Bleu Bohème & Avenue 5
location > 4090 Adams Avenue
phone > 619-255-4167
chef > René Herbeck
location > 2760 Fifth Avenue, Suite 100
phone > 619-542-0394
chef > Colin MacLaggan
A VOYAGER SKILLED IN THE WAYS of contending, restaurateur Philippe Beltran moves frequently but carries little baggage——although he does lug around memories of a childhood spent on the tougher side of Montparnasse, the famously “artsy” neighborhood on the Left Bank of Paris.
“When I grew up, it was a neighborhood of immigrants,” says Beltran. “It wasn’t exactly poor, but everyone had to work very hard.” Home was on Rue Fermat, a block-long connector between Rue Daguerre (ever heard of daguerrotypes?) and Rue Froidevaux, the street that borders the unlovely southern edge of the Montparnasse cemetery.
“Every day on the way to and from school, I walked by Café Bleu, which I thought was a clever name,” continues Beltran. “I like the color blue very much.” And since to lead la vie bohème demands that one be a wanderer, a traveler and even a vagabond, Beltran named his newest eatery Bleu Bohème to encapsulate his history.
Café Bleu occupied a corner location, and Bleu Bohème comfortably rules the corner framed by Adams Avenue and Kensington Drive. It’s a fine situation in the heart of charming Kensington, and if Beltran possessed any skill with the javelin, he might spend quiet moments launching baguettes diagonally down the block at the marquee of the Ken Theater. Not that Blue Bohème encounters many lulls in business; it serves both lunch and dinner daily and has been a huge hit since opening in midsummer.
René Herbeck, one of San Diego’s finest chefs (this magazine annually named him “Best Chef” in the 1990s, when he cooked at what was then Le Meridien Coronado), writes affordable, intelligent menus that deserve much credit for the success fou of Bleu Bohème. At dinner, the two pages are titled “La Tradition” and “La Saison”——traditional French fare that might be eaten at any time, and familiar French dishes that are more seasonal in nature.
“La Tradition” kicks off with classic snails baked in parslied garlic butter ($7.50), continues with a fragrant, utterly convincing onion soup served bubbling in a deep, Gruyère-crowned crock ($7.50) and goes on to old favorites like Marseilles-style bouillabaisse ($19.50) and New York steak with green peppercorn sauce ($22.50). The slowly braised coq au vin ($16.50), garnished with button mushrooms, caramelized pearl onions and bacon batons, tastes wonderfully like the dish every true disciple of Julia Child has mastered.
Also from the “Tradition” menu, the moules marinieres ($15.50) makes a sizable solo meal or serves several as a communal starter. Messy and engaging——like spaghetti, steamed mussels demand undivided attention——the shellfish are heaped in a vast white bowl that brims with mussel-scented broth. Rouille, the sun-colored saffron mayonnaise that is a Beltran signature (pots of it accompanied crusty bread at several former ventures), makes a dip for the plump mussels and the side of crisp, herb-sprinkled frites, or shoestring potatoes.
It’s debatable how many “La Saison” selections truly are seasonal, but those items sampled have been quite nice, notably a mountain of fried squid rings ($7.50) served with rouille and tangy homemade tartar sauce (that tartar sauce is a French sauce might astonish fish stick fanciers) and an impressive halibut fillet served over a delicious bed of sautéed crushed potatoes ($18.50). Presented in a colorful tableau that surrounds the sizable chunk of fish with bundles of chlorophyll-green broccolini and crimson chopped tomatoes, the fish is nicely flavored with Niçoise olives and shallots. (When sampled, it required salt but was otherwise perfect.)
Peppery chicken, roasted Basque-style in a clay pot ($16.50), is lovely, as are homemade ravioli filled with forest mushrooms ($14.50). Bargain-hunters scurry to Kensington at lunchtime for the $12.50 delectable platters of steak, French fries and salad. Among desserts, the perfect crème brûlée ($6.50) considerably surpasses the undistinguished apple tart ($7.50).
Beltran formerly favored cluttered restaurant interiors, which makes the Bleu Bohème decor seem terrifically, wildly, tempestuously calm. Rock wraps around the back wall, above a banquette upholstered in suede-like fabric and under a ceiling painted a darksome shade of plum or chocolate; it’s difficult to tell in the light of the white tapers that rise elegantly from silver candlesticks. The lighting might make for romance, but when the room is full of happy people, the noise rivals the Montparnasse Metro station. The front room provides seating for bar patrons, private parties and improvident types who wander in without reservations. Do call ahead.
Bleu Bohème serves lunch and dinner daily at 4090 Adams Avenue. Reservations suggested; 619-255-4167.
WHEN LIPS KISSED OFF Fifth Avenue and moved to North Park, it left behind the perfect location for a restaurant like Avenue 5, which fits comfortably between the upscale eateries clustered a few blocks south at Laurel Street and the casual haunts up the road in Hillcrest. Chef/proprietor Colin MacLaggan is supported in the dining room by longtime chum and Tapenade alumnus Nicolas Carbonne, who keeps the service humming smoothly. An uptown look (a brick back wall, black-and-white photos of tables set for dinner, hanging light fixtures swathed in upside-down pyramids of cloth) complements the friendly neighborhood mood. Avenue 5 caught on rather quickly after its August opening, and the bar attracts both martini fans and solo diners.
Price has become critical in San Diego, since so many places are beyond the means of ordinary mortals. Avenue 5 offers dinner entrées priced in the low to mid-20s, and nightly specials like half-price bottles of wine on Wednesdays and half-price martinis on Saturdays. The bar and Happy Hour menus are attractive and budget-friendly.
French-contemporary in tone, the menu offers solid starters like wild-mushroom tortellini paired with champagne grapes and grilled corn in Madeira-brightened broth ($9) and a crispy, meaty crab cake topped with crunchy tobiko caviar and a hot kiss of wasabi ($10). Kudos also go to entrées such as big seared scallops served on Chardonnay-poached pear risotto ($26), braised pork belly with potato gnocchi and grilled figs ($22) and prosciutto-wrapped devil fish with sherry sauce ($24). Desserts ($7), all made on the premises, include a Grand Marnier–flavored crème brûlée touched with chocolate, and a baked “fromage blanc” (a fresh white cheese) with caramelized pears.
Avenue 5 serves dinner Tuesday-Sunday and lunch Tuesday-Friday at 2760 Fifth Avenue, Suite 100, San Diego. Reservations suggested; 619-542-0394.