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A Savory Symphony by Strauss


TOO LAZY TO FIND the number in my file, and throwing fiduciary caution to the wind (after five monthly freebies, directory assistance calls cost 25 cents each), I dialed 411. "I'd like the number for Pamplemousse Grille in Solana Beach, although everybody seems to think the place is in Del Mar," I said. "It's spelled p-a-m-p-l-e-m-o-u-s-s-e."

The operator's response was a bit of a surprise. "No, it's not spelled that way," he said superciliously, with a frost in his voice sufficient to freeze the bloom off a pumpkin. "It is pronounced pomp-el-moose and is spelled "'p-O-m...'" Well, you get the idea.

I've never had an operator correct my French before, and as it happens, j'avais raison, as the French would say, while he, of course, was wrong. This surprised me not at all. But what did catch me quite off guard was that he seemed so well acquainted with this new restaurant on Via de la Valle. What I have discovered since is that conversations that turn to food frequently turn to Pamplemousse--and with reason. If Laurel ranked as the sizzling new entry of 1995, Pamplemousse Grille, which commenced business a few months ago, seems to be the restaurant other upstart establishments will struggle to eclipse in 1997. (The name, by the by, translates as Grapefruit Grille, although the role played by grapefruit on these premises is largely subliminal.)

As at most top restaurants, this ranking is owed essentially to a single individual--sometimes the chef, sometimes the proprietor, less frequently an individual who is both. For the latter, the French have the happy term "patron," and at Pamplemousse Grille, le patron takes the not-inconsiderable form of Jeffrey Strauss, a genial 35-year-old minister to the taste buds.

A self-professed sports fanatic--and notably unreserved in personality, in the way that might be expected of someone whose birth in the Bronx was succeeded by a childhood in New Jersey--Strauss approaches cooking not merely with a degree of technical virtuosity exceptional hereabouts, but with true inspiration. Don't be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the menu, which seems a throwback to another era and even a touch naive; the simplicity compares to Hemingway's, with subtlety delivered when it counts.

Strauss left a position as chef at a top Manhattan caterer to create Pamplemousse, and that catering background shows clearly on the grill section of the menu, which invites guests to "create an entree; by teaming the available meats and seafoods with a varied selection of sauces, potatoes and vegetables. When I first read this, it sounded gimmicky at best and more than a bit amateurish--but Strauss apprenticed under such masters as Albert Roux at London's Le Gavroche and Roger Verge of Le Moulin de Mougins in Provence, and his sauces and garnishes do indeed bring superb savor to the expertly grilled entrées.

Nor is the service amateurish--the young staff apparently has been well drilled and has a good sense of timing. This is one restaurant that doesn't rush its customers, as so many do these days; it frequently seems that the more a place costs, the sooner it wishes to see your back passing through the exit. It is time right now that we stop accepting the bum's rush at any sort of dining establishment.

For some, the Pamplemousse decor sounds the one questionable note, although I quite like the murals (executed by San Francisco artist Ron Knutson) of hogs and other barnyard animals. One principal scene depicts geese strutting in a field near an abandoned tractor, which Strauss will tell you is the tractor his grandfather up and walked away from 25 years ago on his New Jersey farm.

Decor is dandy, but you can't eat it--and the cooking at Pamplemousse Grille is eminently edible. There are always daily specials, but a well-spent first visit will concentrate on exploring the standing menu. As a tasty preface (and one that recalls Strauss' catering background), the small display bakery at the entrance to the dining room sends over a basket filled with warm jalapeño mini-muffins and herb biscuits, which the hungry will wolf with an alarming alacrity. They're good without the herbed butter, even better smeared with it.

Crab cakes have gone from virtually unknown to virtually universal in San Diego in just a few years; Strauss serves his in a sprightly alliance with gingered coleslaw and a lush roasted-pepper sauce. Like the meat of most crustaceans, the cakes ($10) respond well to the sharp tones of the garnishes. The mushroom ravioli ($9), essentially a musky stew of forest mushrooms sandwiched between two transparent sheets of dough, recall Italian pasta in name only and are as suave and chic as an address on Manhattan's East 57th Street.

The pheasant boudin blanc ($9), a luxurious white French sausage with a faint resemblance to bratwurst, not only melts on the tongue but is dressed with a bit of minced truffle and arranged on a bed of richly flavored braised shredded cabbage. Strauss, succumbing to the caterer's urge for showmanship, drapes a cut-zucchini blossom stuffed with the vegetable's diced flesh over the sausage; this bit of culinary drama works on both the visual and gustatory levels.

If the red bell pepper soup ($6) is offered, order it. Served in what must be the largest soup bowls in San Diego--full, they would hold more than a quart--this deeply flavorful brew packs a surprise at the bottom of the bowl in the form of snippets of lobster lurking in a puddle of fennel essence. This under-the-soup garnish gives an already superb broth the mark of brilliance.

The menu lists a small selection of "traditional foods," a term that here carries the meaning of composed plates. The mixed grill of lamb, beef and veal ($26), lavishly portioned, sauced and garnished, will transport avowed carnivores to the edge of ecstasy. In the current season, most of us should find the lamb stew with oven-roasted root vegetables ($21) savory and warming, descriptions that apply with equal accuracy to the roast chicken ($19) with green lentils and vegetables cooked slowly and at such length that their juices ultimately caramelize.

One night's delicious special consisted of a boned chicken breast ($23), folded around a light-as-air mousse of fresh basil and more chicken breast, then roasted to a golden finish. Poised on a galette (crisp, wafer-like cake) of potato and corn, it was served amid alternating heaps of sautéed forest mushrooms and mixed vegetables.

Most entrées appear on the grill list. Quickly summarized, the meat heading offers five choices: prime rib of pork ($22), prime beef rib-eye ($24), veal chop ($25) and fillet of beef and certified Angus strip steak (each $26), all of which can be dressed with a natural jus, wild-mushroom sauce or grain-mustard sauce. With the Northern halibut, swordfish (each $22), Alaskan king salmon ($23) and ahi ($24), the sauces offered are mustard-chive, champagne beurre blanc and the light, fresh tomato-based antiboise. On a bet, I ordered the pork prime rib one night and hit the jackpot: I never have tasted pork as tender, flavorful and satisfyingly succulent as this expertly grilled, wonderfully juicy double-cut chop. The mustard sauce was a natural with this, just as the mustard-chive sauce has an affinity for the oily richness of the Alaskan salmon.

Capitalizing on the current popularity of crème brûlée, Strauss offers a trio--lemon raspberry, vanilla and chocolate--as a sweet, rich symphony of a dessert ($6). But the chocolate-pecan bread pudding ($6) is even better; if a Frenchman ever created a chocolate fudge soufflé, it would taste like this.
Pamplemousse Grille serves lunch Wednesday through Friday, dinner Tuesday through Sunday, at 514 Via de la Valle, Solana Beach. Reservations are suggested; call 792-9090.

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