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Blueprint for a Bistro


Everything in life should be as comprehensible as my simple blueprint for a successful restaurant: “Serve generous quantities of good food at a good price, and expect lines at the door.” Many restaurateurs seem oblivious to the obvious.

However, by surveying San Diego’s longer-running restaurants, you can compile a roster of savvy local entrepreneurs, a list that should include Barbara Beltaire. This Detroit native and partner in La Jolla Shores’ ever-popular Piatti recently opened a bistro just across the street that, like her, is a French-Italian hybrid, which she personalized with her nickname, Barbarella.

Like a 1950s pink Cadillac with tailfins sized to make a sailfish jealous, Barbarella has it all. The stylishly simple menu overseen by chef Joshua Schwartz, who previously cooked at Napa Valley’s acclaimed French Laundry, repeats in offerings and prices from lunch to dinner and, apart from specials, tops out at $16.95 for a lavish presentation of steak-frites. The servers adopt fashionably casual attitudes while nonetheless getting the job done. And the phrase “You still workin’ on that?” is, blissfully, banned from the Barbarella vocabulary.

A decor that might be termed “retro-rustic” charms and flatters, fostering a mood that feels relaxed, cozy and chic all at once. The astute use of wood creates a mellow, warm environment; polished floors, exposed ceiling beams, handsome cane chairs and a narrow mantel above the double-sided hearth all suggest a European inn of a century ago. The decor is fun, even in the men’s room.

Wallpaper imprinted with such tough-guy quotes as Vince Lombardi’s “Winners never quit, and quitters never win” is paired with a plush spray of purplish orchids in a huge, translucent vase. And Barbarella is the only local restaurant to boast a menu cover by French artist Niki de St. Phalle (currently a La Jolla resident), who is known in Paris for her playful Stravinsky Fountain and in San Diego for imaginative sculptures in Balboa Park and on the UCSD campus.

At present, Barbarella draws crowds at most meal hours, to the point that reservations are highly advised. And as one La Jollan observes, “Everyone you love and everyone you hate is there.”

However, one guest quietly noted, “This is a good neighborhood restaurant, and once the notoriety dies down, it’s the sort of place I’d like to dine once a week.”

In truth, Barbarella could succeed in quite a few San Diego neighborhoods, thanks to a menu that is imaginative but never extreme. The list opens on a light, pleasant note with market-priced oysters on the half-shell, paired with the guest’s choice of a cucumber-vinegar dip or a classy granita (an icy relish) flavored with sweet Meyer lemon and vodka. Steamed black mussels ($6.95), a French bistro favorite, appear in an appealing presentation that combines the anise flavor of Pernod liqueur with caramelized fennel and tapenade, a tangy paste made from tiny Niçoise olives. This dish shares nicely, as does the highly enjoyable “rillette” of veal ($7.50), which shapes a highly seasoned meat paste into a cake that is crisped in a red-hot pan and served with lavish spoonings of tiny green lentils perfumed with whole garlic cloves.

For daring types, there is a salmon tartare ($9.50), a dish of minced raw fish that is served on the trendier menus in France these days and has many fans. In an Italian mood, the appetizer list offers sautéed broccoli rabe with buffalo mozzarella ($7.95). The “fritti” or “deep fry” of the day ($7.95) may be as challenging as smelts and asparagus with rosemary-flavored garlic mayonnaise, or as unusual as beer-batter frog legs with lemon aioli. A deep amber color and a flavor to match characterize the onion soup, baked in a footed soup ramekin under a coverlet of intense, cave-aged Gruyère cheese ($5.95).

A very nice feature of this menu is its casual offerings, which range from the substantial “Barbarella Burger” ($9.95) and the classic croque madame sandwich of crusty French bread with Gruyère, ham, fried egg and Mornay sauce ($9.95) to a barbecue sauce–slathered braised brisket sandwich ($10.50) that is phenomenally succulent—and very filling. All three are served with mountains of frites, slender, crisp French fries that would be perfect if served hot from the deep fat as, sadly, they were not on either of two visits. There also are pizzas garnished with such clever combos as wild mushrooms, thyme, Fontina cheese and truffle oil ($9.25), rigatoni tossed with a rich garnish of Chianti-braised short ribs, roasted peppers and extra-sharp ricotta salata cheese ($10.95) and a market-price risotto of the day.

Beltaire may be particularly talented at editing a menu because her father, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, wrote the syndicated column The Town Crier. Then again, her godfather owned Detroit’s long-running prestige eatery, the London Chop House, which she says served “raw oysters and all sorts of good things.”

At Barbarella, she keeps the entrée list to a minimum, offering just four choices. But this is a classy quartet, from the roasted chicken with lemon-flavored natural juices ($10.95) to the pan-seared salmon bordelaise ($16.95), which reclines on a divan of satiny potato purée and is garnished with tender green beans and a full-bodied, wonderfully complementary red-wine sauce. The good steak used for the steak-frites ($16.95) arrived cold one night, so that the big pat of garlic butter on top didn’t melt—but when hot, it’s a hot dish. And the market-price whole fish roasted on a stone may be a fabulous presentation like farm-raised striped bass grenobloise, which covers the fish with lemon slices, herbs and baby artichokes. Boned and served at table, this is a moist, delicious offering.

To conclude (mostly at $5.95), if the pungent Chaource cheese dressed with cherries in syrup is available, by all means try it—this is one of the great culinary pairings currently offered in San Diego. Otherwise, ice cream–stuffed profiteroles with rich chocolate sauce are excellent and easily shared, although some might hope for more sauce. The classic buttercake, a French confection not found at other local eateries, is a wonderfully rich treat made even better by the garnish of poached apricots and creamy lemon sauce. And the Barbarella crêpe is served French style: open-face on a wide plate, the center piled high with the day’s fruit mixture and a restrained spoonful of whipped cream.

Barbarella (858-454-7373) serves lunch and dinner daily at 2171 Avenida de la Playa in La Jolla. Reservations are strongly suggested.

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