Epicurious Eating: La Bastide Bistro
France on a plate
Published Thursday, 11-Mar-2010 in issue 1159
You have to drive several miles outside of dodge to realize that not all French food in urban San Diego tastes homogenous.
Having eaten at the established players dotting our neighborhood corridors – Hexagon, Bleu Boheme, Café Chloe, St. Tropez, Farm House Café and the former Café Bleu – it was tough finding a place where their collective strengths existed under one roof. That is until a friend and I floated out of La Bastide Bistro with a complete dose of French poetry resting in our stomachs.
Located in a generic Scripps Ranch plaza, La Bastide tampers so discretely with the rules of provincial French cooking that even the haughtiest of connoisseurs will sanction the enhancements for another century to come. That murmur of ginger in the chef’s beautifully stabilized buerre blanc sauce, for example, is meant only to make the white wine and butter pop – not turn it Asian. It’s draped over salmon papillote, meaning the fish is cooked in parchment paper to retain its flavor and delicateness. And here it’s done adeptly.
Or in classic French-style risotto, served as an appetizer under grilled shrimp, the onions are replaced with chives and the butter joins forces with a distinct measure of vanilla, ensuring that the creamy texture of the rice translates into velvety flavor. The combo also testifies to the secret marriage that has long existed between shellfish and vanilla.
Surprisingly, the chef isn’t French, although he’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, where students must learn the tenets of French cooking like grade schoolers are drilled in their ABCs. A native of El Cajon, Barry Coalson has been with La Bastide since it opened five years ago, rising from sous chef to head honcho after his French-blooded predecessor Patrick Ponsaty bailed.
La Bastide’s owner, Gilles Fougeres, is a Parisian guy who combed San Diego searching for an ideal location to open his 60-seat “bistro.” The plaza element is partly diminished by paned front windows, polished wood chairs and tea lights flickering from even the empty tables, as they well should. Landing in a neighborhood of residents making decent livable wages, it didn’t take him long to generate a positive buzz among critics and bloggers.
Where other French kitchens fly off target in their use of cream, butter, herbs and garlic, Coalson knows when to pull back and move forward. In his onion soup au gratin, he transforms the pedestrian dish into a sweet, herby gem by teasing out the sugar from the onions after braising them for five hours. He also replaces the traditional beef broth with chicken stock and allows herbs de Provence to share center stage with the cap of toasted Emmental cheese. Our only complaint was that the soup was too heavily packed with bread.
Seared foie gras was off-the-chart delicious; the goose liver pointed up judiciously with fleur de sol (French sea salt) and matching up like a crazed lover to brandied cherries served alongside. My companion, who recently spent nine days in “foie gras country” in Turenne, France exclaimed: “I didn’t come across any foie gras this flavorful over there – and I was looking. I could have saved airfare and just come here.”
Also divine was the surprise slice of house-made torchon on the plate, a rendition of foie gras that is soaked in milk, towel-wrapped and poached in broth. Coalson’s recipe passed the ultimate litmus test in that the chilled meat melted instantly in our mouths like ice cream on hot apple pie. But it isn’t always available because of its labor-intensive construction. Ask and thou might receive.
From the small-bites menu (due to expand soon), we tried a half rack of lamb dusted in herbs and served with au gratin potatoes sporting accents of fresh nutmeg. The medium-rare chops were succulent, perfectly flavored, while the spuds escaped the goopiness of other au gratin recipes plagued often by too much cream and cheese.
Duck leg confit with pommes frites didn’t disappoint either. Crispy skin lent itself to supple flesh underneath, sealing in most of the rich fat that hugs your palate like no other meat on earth. Leave it to the French and skilled chefs like Coalson to maximize the punch.
Like the food menu, La Bastide’s wine list is focused and concise, and the online listing represents accurately what’s in stock. Some pairings to consider: Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a white Rhone boasting young-melon undertones scored bingo with our shrimp and vanilla risotto. The only problem was that the wine’s flavor profile took about 10 minutes to unlock because it was served over-chilled. A mouth-warming 2005 Chateau Guibot Bordeaux with medium tannins pacified escargot drenched in parsley and garlic, while a lush and fruity Hidden Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma practically fornicated with the foie gras and its adorning cherries.
Desserts were no-brainers – thin, delicate crepes Suzette swimming in can’t-get-enough puddles of butter, oranges and Grand Marnier, plus a straightforward chocolate mousse dressed in mildly sweetened whipped cream.
Yes, the calorie meter ran ridiculously high, but when ingesting honorable on-target French cuisine, you simply eat with gusto and send your conscious into denial.