheese crumbles. And two major chunks of meat. Carla gives me a bite. Beautiful, but not totally tender, and the peppercorn sauce is nice, but maybe a bit salty. On the other hand, what do I know? Cordon Bleu–trained I ain’t.
Mary Beth's salmon. Unexpectedly lush.
Mary Beth’s salmon? Delish, for a fish. I wish I could love fish more. But then the bite she gives me is totally intriguing. It has an edamame purée that somehow gives it an interesting tang. But more than that, the salad includes — get this — pickled blackberries and yuzu, the Japanese lemon. They’ve put all sorts of strange things into this salad. It’s like they give you an exotic backup just in case the slab of salmon is too bland.
My sliders are bigger than I expected, and a sexy mix of beef, caramelized onions, gruyere, and mustard aioli.
But, actually, the star is the steak tartare. For starters, it comes on a wide plate with a little bowl set into the middle. Thin toast sits on the ridge around it. The meat’s been, like, tsst! Tsst! Seared, but most of the little chunks of beef are raw. Which is fine. Because the flavors of mustard seed, cornichon (gherkin, pickled small cucumbers), egg yolk, and green peppercorns, along with blobs of cream, turn it into a concentrated little umami feast of flavor bursts, new surprises in every mouthful.
By the time we get out of there, we’re totally stuffed. Carla’s happy. I’ve gone from zero to hero. And the only problem (apart from rent): I might get a taste for all this rich living.
1132 Prospect Street, La Jolla, CA
Prices: Happy-hour items include short-rib sliders, $3 each; waffle chips, $5; soft pretzel bites, $6; seasonal bruschetta, $7; charred steak tartare, $8; spinach-sunchoke dip, $8. Regular items include steak frites, $21; salmon entrée, $24; chicken liver pâté, $10.50; salade Niçoise, $17; potato leek soup, $8; smoked-chicken flatbread, $11
Nearest Bus Stops: At Silverado and Herschel avenues