Restaurant Week Relived


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YOU COULD REALLY SINK your teeth into Restaurant Week 2006. As steals go, the "three courses for $30" format proved so irresistible, phones shrilled at top spots like George's at the Cove, which hired two temporary employees to handle calls. Since the 100-plus participating restaurants included many of the best, a gastronomic replay of the Gold Rush jammed dining rooms night after appetizer-entree-dessert night.

"We were pretty well booked by early December," said Jeffrey Strauss. In a tone of near disbelief, the chef/proprietor of Del Marís Pamplemousse Grille added, "We're doing 350 to 400 dinners per night, but if we had the room we could do 1,000. It's crazy."

Marine Room chef Bernard Guillas reveled in the response, noting, "It's like New York City. We have reservations at 10 p.m."

He wasn't the only chef with reservations. One lamented, "The problem is, they don't come back. It's like coupons: They come for the bargain and we never see them again." Even so, this top toquewearer cheerfully anticipated 800 covers through the week.

Most Restaurant Week 2006 menus listed three appetizers, entrees and desserts, but not all were created equal. Some establishments bit the bullet and offered regular menu items as "loss leaders" to impress and delight new patrons. Others held back on high-cost items. By the time midnight tolled on Friday, January 20, diners who chewed their way through the entire Sunday-through-Friday marathon may have been clucking, fighting the urge to swim upstream and marveling at the sudden ubiquity of boned short ribs: In other words, chicken, salmon (some designated "Atlantic salmon," often a euphemism for "farmraised") and braised beef short ribs dominated many menus.

Participating restaurants and chefs unquestionably presented patrons an embarrassment of riches, and high-end establishments unsurprisingly were besieged. Many proprietors found themselves inventing variations on "Sorry, we're full," a phrase that simultaneously gladdens and saddens restaurateurs. In short, diners embraced Restaurant Week like a half-price diamond sale at Tiffany's.

San Diego Magazine rested Sunday to prepare for a Monday-Friday blitz of dinners. Meals at a couple of neighborhood places, two luxury eateries and one of the city's foremost Asian restaurants made the week unfold deliciously.

Monday

Imagining Queen Elizabeth in a ball gown and running shoes suggests the scene at the Westgate's Le Fontainebleau. Celebrated for leisurely, European- style dining, this grand old lady of San Diego rooms was ready. At 7 p.m., a tag-team of three hostesses escorted guests to tables preset with silver bread baskets, iced butter servers, Restaurant Week menus and wine cards that listed excellent Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon at $6 a glass. This bargain made obvious the desire to accommodate guests unaccustomed to investing in Le Fontainebleau dinners. Some patrons wore T-shirts, unusual apparel in these precincts of privilege, but otherwise, the room was itself - a tuxedoed pianist played dinner music, chandeliers reflected the candlelight, and dusty pink tea roses bloomed in silver vases.

Chef Fabrice Hardel raided his regular menu and never stinted on luxury. Fancy stuff: A guest exclaimed, "This is entree-esque!" when presented an appetizer of tender-as-butter braised Kobe beef short ribs, succulent veal sweetbreads and minced Napa cabbage. Comparatively less impressive, an enormous grilled Mexican prawn (a giant among shrimp) with lemongrass "foam" and a cup of bonito-ginger broth made a light prelude to pastry-wrapped Kurobuta pork tenderloin baked to a precise, pinkish finish. Sweet-potato gnocchi and a fine brown sauce sweetened with black figs played cleverly against the pork.

But the guest's entree of grilled Colorado lamb rack with lavender-scented pan juices suggested panic in the kitchen. Ordered medium-rare, the first rack arrived virtually raw. So did the second. The maitre d' seemed close to tears when he personally delivered the third, rendered as perfectly as the Mozart in the background.

The pastry chef seemed neither hurried nor harried, and a "Citrus Three Way" of tangerine sorbet and tart-sweet Meyer lemon curd sported bitter, brittle fans of glazed orange that unforgettably united flavors and textures. Ever so French, the liquid center of the baked-to-order bittersweet-chocolate souffle suavely sauced the crisp, eggy crust.

diners in a restaurantTuesday

The joker in the deck turned up at Zio Italian Cuisine, a pleasant neighborhood eatery in University Heights where the existence of Restaurant Week had been kept a secret from the waiter. Once that little contretemps was resolved - Zio's indeed wrote a special menu, and a good one at that - the restaurant proved one of the surprise hits of the week.

Even in January, lilies of the valley rose from chic, molded glass vases on some tables; on others, yellow and red long-stem roses intertwined in the glow of wax tapers. Chef Jorge Carmona served four courses rather than the requisite three, and got off to a wonderful start with spinach sformattini, a miniature molded souffle with a marvelously light texture and a tasty sauce of shallots and white wine. Alternatives included honestly described "sumptuous" ravioli with ricotta filling and just a touch of creamed pesto sauce. Course two: a nice presentation of insalata caprese, the familiar combination of sliced tomatoes and mozzarella that Zio tricked up with pesto and pine nuts, and even better, a thin but superbly flavorful soup of potato and garlic "essence" accented by fresh sage.

Definitely on a roll, Carmona went on to serve tasty risotto topped by a small filet in mustard sauce; as an alternative, a dressy, steak-like cut of halibut in an unusual white-wine sauce sweetened with honey. Basil and roasted bell peppers nicely rounded out the flavors. Desserts were ambitious and molded, and a round of passionfruit mousse layered atop soft chocolate cake put a sweet shine on the evening.

Wednesday

Dinner at Tapenade is always an event, especially at $30 a head and never more so than when the menu stars boar braised in red wine. A week in advance, the earliest available reservation at this La Jolla bistro was at 8:30 p.m., a wait made worthwhile by civet de sanglier (swoon-inducing stewed boar with homemade noodles in their own delicious sauce) and stellar creme caramel with pineapple shavings that put the sweetest possible cap on a dreamy dinner out.

In France, 8:30 is prime time for dinner, and at that hour, Tapenade's maitre d' cheerfully said, "We're busy, sure. We're doing 200 covers each night. It's Restaurant Week." There was no sense of urgency in the filled-to-capacity but orderly dining room, and servers shared the manager's confidence. Which isn't to say they felt universally rewarded for their efforts. To be plain, some patrons were stingy. Asked how the bucks were rolling in, a waiter waggled his hand and confides, "Tips are just so-so."

The food, however, was anything but. Chef/proprietor Jean-Michel Diot maintains standards, and his list plucked gems off the standing menu. Starters included Maine lobster bisque with aged brandy, and a garlicky fricassee of Burgundian snails. A lovely starter paved a plate with paper-thin red beets and added a thicket of carefully dressed mache (lambís lettuce) and julienned tart apples. Golden logs of breaded goat cheese flanked this near-perfect package. Guests unaware that the boar may have been Restaurant Week's most spectacular dish chose the entree alternatives of Alaskan salmon with an unusual corn-vanilla sauce or forest mushroom ravioli in port sauce.

Thursday

Rama, the exceptional Thai restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter, wrote a menu that avoided dessert in favor of a middle course. The place hummed smoothly on the event's fifth evening, when pleased proprietor Alex Thao exclaimed, "This is like New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day. Restaurant Week is lots of fun!"

The special menu seemed designed more for novices than Rama regulars, but it embraced luxury: New York steak, king crab, giant shrimp and lobster highlighted a list replete with the sweet, tart and pungent flavors of Thai cuisine. Thai heat pretty much took the night off, however. This resulted in mild but enjoyable appetizers, such as crisp lettuce "wraps" with minced chicken and savory peanut sauce. Reddish sweet sauce (who needs dessert, anyway?) accompanied the crisp "Rangoon" won tons filled with king crab, as well as the goong sarrong, huge shrimp swaddled in egg noodles and fried to a crunchy-succulent finish.

The flavors opened a bit with the middle course, which starred a chile-spiced steak salad enlivened with onions, mint, basil and lime. On the safer side, coconut milk gave tart tom kha chicken soup a velvety finish, and peanut sauce lent richness to a demure chicken salad. A lobster entree featured blustery Thai basil as seasoning for the delicate seafood, and this dish with attitude easily trumped the timid yellow curry with chicken. Ordering the pad prik beef alongside the lobster created a Thai surf íní turf combo. The seasoning of the stir-fried steak strips and crunchy vegetables was lowkey but agreeable, just like the evening at Rama.

Friday

At times, Randy Gruber looks as moody as the jazz paintings he commissioned from South African artist Narisa Bromberg. But at 8 p.m. on the final night of Restaurant Week, the chef/proprietor of Americana in downtown Del Mar was a happy man.

His restaurant was full, and the patrons looked as pleased as their host. "Usually, this is the slowest week of the year. It takes people a while to start going out after New Year's," said Gruber. "Our business is being driven by Restaurant Week."

The $30 menu started nicely with a portobello-mushroom risotto scented with truffle oil, served as generously as an entree (a pan-seared calamari steak with capers and lemon was an excellent alternative) and traveled along happily to a sweet-pungent entree of seared duck breast with plump Israeli couscous, raisins, dried cranberries, pine nuts and a tantalizing fig sauce. Gruber likes to pair seared foods with grain, and he piled juicy, expertly cooked pan-seared scallops on a mound of red lentils. A pureed sauce of orange, carrot and ginger was good, if a touch too sweet. Balsamic vinegar made an intriguing glaze for caramelized strawberries and figs arranged on vanilla ice cream, a dessert given delicious competition by a banana tarte Tatin with caramel ice cream.

A sweet end to a filling week: The author weighed himself (reluctantly at times) every morning to track the personal effects of Restaurant Week. On Saturday morning, the scales had sunk 3.5 pounds. Go figure!

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