location > 6009 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe
phone > 858-756-3085
chef > Martin Woesle
ONE FINE EVENING in the merry month of May, Martin Woesle chopped a few nasturtiums, tossed the red and yellow confetti over a bowl of white asparagus soup and sent it to table with cinnamon-scented croutons that underscored the supple-as-silk texture. After three spoonfuls, it became clear that Mille Fleurs might well reclaim its title as best restaurant in the county.
Soup, scene, service: Several years ago, even regulars who regarded the Rancho Santa Fe landmark as an auxiliary residence feared it was fading. Restaurateur Bertrand Hug divided his attention between Mille Fleurs and his newer eatery, Bertrand at Mister A’s, and as son Julien Hug recently observed, “the décor was a little dated and needed freshening.” The place began to revive after Bertrand named his son manager. A Torrey Pines High graduate, Julien now is 32, and the role of patron fits him comfortably.
Hug pere et fils also invested in a remodel that retains the intimacy and quietly privileged mood that make Mille Fleurs magnetic to those with sufficient resources. The servers, most on the job for a decade or two, understand their privileged clientele, never seem intimidated and respond easily to well-traveled sophisticates whose summer ranks include the Thoroughbred owners who entertain nonstop through the Del Mar racing season.
It helps to remember that Mille Fleurs translates as “A Thousand Flowers,” and while there never seem to be quite that many on the premises, they make the rooms sparkle. Like the Chino’s Farm vegetables that Woesle crafts into exquisite presentations, the blooms change with the weather. One night, precisely aimed halogen lamps made groupings of sunflowers in four-sided urns glow like golden stars; on another, yellow chrysanthemums in cobalt vases stood alongside oil lamps flickering in polished glass pillars.
The new, richer décor cut openings in the wall that separates the elite front room (where seating at one of the twin “power” tables is taken as a birthright by some guests) and the larger, livelier, sun-drenched-by-day main room. Tile murals preserved from the old days, when Mille Fleurs patterned itself after a Portuguese villa, now look like framed masterpieces.
“I believe we have all the elements a wonderful restaurant should have,” says Julien. “We could be in New York, but we’re in Rancho Santa Fe. This is what people expect when they walk in looking for a wonderful restaurant.”
In the 22 years since Bertrand made Mille Fleurs his own, he has employed exactly one chef. Martin Woesle recently reflected on his tenure and said, “I’m here 22 years, and it only gets better.” Ruminating further, he teased, “Twenty-two years with Bertrand——call me Saint Martin.” Woesle could also be called Slim. Despite a career spent among the choicest foodstuffs, his trim profile suggests he avoids his own cooking. But some customers have made Woesle’s cooking their daily fare, to the point of occasionally lunching and dining there on the same day.
They never encounter quite the same menu twice. Mille Fleurs prints lunch and dinner lists daily, which are market-driven——and most insistently by whatever little jewels Chino’s may have plucked from the earth that morning. The famed farm and famous chef allied themselves years ago, and Mille Fleurs patrons take for granted that the finest produce in California will grace their plates. A nice feature inspired by San Diego’s annual Restaurant Week is a three-course, $40 menu available Sunday through Tuesday. The amazing white asparagus soup mentioned above happened to be one of the recent possibilities, so it seems clear Mille Fleurs does not stint with this bargain special.
ON THE OTHER HAND, it is possible to spend plenty on dinner, as plenty do. Appetizers at dinner tend to range from $12 (for a soup based on whatever vegetables have caught Woesle’s eye) to $25 (for luxuries like a Maine lobster salad with avocado, papaya and lemon dressing), and entrées are mostly in the mid-$30s. Desserts uniformly command $12, and while this figure may seem less than sweet, it seems insignificant when the plates present items such as a pistachio-chocolate torte with saffron and candied orange peel or an elaborately garnished lemon cake layered with pistachio mousse.
Formerly, Mille Fleurs never troubled with amuse-bouche, the tiny, complimentary appetizers that new luxury restaurants have made an expectation among their patrons. Now, Woesle whips up beauties like a pairing of onion-coated hamachi tartare with a miniature, caviar-crowned blini and, on another occasion, a couple of bites of buttery, seared raw ahi in a wondrous mustard sauce posed atop shavings of Chino’s best beets.
Formal appetizers can get pretty exciting, too, like a beautiful salad of white asparagus with real Parma prosciutto and a drizzle of orange-blossom honey–sweetened vinaigrette ($19). Another combination, smoked eel on a bed of beets and potatoes with sweet onions, horseradish and quail eggs, might sound strange to Americans but mimics delectable traditions in Northern European and Scandinavian cooking ($19).
Woesle cooks French but remembers his German roots, which were deliciously evident in a presentation of a rosy-red venison chop with spinach spaetzle ($36). “The spaetzle has its own integrity, so leave it plain,” said a server regarding the boat of juniper-berry sauce that so beautifully moistened the meat. He was right: The distinctly flavored dumplings tasted best unsauced.
The flavors of Morocco interpreted through European eyes gave memorable savor to an olive-crusted lamb tenderloin perfumed with thyme and honey and served with carrots and cous cous ($35). A pair of veal medallions breaded and sautéed in the style of Weiner schnitzel were excellent with their “décor” of caper berries and lemon slices ($35), if rather thicker than in Austria. And a crisp sauté of veal sweetbreads (a meat not always understood in the United States) set the tender nuggets of meat adrift in a sea of tiny spring peas, the thinnest green beans, miniature carrots and even smaller florets of baby cauliflower ($29). Bound together with a morel mushroom sauce, the dish was breathtaking.
Mille Fleurs serves lunch and dinner daily at 6009 Paseo Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe. Reservations are suggested; telephone 858-756-3085.
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