Where Great American Food Speaks French
By David Nelson
Intellectuals that they are, the French are masters at holding conflicting points of view. And that provides a handy explanation for the curious emotions of a chef who seems down in the dumps even when he has his head in the clouds.
Fabrice Poigin, until recently chef at the excellent Sally’s at the Hyatt Regency San Diego, should be happy as a palourde (a clam, that is) in his new, sky-skimming exhibition kitchen at Crescent Shores Grill. This 11th-floor aerie overlooks La Jolla Shores, the ocean and other assorted beauties. And since kitchens usually are dreary, windowless places, for working men in toques to be afforded a zillion-dollar view should be a dream come true. But Poigin, a Frenchman to the marrow of his 31-year-old bones, has his doubts.
As the sun, framed behind him in an expanse of polished window, splashes down in the sea with a nearly audible hiss of steam, the chef gestures at an artful plate and says with earnest melancholy, "My hope is that one day, people will talk about the food as much as the view."
Oh, they will. And my own hope is that one day, every restaurant with a view will serve food as good as this. In fact, I’m somewhat inclined to declare Crescent Shores Grill to be the restaurant opening of 1997. But since the year has many months to run, I’ll hedge my bet for the moment and simply say this is the place every ambitious new eatery must strive to beat.
While any critic worth the name believes restaurants are flesh-and-blood creations of their proprietors, born of love and sweat and desire and passion, Crescent Shores Grill was conceived in the bloodless medium of "concept." Yet it works, and works beautifully, thanks to the careful planning of San Diego’s own Red Hot Restaurants, a restaurant consulting/design group whose other local creation is the well-regarded Seau’s: The Restaurant, in Mission Valley Center.
The gestation period for Crescent Shores Grill was relatively brief. It commenced last fall when a partnership that included San Diego Padres CEO Larry Lucchino purchased—and immediately closed for renovation—the Summer House Inn, a run-down hostelry known best as the home of Elario’s, a rooftop restaurant that had improved much in recent years. Now reborn as the attractively remodeled Hotel La Jolla, the property has this sparkling new restaurant as its crowning glory. The view probably remains the most important element of decor, but other details please as well, including whitewashed walls, a green carpet patterned with celestial symbols, plus a spacious back dining room with a fireplace and glassed-in wine room. In the casual bistro, which adjoins the bar and serves less formal fare, a second exhibition kitchen glows with the crimson embers of a wood-fired pizza oven.
Because Red Hot Restaurants operates Crescent Shores Grill for the hotel, the management is more multilayered than normal and laden with amusing, Graustarkian titles. For example, Vito Gambini, a Red Hot guy some diners will recall as the affable former general manager of Mission Valley’s Prego—and who apparently functions as a sort of uber-manager for Crescent Shores—is called "director of operations," while Rory McMahon holds the title of general manager. In the same way, Poigin, who also is a partner in Red Hot Restaurants, bears the somewhat hilarious title of "director of culinary services," while fellow Frenchman (and former chef of Alizé at the Paladion) Olivier Bioteau is designated executive chef.
All these weary title considerations aside, the fact remains that Crescent Shores has two chefs—two Frenchmen who really know their way around a stove. A concept rules the menu, too, and while I suspect the irony of it quite escapes Poigin, Bioteau and Red Hot Restaurants, the rest of us can enjoy it. This irony, simply put, is that the concept decrees a menu based on the finest regional American foodstuffs but specifies that the menu be written by Frenchmen, not Americans. A delicious conceit, this one, since the chefs transform luxury-quality American meat, seafood and produce into lustrously elegant fare that clearly is inspired by French culinary traditions.
Having praised the menu to the skies, it may seem a bit backhanded to say that it shows considerable weakness in the appetizer department. In their rush to celebrate all things American, Poigin and Bioteau have designed some dubious pairings that are inventive but not sensible. At the top of the list would be the baked "Belon" oysters from Discovery Bay, Washington ($12), which the kitchen beds on creamed potatoes (the menu carefully specifies Idaho taters), crowns with fresh, hot-hot-hot horseradish and sets to bubble and brown in the wood-fired oven. The result is the massacre of perfectly good oysters, which wonder why the heck they’re been married off to these bland, heavy potatoes; the spuds hit the palate with a thud. The horseradish speaks loudly, to be sure, but seems unrelated to the other elements.
Potatoes and other filling starches generally seem out of place on an appetizer list, which by tradition consists of light, teasing preparations. Yet the Crescent Shores menu offers baked Long Island clams with yellow potatoes and Cajun tasso sausage ($9) and a "layer cake" of Castro Valley artichoke hearts, Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet onions and citrus dressing ($7.50) that is bland, boring, dull, heavy, insipid and pointless.
Another instance of the best Franco-American intentions gone awry is the mesquite-grilled Yakima corn cakes ($7), which are prettily ribboned with applewood-smoked bacon and topped with deliciously bitter greens. The bacon makes these corny cakes good, but they seem too heavy for a starter (though just one cake would make a terrific plate garnish for a meat entrée)—and anyway, who wants to open a meal with fried cornmeal mush?
The starter situation improves, however, with the mesquite-smoked Maine lobster soup ($5.75), a sort of bisque-gone-native that has a wonderfully briny, slightly smoky flavor spiced with American guajillo chilis rather than the cayenne pepper that would season a true French seafood soup. Red River Valley wild rice garnishes the brew, and while it doesn’t really belong in the bowl (concepts create their own logic, sometimes skewed), it does no harm. The happiest way to start might be with the salad of organic lettuces with Napa Valley olive oil ($7).
What makes this menu so great, if the starters often disappoint? The entrées, of course. Poigin and Bioteau take meat and seafood of superb quality and make them sing by adding clever garnishes and sauces. Most important of all, they carefully monitor cooking times, and it is hard to imagine an entrée leaving the Crescent Shores kitchen overcooked or undercooked by so much as a few seconds.
If pork is not your red meat (or white meat, as current advertisements claim) of choice, think again when deciding to bypass the wood-roasted prime rib of grain-fed Iowa pork ($20). Cooked slightly pink, so that it remains succulently juicy and is just about melt-in-the-mouth tender, this handsome slab of flavorful meat is astonishingly delicious. The garnish, a big wedge of Savoy cabbage cooked to a sweet finish in heavy cream, is absolutely perfect for the dish. In the same manner, a half-pound beef tenderloin ($23.50) from Iowa’s Hartley Farm is given novel, savory and subtle flavor through the simple medium of the sage-flavored compound butter that melts across it in lieu of sauce.
Poigin and Bioteau like steaks and also offer an Angus New York strip steak with a dusky red-wine sauce ($26.50) and a rib-eye cut from Kentucky-raised beef ($19) garnished with caramelized onions—the menu specifies Walla Walla weepers—and a sauce of grain mustard. Roasted Tule Lake potatoes and cranberry chutney join the grilled free-range chicken ($17) with New Mexico chili sauce.
On goes the delectable list, segueing to seafood with such preparations as bacon-wrapped Gulf shrimp in white-truffle oil ($21), farm-raised salmon in a sauce of shallots and Columbia Valley Riesling ($18) and seared ahi tuna couched on a black-bean pancake ($21). There usually are specials; one that soared off the plate consisted of seared bay scallops placed around a cake of meaty but light eggplant, the whole washed in a marvelous red-wine sauce sharpened with a dash of vinegar ($22).
The imagination—and the pairing of American themes with French techniques —continues sweetly on the dessert list, which offers such triumphs (each $5.75) as crème brûlée infused with the unusual flavors of a berry tea, and an espresso-sauced chocolate bread pudding with a heart of molten hazelnut chocolate. Best of all may be the lemon "shortcake," a pairing of rich cookies that sandwiches a smooth lemon cream; raspberries and a starburst of sliced strawberries elegantly encircle this spectacular sweet.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served daily at Crescent Shores Grill and the adjacent bistro, and a Sunday jazz brunch is served from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The restaurant is located atop Hotel La Jolla, 7955 La Jolla Shores Drive, La Jolla; 459-0541. Reservations are advised.