By David Nelson
location: Westgate Hotel,
1055 Second Avenue, downtown San Diego
chef: Fabrice Hardel
The pianist wears white tie and tails. The soup bowl has a “décor” of overlapping pear slices surmounted by a glazed chestnut. Soup ever should be served this way, to a tune like “Always” and with the skill of a server who carefully ladles steaming veloute so as not to disturb the garnish.
“Veloute” means “velvet,” exactly the impression made upon the tongue by this cinnamon-spiced purée of earthy chestnuts and celery root, stock and bit of cream ($9). More silk than velvet upholsters this undeniably gorgeous room, which has been buffeted and bruised by changing tastes—and by its response to them—since it opened in 1970.
The principal restaurant of the European-style Westgate Hotel at times has seemed a relic, but not at present. Thirty-something chef Fabrice Hardel, Normandy born and bred, prepares a menu that smoothly marries classic and contemporary. The carpaccio of lightly smoked ahi ($14) is not the sort of appetizer you would have encountered at Le Fontainebleau in other days, but Hardel presents it confidently with an up-to-the-minute slaw of jicama and Chinese cabbage, and a nougat-like confection of sesame seeds. Roasted Colorado lamb rack ($37) is to be expected on this menu, but the accompanying polenta cake and goat cheese–stuffed zucchini blossom are welcome surprises.
Perhaps at the direction of hotel general manager Georg Hochfilzer, Hardel embraces such old-fashioned extravagances as a flambéed pepper steak ($36); when the captain strikes a match, the flames temporarily outshine the room’s trio of massive crystal chandeliers. No matter in what culinary camp you plant your feet, genuine Dover sole prepared à la meuniere is a rare dish. Floured, sautéed and drizzled with browned butter, lemon and parsley, the fish travels to the table on a cart, is quickly filleted by the server and presented moist and delicious ($38). Two-pound Maine lobsters (market price) are offered simply steamed, or in a timid version of lobster Thermidor that misses the boat by omitting the dry mustard that traditionally adds fire to the sauce.
The cooking grows more interesting with such contemporary creations as baked John Dory served with the complementary aromas of roasted baby fennel and star anise–scented bouillon ($28). Sage, ever the friend of delicate meats, joins capers in perfuming a light jus that moistens a sizable grilled veal chop ($38). And coconut, which rarely enters savory dishes outside of Indian cuisine, adds considerable interest—and even a bit of fun—to the mussel broth in which swim grilled Atlantic dorado and a garnish of Little Neck and razor clams ($29).
Salads dominatethe appetizer list and remind that this is Southern California. Caesar salad, now ubiquitous but formerly a specialty tossed tableside at upscale restaurants, remains special here ($18 for two). Only the hearts of romaine are used, and the result is architectural as well as flavorful. The Westgate salad, a sweet-bitter-musky toss of sliced pears, Belgian endive and Roquefort, is a more unusual choice, and a good one ($9). Otherwise, the salads are outshone by a succulent roasted squab breast with caramelized quince ($17), and a trio of foie gras preparations with roasted Mission figs ($18).
Those who find French restaurants stuffy may decide that Le Fontainebleau is not the destination, especially given the special-occasion prices. On the other hand, the experience entertains and can be theatrical, such as when the pianist plays “I’ve Got Rhythm” as a captain dances through the steps of flaming a copper skillet filled with crêpes Suzette ($24 for two).
Admit to a birthday and a huge, imitation Fabergé egg will be wheeled in, sparklers alight on top; the “egg” opens to reveal a special dessert. The room truly is beautiful, and impresses with details such as silver vases shaped like champagne glasses. The white and purple daisies that cluster in these look like floral ice cream sundaes.
Other than the crêpes, desserts cost $8. The province of pastry chef James Foran, they live up to the dishes that precede them. The best choices are those that are baked to order, such as a lemon soufflé with strawberries, cream, strawberry sorbet and a drizzle of basil syrup, and a warm chocolate-mocha cake that melts dreamily in the mouth.
Le Fontainebleau serves lunch Monday to Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday, in the Westgate Hotel at 1055 Second Avenue in San Diego. Reservations are suggested; telephone 619-557-3655.