By Wendy Lemlin
“French Bistro”. Those two words never fail to set my tastebuds on happy alert, and so, when I recently discovered La Bonne Table on the corner of Pennsylvania and Fifth Avenues in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood, it was all I could do not to shout “ooh la la!”
Step into the intimate dining room, and you can almost hear Edith Piaf crooning and smell the Gaulois cigarettes—except, of course, this being California, thankfully there is no smoking and the aromas emanating from the kitchen are way better than those nasty cigarettes. Here is everything good about the French bistro experience, minus the expensive airfare, snooty waiters and the aforementioned cloud of smoke. In fact, on the evening I dined there, all 10 tables were handled by one jovial server, who also doubled as bartender for the six seat bar. I wasn’t kidding when I called this restaurant “intimate”. When I peeked into the tiny kitchen to meet chef/owner Renaud Tristan, I also noted that he was the entire cooking staff.
Chef Renaud and his wife Sandra Cugusi—he’s from Paris, she grew up in Rome—opened La Bonne Table two years ago. He had cooked in restaurants in France, and had opened the wine bar that preceded the La Bonne Table in the same Hillcrest location. They met about six years ago, through Sandra’s job at restaurant supply giant Sysco, and eventually Renaud confided that he had always dreamed of owning an authentic French bistro, with a very traditional menu “like you would find in a typical Paris bistro in the 1940s or 50s.” Sandra, a highly motivated dynamo who herself has 25 years experience in the restaurant industry, said, “let’s do it.” And so they did.
On the relatively simple menu are all the classics you would expect, and would be terribly disappointed if they weren’t there: Soupe a L’oignon with its dark, rich broth, onions cooked to sweet translucency and its crust of croutons and melted gruyere. Escargots in Garlic Butter, Foie Gras Terrine, Roasted Bone Marrow, Steak et Frites, Duck Confit, and Trout Amandine, to name a few.
I began my meal with a delightfully summery cocktail, The Saint, one of seven cocktail options. Flowery and refreshing, it featured the elderflower-flavored St. Germain and gin. (It’s named for St. Germain, a one time Bishop of Paris, known for his virtue and ministrations to the poor.) The carefully curated wine list features 20 French selections.
The best part about my nicely uncomplicated Salade Frisee were the accompanying slices of baguette toasted with mounds of goat cheese. Toasted almonds gave the frisee leaves a pleasing crunch and the mustard vinaigrette balanced the slight natural bitterness of the frisee with the tartness of the goat cheese.
Moules Marinieres were all that I had hoped they would be.
Tender Carlsbad mussels were bathed in a garlicky white wine broth, and I ate way too many of the perfectly crisped fries, dipping them in the fragrant, tasty broth.
For my entrée, I went with the daily special, which, lucky for me, was a mammoth bowl of Bouillabiasse. A big, sweetly succulent Maine lobster claw topped a mound of mussels, clams,scallops and pieces of flakey cod, in a broth that had just enough of a zing of spiciness to up the interest factor to yummers plus. The portion was so large, that I made two more full meals out of my “doggie bag” leftovers.
Need you ask if I had dessert? It was a really tough choice between the Crème Bruleé, Mousse au Chocolat, and Tarte au Poires. After much deliberation, I went with the crème bruleé, because I was just too full for the richness of the chocolate mousse, and my dining companion ordered the pear tart so I was able to taste hers. Both were truly excellent—the crème brulee’s vanilla custard was silky and light, and the tart had a layer of delightful marzipan between the flaky pastry and the fresh pears.
Most entrees at La Bonne Table range in the mid $20s, and there are no vegetarian options on the regular menu. Open for dinner every night except Sunday, this romantic bistro is an ideal date-night go to, or a lovely spot to enjoy your own company at the small bar and sip a glass of wine, cognac or other digestif, and indulge in the fantasy of a Parisian night in a favorite arondissement.
3696 5th Ave., San Diego, 92103 619-260-8039 LaBonneTable.com