The Blue Man: The Poor Man's Auberge

A pocket of French resistance in Lemon Grove

My friends constantly complain that in San Diego there are no good, inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall restaurants like those of New York or San Francisco. True, they are difficult to ferret from the morass of eating places here. But there are some, and recently I found one: The Blue Man. This tiny French restaurant located in the unlikely town of Lemon Grove, is the most exciting one I've discovered in the four years I've lived in San Diego. This is a restaurant straight out of the best of bourgeois France. For those who think that the famous, and expensive Auberge in La Jolla is the best place to eat French cooking, try The Blue Man: it's the poor man's Auberge.

Roberto Amouroux, the owner, serves dinner only, by reservation only, and even making reservations, I found, can turn out to be an unexpected experience. First I made reservations with the answering service for a Sunday evening for two; a girl took my phone number. Sunday afternoon I received a call from the owner who said that he was sorry, but the restaurant would be closed that night (later I discovered that he went to the bullfights). Disappointed, I switched to Tuesday. Monday noon The Blue Man called to say that they would be serving a party of six that evening and would we like to come then instead of Tuesday. There was no question about it — yes. I love plans that shift at the last moment. But the story doesn't end there. When we arrived, the owner told us that we would have the restaurant to ourselves since the other group had just cancelled out. He and his waiter, Rusty Ludwig, a nice young man with a careful and quiet presence about him, graciously kept the place open just for us. Rusty assuring us that it was a pleasure to serve just two people.

There are many restaurants where I feel uncomfortable if there are not several other people in the dining room. I either have the feeling that the waiter is always watching me, that he is overhearing my conversation, or that the management is impatient for me to leave. In such a case, intimacy is lost. Not so here. The Blue Man was friendly and intimate, and the evening, and it did turn out to be an evening, altogether a wonderful one.

There are six booths with red tablecloths and a bar, and it's dark — one of my prime prerequisites for a small place. The menu, which changes periodically, is also small, listing only six or so main courses: the night we were there they ranged from "foie de poulard saute au cognac" (chicken livers) to "cotes de Porc, sauce moutard" with the price hovering constantly around $4.50.

The rest of the meal, we learned, is simply served to you without the asking, and everything — everything — was superb. First came a rich onion soup, then hot French rolls and a sliced, ripe tomato salad with a French dressing expertly seasoned with basil and green onion. For the main course Dan had "escalope de veau, sauce normande" ("very good," he nodded), and I ordered "coquille de mer," a complicated affair involving first poaching turbot, then flaking it, and serving the fish in a wine and black mushroom sauce. I reasoned that if he could do something with turbot (I've tried many times and can't), then he could do almost anything: it was delicious. Then creme caramel and coffee.

This is the regular fare, but The Blue Man also serves a special dinner of eight courses for groups of six or more at $8.00 per person, and my friends and I are already organizing a party. It's expensive, but an evening I know will be more than worth it.

The food was splendid and so was the wine (you can have house wine or one of the six or so selections that make up the wine list), but it was what happened afterwards that made the evening so wonderful. We asked the owner and Rusty to join us for coffee — the former drank sherry instead — and we talked for another hour and a half at least. I didn't want to leave.

Roberto Amouroux, it turns out, is part French, part Mexican, and part American Indian, and learned to cook in the Les Halles district of Paris. He's dark, good-looking, has a robust vitality to him, and is very intelligent — we talked about things from pornography to recipes to Trollope. And he tells a good story.

Where does the name The Blue Man come from, I asked. "Do you want the truth or fiction?" he asked. "The truth," I answered. Then he told us about the nightmare he had one night right before he opened the place. It was jammed with people and he couldn't get the food out fast enough when, just at the moment of complete nervous collapse, he turned to see standing next to him in the kitchen, a blue man who was calmly and competently helping him saute the mushrooms and put everything in order. "Wonderful," I said. And he smiled. "That's the story," he said. "The truth is sentimental, involves a woman and a song."

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