Paris Light

A "savory custard" is available at every meal. The contents and flavors inside the oval ramekin change weekly, to seize the best ingredients of the moment. Fresh from the oven, the custard arrives so infernally hot, it's hard to taste the "savor" -- or savor the taste. Best to break the surface and give the mixture a light stir, not only to cool it, but to unearth any goodies hidden at the bottom. The day I sampled the dish, peeled baby fava beans and a waft of Pecorino cheese were the secret ingredients. (The next week, I hear, it was lobster meat, darn it!) Alongside comes the inevitable salad, here a heap of spring mix, plus slabs of toasted brown bread.

Moroccan-inspired broiled lamb chops are the most exotic dinner dish. Four juicy baby rib chops (the equivalent of half a rack) are cooked a perfect medium-rare by default, their top surface crusted with Middle Eastern charmoula sauce, boldly herbal and slightly spicy. The chops are set atop Israeli couscous, which look like small pearls and taste something like barley and come with a combination of roasted red beets and winter squash, plus a handful of stir-fried skinny green beans. The veggies are plated in separate heaps, the better to display their distinct colors and flavors.

One hot entrée seems a throwback to "ladies' luncheon" food of the 1950s -- a vol-au-vent (puff pastry shell) from St. Tropez, filled with shredded chicken breast and wild mushrooms in cream sauce. The sauce includes fines herbes but in too discreet a quantity for my taste. (Bring 'em on!)

Other than a soup du jour, Chloe eschews showoffy, labor-intensive appetizers. However, there is an array of "Small Bites" for starters or snacks, any of them perfect with a glass of wine. These selections include assorted olives, hot oil-roasted Marcona almonds from Spain (the latest in trendy foodstuffs), simple combinations of soft cheese or spreads with bread, frites or veggies with dips, the savory custard discussed earlier, and an ever-changing plate of three unique cheeses (from Venissimo in Hillcrest) served with honeycomb and creative house-made confits and gelées.

If you enjoy wine, you'll fall in love with the list at Chloe, featuring bottles from over 20 international growing regions. Each selection is enticingly described in "winelish" (e.g., "explosive/bold berry/blue velvet"), and every choice is available by the glass (priced from $6 to $16.50). Better yet, they pour generously, at about four glasses to a bottle, rather than the standard miserly five. If you can't decide between two wines, the friendly staff will bring you samples of each. Aside from Veuve Clicquot champagne, bottle prices run $24 to $48. The beer list is shorter but equally savvy. For an out-of-the-ordinary house-made beverage, there's a "lavender lemonade" that I found so refreshing, I've suffered mad cravings for it ever since. The liquid is a pretty, pale mauve, and the fresh herb's powdery-floral flavor softens the acidity. If soft drinks are your thing, don't miss the organic root beer, made by Sprecher, a small company in Wisconsin. It actually tastes as if it might have some roots to it.

Do save room for dessert. Nearly all are house-made (except for a chocolate truffle sampler from a local start-up, Elite Chocolates). The best are collaborations between chef Katie Grebow and sous chef Ashley Fulk. Our warm raspberry-thyme tart on the thinnest, most crumbly crust was heavenly, the subtle use of herbs making all the difference in the filling. It was topped with a scoop of splendid house-made crème fraîche ice cream. A few days later, the tart du jour featured chopped pistachios bound in sugar and butter, like a pecan pie from those halcyon days before the invention of Karo. Needless to say, one of the ice cream flavors that evening was pistachio -- intensely so. Each day also brings a different brioche bread pudding, lighter than air, with a small pitcher of buttery caramel sauce to pour on. Chocoholics will want to dive into the pot de crème, bittersweet chocolate pudding of a satiny texture and concentrated flavor. And for an old-fashioned sweet, consider the rakish root-beer float.

One evening, we arrived early for dinner (to beat the Petco crowd to the street parking). As we contemplated the menu, two well-tressed young women greeted each other at the doorway, settled at a table, and ordered a couple of glasses of white wine and a shared order of frites. A gray-haired man daydreamed at the bar as he sipped a glass of red wine and nibbled almonds. A muscular younger man sat alone on the patio, studying a textbook and sipping the soup du jour. Do urban neighborhoods need bistros? Happily, we now have a handy one in our neighborhood of the future.

ABOUT CAFÉ CHLOE

Café Chloe was founded this past winter by Alison McGrath (a former chef who was general manager of Rice in the Hotel W), along with her husband John Chute and their partner, catering manager Tami Ratliffe. Alison and John got many of their ideas during a ten-year stint working in San Francisco restaurants, where they developed their ideas for the café's striking interior design. They named the fruit of their labors after their daughter Chloe. They didn't have far to look for a chef: Katie Grebow was working as a sous chef at Rice.

"I'd always worked in restaurants," says Katie, "and when I graduated from college I was trying to figure out what to do next. My family and friends started pushing me to decide what to do with my life, and I realized that I was still in the food industry, I wasn't leaving it, so it occurred to me that I needed to go to culinary school. I went to the Cordon Bleu Pasadena and have never been sorry. I immediately got a job at Rice. I worked under Riko Bartolomei [now chef-owner of Asia Vous in Escondido], and he was really great. After he left, we had a series of chefs there, and Ashley [Fulk, her sous chef] was sous chef, but he was pretty much the only chef for a couple of months. After that we had Matt Herter, but by now he's gone, too. Alison McGrath and I became friends at Rice, and when she said she was starting Café Chloe, I said, 'Oh, take me with you!' and she did."

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