Monday, September 21, 2009

Eating Snails and Drinking Wine!

The French Gourmet

960 Turquoise Street 
San Diego, CA 92109

Based on their Restaurant Week menu, I have been wanting to try this little place since last year's Restaurant Week. Unfortunately, I failed to make reservations last year. This year, I planned ahead and it paid off.
This cozy little restaurant is located on Cass and Turquoise Street. There is no parking lot, but parking on the street was easy enough. Especially if you elect to go on a Tuesday night like I did. I have no idea what the parking situation is like closer to the weekend, but since they are not located near the strip of bars, I don't think it would be a problem.
The French Gourmet is in the $30 grouping of participating restaurants serving a 3-course prix fixe menu. Most of the participating restaurants offered 3 options for each course. I was surprised to see that the French Gourmet menu offered 4 choices for the first course and 5 for the main course.
  • Escargots à la Bourguignone - A half dozen escargots broiled in garlic herb butter
  • Onion Soup Gratinée - Onion Soup topped with a slice of French bread and melted Swiss cheese
  • Veal Sweetbread and Artisan Sausage -Sweetbread sautéed with lemon and grilled sausage, served on braised red cabbage
  • Grilled Caesar Romaine - pretty self-explanatory
ENTRÉES Choice of entrée served with vegetable of the day unless otherwise noted.
  • Bacon-Wrapped Beef Tenderloin - With a gratinée of blue cheese and demi-glace. Served with potatoes au gratin
  • Pan Seared Local Sea Bass -Seared fresh sea bass with a rosemary-shallot cream sauce. Served with asparagus and cherry tomato risotto and sautéed spinach
  • Cabernet Braised Short Ribs -Served with a natural jus reduction and Truffle potato purée
  • Moroccan Chicken - ½ chicken grilled and baked in a fragrant marinade of lemon-lime, mint, garlic, onion, cilantro and cumin over couscous
  • Crevette Scampi -Shrimp sautéed with garlic butter, lemon, cream, and white wine. Served with rosemary potatoes
  • Patisserie Maison - your choice from daily selection of pastries
  • Duo of Crêpes Maison - Thin French “pancakes” filled with raspberry coulis and chocolate ganache and topped with fresh sabayon
  • Cheese Plate - Artisan and Imported Cheeses
There is were also options for a glass of wine with your meal for $9.95 OR $15 for wine pairings. Guess which one we went for?
I don't know where the stereotype of snooty French servers and maitre'd came from because Gino immediately put us at ease. He assured us that it was going to be a fun evening. This cozy restaurant with the bakery in front has less than a dozen tables, most of which are for parties of two (I saw one table that had a party of 4). I felt as if I were invited to a home for a very nice dinner party instead of being at a restaurant. From our server to the person who bussed our plates in between courses, each one of the staff who served us made a point of asking us how we were enjoying our meals.
Right before the first course, Gino presented VT and I with 2 glasses of white wine EACH! He explained to us that one was Old World wine and the other was New World wine, both made from the same type of grape. He explained to us that New World wines tend to be fruitier. Old World reds are earthier and Old World whites have more minerality, sometimes with a slight hint of citrus. Gino then presented us with a challenge: Try to guess which is the Old World wine and which is the New World.
This is the first time I've ever double-fisted wine, much less at a nice French restaurant. It was a pretty fun drinking game. We were sniffing and sipping both of our glasses simultaneously. VT's guess was the complete opposite of mine. Gino came back and unveiled the mystery, VT guessed correctly and won. Turns out, the one I liked was the Old World style.
Our first course of Escargots arrived piping hot. VT said that her garlic butter was still sizzling! If you've never had escargot before, I advise you to not be intimidated by these sluggers. My parents grew up in Vietnam, which was French occupied for 100 years. So I've never been scared to eat snails. The taste and texture is similar to clams, minus the mushy innards of clams. Like clams, if overcooked, escargot can become rubbery. These were perfectly tender. We dipped our bread into the little divets of the plate to capture all of that melted yummy butter and garlic bits.
My second course was the Bacon-Wrapped Beef Tenderloin (rare). VT got the Sea Bass. For the second course, we each got a glass of red and a rose for the second course. No test this time, just a nice brief explanation and left us to enjoy the food. The Rose wine was refreshing.
My potato au gratin was at least 2 inches tall. Nicely browned cheesy top crust. Each slice of potato layer was consistently thin. Unfortunately, my beef was overcooked to a medium. When Gino came over to check on us, I informed him of my non-rare meat and he had the kitchen immediately redo my steak while I kept my original plate to snack on the gratin and baby veggies (asparagus, baby yellow squash and baby carrots). Our server also came over and apologized for the mix up.

I had a small sample of VT's fish and risotto (also came with a side of baby veggies). I gotta confess, I was jealous. The sea bass was moist and flavorful with a perfectly seared outer layer. The risotto was smooth, rich and creamy. I forgot if the red was a Burgandy or if it was a Pinot from Burgandy. I didn't like it so much at first sip. However, when my pleasantly rare steak arrived, neatly presented on small plate decorated with the demi-glace, I changed my mind. The rich, beefy flavor of the meat somehow change the taste of the wine. The blue cheese gratinee made my already bacon-wrapped tenderloin a bit too salty for my taste (I admit that I have a lower tolerance for salt than most people). I scraped it off and mixed it in with the potato au gratin. Mmmm...gratinee with gratin. The beef was simply seasoned and the bacon didn't compete with or mask the natural flavors of the meat.
O, dessert! I am not much for sweets, but when the place has a bakery that is the first thing you see walking in, you gotta expect to be wowed. VT and I both went with the Patissiere Maison. The server brought over a very large platter with a variety of sample pasteries for us view and choose from. After selection, she returned with fresh pasteries straight from the bakery. My dark and white chocolate egg shell was filled with chocolate ganache, topped with fresh raspberries and a strawberry in the center was lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar. Only a slight hint of sweetness (in a good way because I don't like overly sweet desserts), the tartness of the berries cut through the richness of the chocolate. VT's strawberry shortcake was divine. Two ultra light layers of white cake sandwiching strawberries and whipped cream, topped with white chocolate shavings. The strawberries were lightly marinated with sugar to draw out the natural juices. This crimson berry was the star of the show.
The Muscato and Port were so sweet that I could only take a few sips of each. I really don't have much of a sweet tooth. It worked out for the best since I still had to drive home after dinner. Warm and hospitable service paired with food that celebrates the natural flavors of the ingredients equals my favorite Restaurant Week restaurant. In fact, my favorite restaurant in San Diego. The generous wine pairings didn't hurt either.
BTW, the French Gourmet has extended their Restaurant Week menu until Saturday, September 27th

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