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Searching Out Self-Indulgence


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In the summertime, when “the livin’ is easy,” soft warmth and late sunsets certainly seem right for some good, clean self-indulgence. For example: pigging out at a pair of sumptuous weekly buffets offered by a pair of equally sumptuous North County resorts: the French-theme Buffet Montmartre on Wednesday nights in the California Bistro at Carlsbad’s Four Seasons Resort Aviara, or the classy Sunday brunch at the Rancho Bernardo Inn’s celebrated El Bizcocho. Both monuments to lavish living cost $25 per person, plus tax and tip and charges for all or some beverages (and both also reduce the buffet price for children).

Four Seasons executive chef Pascal Vignau puts first things first by placing the Buffet Montmartre dessert station just inside the California Bistro entrance. At a nearby table, a tall-hatted cook sautées thoroughly delicious crêpes Suzettes that suffer no lack of Grand Marnier in the sweet, buttery sauce. A display of delectable sweets offers slim glasses of thigh-enhancing pots de crème (a marvel of egg yolks, cream and chocolate that makes ordinary mousse seem austere); a buttery tarte Tatin rich in melting baked apples; a variety of pastries, including slices of crisp, creamy mille-feuilles (Napoleon) stuffed with raspberries; and by no means least, a wide, fat fraisier, an ultra-rich, ultra-creamy, cake-shaped dessert with plump, sweet strawberries.

A classical guitarist sets the mood in the dining room by strumming a selection of tunes that occasionally turns to French ballads, but also elevates the noise level considerably. Because the French favor jokes and visual puns, paintings by Guy Buffet occupy easels placed the length of Buffet Montmartre. The food stations provide the principal decor, however, and friends of solid, appetizing Gallic cuisine have no option but to applaud chef Vignau for arranging these beguiling vignettes.

The meal can be considered as four courses, commencing with excellent hors d’oeuvres and proceeding to a quartet of entrées with garnishes, a remarkable (for these parts) cheese table and, of course, desserts. A pairing of salty-sweet prosciutto slices with wedges of Charentaise melon imported from Santo Domingo is the sole nod to Italy on an appetizer display that runs to shredded celery root rémoulade, asparagus vinaigrette, juicy tomatoes with Roquefort, salads and rare grilled tuna with greens. And then there are a chilled salmon roulade; succulent shredded-duck rillettes with port jelly; a variety of small pâtés in crust and several kinds of French salami, including sliced garlic sausage in mayonnaise and superb rosette de Lyon.

This table can easily constitute about two full meals, and it requires restraint to save room for the entrées such as tender, carved-to-order roast leg of lamb, a pungent chicken casserole, shellfish swimming in tarragon cream sauce and, best of all, a fine, rich stew of rabbit with mushrooms and Belgian endive. Bear in mind that more than a dozen excellent cheeses lurk nearby.

As lubricant, the menu offers mini-carafes of house wine at $7, or a full selection of fine wines that reflect the hotel’s five-star ranking and can inflate the bill rapidly.

Patrons of the El Bizcocho brunch differ markedly in their interpretation of “Sunday best,” but seem to agree that for self-indulgent details, this handsomely redecorated room and its groaning buffet tables may be unbeatable. A tuxedoed pianist offers up such midday niceties as “Rhapsody in Blue,” crimson roses bloom on every table, a formally clad staff blends sparkling mimosas, and noted chef Tom Dowling writes a weekly menu that extends from eggs Benedict to an elaborate seafood table, a choice cheese display, roasted meats and specialty stews and pastas. And there are desserts, to be sure, including a chafing dish of bread pudding that follows Vincent Price’s thoroughly self-indulgent recipe. Beyond the broad windows, the vista of golf fairways, streams and ponds makes the inn seem an emerald oasis in ever-more-urban Southern California.

The extravagant seafood station boasts mounds of chilled shrimp and trays of assorted smoked fish along with cold poached salmon, steamed mussels and clams and the hot fish entrée du jour. And if it seems impossible to place a Belgian waffle topped with fruit and whipped cream on the same plate with piquant beef goulash, try one first and then return to the buffet. That’s what self-indulgence is all about.

California Bistro serves its Buffet Montmartre every Wednesday, 6-9 p.m. Reservations are advised. Four Seasons Resort Aviara, 7100 Four Seasons Point, Carlsbad; 760-603-6868.

El Bizcocho serves Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and suggests reservations. Rancho Bernardo Inn, 17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, Rancho Bernardo; 858-675-8550.

Clairemont’s Via Italia, which an increasing number of aficionados are praising as the most authentic Italian eatery in San Diego, has made its sometimes expensive menu of nightly (and wonderful) specials more affordable by introducing a choose-your-own, three-course meal priced at $19.95. For the present, this deal is only available on Thursdays, but my suggestion is that if guests politely request it whenever they dine, it probably will become a nightly feature.

The only problem may be snaring a table, since Via Italia really does serve a lovely cuisine. The $19.95 meal currently includes a choice of any one appetizer, a pasta, chicken, veal or fish entrée (sorry, no beef filet at this price) and any one of the excellent desserts.

Via Italia serves lunch and dinner daily at 4705 Clairemont Drive in the Clairemont Square center (858-274-9732). Reservations are advised.
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