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Taking the Fifth (Avenue)


At first, the symptoms defy easy diagnosis. In the early stages, they may be mistaken for a mild type of social pathology, like the development of a bad habit. Instances have been reported in which sufferers of the syndrome seemed merely to have fallen into a rut.

As time progresses, however, the afflicted begin to display certain telltale behaviors, such as increasingly itchy fingers in the presence of real-estate contracts. The purchase of a first Fifth Avenue restaurant can be regarded as a cautionary sign; the acquisition of a second usually indicates the condition has progressed to a serious stage. And when the victims plow ahead with this behavior until they own four full-service Fifth establishments, give or take a nightclub, no further proof is required that full-blown cases of Fifth Avenue Restaurant Syndrome have set in.

In the cases of David and Lesley Cohn, they've got it good-and that ain't bad. The Minneapolis natives, whose San Diego restaurant empire started with a now-defunct, 1950s-style hamburger joint called Rory's, presently own four major, immensely successful restaurants on Fifth Avenue (they also own Galaxy Grill in Horton Plaza). Their first, the irrepressibly fun, family-oriented Corvette Diner in Hillcrest, gave the Cohns their first taste of just how juicy success on Fifth Avenue can be. They bounced to the corner of Fifth and E in the Gaslamp Quarter for another venture, the contemporary-theme Dakota, and then took over the premises next door to Corvette to open Kemo Sabe, a more-or-less Southwestern-style place some people really like.

This summer, the Cohns took their fourth bite out of Fifth Avenue by transforming a vacant but truly prime location in the Gaslamp Quarter-the southeast corner of Fifth and Market-into one of the hottest eateries in the neighborhood. On Tuesdays at 8 p.m., an hour at which cannons safely may be shot through many San Diego restaurants, the Cohns' Blue Point Coastal Cuisine pulses with activity.

Upscale restaurants have had some trouble finding a market in the Gaslamp (an example: the fine, underappreciated Bistro Bacco on E Street), which on nights lacking conventioneers seems dominated by locals who believe that every meal must commence with pasta and conclude with tiramisu. Blue Point's seemingly magical magnetism is not hard to understand, however, since the place scores high in three essential categories: looks, service and cuisine.

The "Coastal" in the name suggests any number of places, but the fish-print upholstery, dark woods and brass, all of which glow richly in the soft light that filters from the alabaster-like ceiling fixtures, strongly hint at Seattle. The animated mood derives from brilliant use of the corner location: A cozy bar along one wall leads to an open kitchen that sweeps along the other interior wall, which points straight to the banks of broad windows that flank Market Street and Fifth Avenue. Far from creating a fishbowl effect, this wide-open space makes guests feel at the heart of the action, even while the individual banquettes remain islands of privacy. The price paid for this is a noise level that can challenge otherwise sturdy sets of ears. Of the service, all that need be said is that the pleasant, capable staff ranks among the best to be found downtown.

Chef Darrell Henderlite gives careful supervision to a menu that emphasizes seafood while paying more than passing attention to meats; vegetarians are accommodated with several salads and pastas. And the recitation of daily specials (sufficiently complicated that you wish the list were written) frequently offers some wonderfully attractive options.

The seafood openers are not inexpensive-and are not always worth the price, as in the "Blue Point Rocks" ($9.95), described

as the restaurant's version of oysters Rockefeller. Far from being "as rich as Rockefeller," which is how this classic dish earned its name, these "Rocks" are buried under a jumble of elements that quite hide the flavor of the oysters. Better to choose the assorted fresh oysters on the half-shell with a trio of vinegar sauces ($9.95) or the suavely textured, "griddled" oysters with peppery jalapeño tartar sauce ($8.95).

Everybody is doing crab cakes these days; Henderlite's meaty, well-crusted specimens ($6.95) arrive with a sweet-pungent aioli flavored rather daringly with honey mustard. And Henderlite lifts the cloak of cliché off the peppered ahi ($9.95) by bedding it on toasted brioche and dressing it with golden caviar and wasabi-heated crème fraîche. These flavors engage one another in the liveliest of medleys.

A meal also can open rather tamely with a mixed-green salad in orange-sesame vinaigrette ($4.95), or ravishingly with the big, bold flavors of the salad of seared scallops and spinach ($7.95), brightened and intensified by a smoky bacon dressing leavened with tart buttermilk. The always-available "Baja-style" clam chowder ($4.50) is supplemented by daily brews (same price) of some distinction. A good case in point: A chiffonade of basil shot like a green flash over the surface of a roasted-tomato-fennel soup, a hearty distillation of winter flavors more than good enough to warrant listing on the standing menu.

Since the civic ordinance that requires the presence of pasta on every Gaslamp menu has not been repealed, Blue Point offers four, including a rewardingly rich plate of Gorgonzola-stuffed ravioli ($14.95) dressed with shrimp, fresh spinach leaves and a light cream flavored with sweet onions, and papardelle ($14.95) with grilled scallops, herbs, pinenuts and fresh tomato.

The entrées go in for the same strong flavors, headlined by a grilled swordfish steak ($21.95) topped with a sharp but cheerful salsa of sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes. Couscous and a tremendous lot of baby zucchini and slivered carrots make this a sizable plate. The same vegetables and a heap of quartered, crisply fried red potatoes garnish the grilled pork tenderloin ($21.95), which the kitchen carves into thick slices and paints with a thick, spicy-sweet sauce of Thai inspiration.

That tenderloin is one of several winners on a meat list that also offers ribeye steak ($23.95) with a sauce of port and Maytag blue cheese and a topping of roasted peanuts, and a grilled rack of Colorado lamb ($23.95), cut into chops and finished with a Cabernet sauce. The daily specials likely will include an excellent seafood offering; among good choices on the standing list are sautéed shrimp ($16.95) with cilantro pesto and chile-spiked cornbread, and grilled ahi ($21.95) paired with wild mushrooms and dabs of ginger butter.

One server wryly suggested that the so-called "Chocolate Meringue Tower" ($5.50) had been designed by the California Coastal Commission, since this construction of three meringue discs does not rise very high. It is exceptionally tasty nonetheless, thanks in great part to the creamy mousse fillings of chocolate bourbon and white chocolate that join the rounds and intensify the chocolate effect; this dessert is not meant for noncommittal types. The same could be said of the rich, dressy trifle ($6) with cranberries and a wealth of roasted, sugared nuts.

Blue Point Coastal Cuisine serves dinner nightly at 565 Fifth Avenue. Reservations are suggested; call 233-6623.

Of the decor at the Gaslamp Quarter's interesting new La Provence, one might say (not unkindly) that it looks like what would be expected of a TGI Friday's in France: The bric-a-brac could be weighed by the ton, but even so, the collection of baskets, teapots, dried floral bouquets and whatnot is somehow tasteful. Richly patterned and colored fabrics from Provence dress the windows, drape the tables and upholster everything but the tattily jeaned servers, creating an exceptional, intensely French visual effect that makes this corner location at G Street and Fourth Avenue look to have been lifted directly from Montparnasse.

The menu, overflowing with offerings such as fish soup, steak frites and Provençale beef daube, reads like a dream-come-true for those who treasure the simple, flavorful bistro cooking of France. Unfortunately, looks aren't everything, and a beautiful menu requires a kitchen that can deliver quality consistently, which does not happen at La Provence.

The service similarly is wildly uneven, and while some servers are quite friendly, others are rude enough to give a Parisian headwaiter heartburn. And the majority of the servers (all young, many European) are dressed in apparel that transcends sloppiness to the point of being dowdy. If this is supposed to be hip, spare me.

However, the young people who seem to be the mainstay of La Provence's clientele eat it all up with enormous spoons and beg for more. Extremely generous servings -virtually all dishes can be shared-make the menu more affordable, especially for young folks on dates. If you're going on the cheap, fill up by spreading the complimentary aioli (this rendition of garlic mayonnaise so suave in texture it resembles butter) on slices of baguette; the flavor is fabulous.

Otherwise, start with the chèvre chaude Esterel ($7.75)-bacon-wrapped goat cheese served warm with salad-or the salade Mistral ($9.75) of hot, freshly sautéed chicken livers dumped over a salad of curly frisé lettuce and croutons. It's good, and there's certainly plenty of it, but some mustard, herbs and garlic would help the flavors immensely.

Green peppercorns mistakenly enter the sauce for the "steak frites au poivre" ($13.75), a bistro classic that in my experience always is made with the infinitely preferable black peppercorns. And the steak is cut remarkably thin. (What can be said for this plate is that the frites-genuine French fries-are slender, crisp, abundant and delicious.)

On the other hand, other bistro classics such as coq au vin (chicken stewed in red wine, $12.75) and the wine-rich beef and vegetable stew called daube Provençale ($13.75) come off quite well. The menu lists much more, including a pot of tomatoey mussels Provençale ($9.75), trout in walnut-cilantro butter ($14.50), several Provençale-style pastas, and hachis Parmentier ($10.75), the mashed potato- crusted ground beef casserole that is the French answer to shepherd's pie.

La Provence serves lunch and dinner daily at 708 Fourth Avenue. Reservations are accepted; call 544-0661.

The bargain-of-the-month award most assuredly belongs to midtown San Diego's Fifth & Hawthorn (515 Hawthorn Street; 544-0940), which Monday through Thursday offers a four-course meal, including a bottle of decent wine, priced at $39.90 for two. Add tax and tip and the tab still is under $50, which makes this deal an immense hit with patrons heading for the nearby Old Globe Theatre (to which the F&H owners will even chauffeur them, for a nominal charge).
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