From the Archives: San Diego Magazine's First Review of Pamplemousse, 1997
What's the same and a little different at one of San Diego's most iconic restaurants
In our January 1997 issue, David Nelson sang the praises of the recently opened Pamplemousse Grille in Solana Beach.
Jeffrey Strauss, then a “genial 35-year-old minister to the taste buds,” was and still is both chef and owner of Pamplemousse. As Nelson explained, this rarely held title combination is referred to as “le patron” by the French.
The critique, “A Savory Symphony by Strauss,” claims that the dishes strike “all the right notes.” Nelson begins with an anecdote about dialing 411 to reach Pamplemousse, which, when read now, almost makes it seem older than two decades. And yet in restaurant years, that’s a long time to stay alive—especially considering that the chef and many of the original menu items remain unchanged. In 1997 as now, comfort foods at high prices were de rigueur (though the $44 grilled cheese sandwich Troy Johnson reviews was still to come).
“Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the menu, which seems a throwback to another era and even a touch naïve; the simplicity compares to Hemingway’s, with subtlety delivered when it counts.”
The red bell pepper soup was one example. “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.”
Still, some dishes were trending in the late ’90s—Nelson notices Strauss “capitalizing on the current popularity of crème brulee,” and serving crab cakes, which “have gone from virtually unknown to virtually universal in San Diego in just a few years.”
Prices are given but not gawped over. The aforementioned soup was $6—that would be almost $10 today (Troy’s truffled white asparagus soup is $17). The prime rib eye was $24 ($38 in today’s dollars, but now it’s $56).
Another big difference is most evident to us magazine geeks: The story ran in the back of the book, with jump columns of text next to fractional ads. There’s just a single photo, of Strauss posing with his dishes. No close-ups of drippy sauces or tender meat, no chefs in action in an open kitchen or a busy dining room covered in murals. No symphony at all but Nelson’s melodious prose and your imagination.