In a previous column I suggested that one kind of restaurant which deserves to be the object of review is the "pretentious-enough-to-warrant-some-kind-of-critical-response" establishment, because "the public should not be ripped-off." Calling attention to shortcomings is not a pleasant job, but it is sometimes necessary, and I will try to make it — like "we use gas" dentist — as painless as possible. Laughing gas may be necessary in this case.
The Auberge in La Jolla advertises itself as a restaurant of "Belgian cuisine, private parties, fine wines, specialties on request" and has existed among a little group of international shops, the kind which in their windows have flags and a few sweaters which haven't changed or been sold (sweaters or flags) since La Jolla opened for business. The is foreign "flavor," and one would expect a restaurant here to at least pick up and at most dispense this flavor or some kind of flavor, for though "food" is the raison d'être of most American restaurant foreign. The Auberge requires reservations, and late one afternoon I walked up to the windows of the place and looked in for a face, or phone number, or a smell of something. There was a xeroxed review pasted on the windows which said there is no menu but the maitre d' recites the selections du jour. You are given a choice of a salad or "wonderful" real French onion soup, and some of the entrees were listed: filet, veal, some fish, and they all read well. Only a few entrees are served each evening, and they were priced — the review said — at $6.95, the appetizers and desserts extra. And because the restaurant has a "reputation" — not a good one or a bad one but just a reputation — I went home and phoned in a reservation for two on the next day in their new branch on Carmel Valley Road, a wonderful place for that continental atmosphere.
And we drove to Carmel Valley Road in Del Mar not knowing what to expect, except I knew that for that kind of money (and the feeling that I was imposing on the place by reserving a table) I had better get at least an interesting meal. Straightforward description will do: the building was a renovated tractlike home, with a parking lot instead of a front yard and one or two plaster statues — of David or something — in the patio on the side. A young woman greeted us at the door, and she was quiet and new at her work ("Oh, I'm so glad you don't want cocktails — I really don't know how to make them.") She was the only honest aspect of the place, and later admitted to us that she would get none of the tip for her work; the "house" keeps the tip, and she is paid a minimum wage. We were seated at an uncomfortable white wrought iron table in a large room carpeted in red synthetic. I still haven't figured out the room: it had space but felt confining, it was bright (white walls) and yet oppressive, and in spite of the "touches" of elegance ("Hey, wouldn't a wine rack look sharp here, huh?") it felt like a room one would hire to have a small business dinner in a cheap motel. (I must admit it was more comfortable than the tiny dining areas I saw through the aquarium windows of the La Jolla Auberge, which had plastic chairs, dusty molded flowers in glass pitchers with prominent seams, and nothing much else.) Now I don't at all dislike plastic chairs or blunt service or anything that's sort of honest, but all this had a thick veneer of dishonesty — pretension — which is ultimately a way of unfairly extracting money from people. But these are inanimate considerations; perhaps we could expect more from the food or the people.
I knew snails were part of French and Belgian cuisine, but I never met a maitre d' who was one. This man, whose lush accent intimidated and excited me on the phone, almost slid across the restaurant floor on a trail of unconscious mechanistic goodwill. He did recite the menu, but his voice didn't reflect any interest in the food (except for a mousse, which he described in a lowered sincere tone as if we should be impressed with it, and we were). Soup or salad. Sweetbreads. Stuffed tomato. Tournedoes on eggplant. A salmon pie. Chicken with oranges. A white chocolate mousse (which, as I heard it named, evoked pictures of hollow chocolate Easter bunnies and an edible albino moose). Peaches melba. The check. The Fine Wines advertised were really rather typical, and the wine list saw fit to stay with basically one California label.
We ordered a bottle, drank, and waited. The sweetbreads were fine, but the tomato was stuffed with little canned shrimp and bottled mayonnaise, which, compared to the sweetbreads, was insulting. The salad, which had enough anchovy paste in it to shock anyone's tongue, cut badly into the wine (the salad should be served, in this case, last). There was, though, a perceptible amount of Belgian endive in it, which is as close to the "belgian" cuisine as the meal came. The steak was fair, sitting on a sodden piece of ancient eggplant, but my salmon pie was gorgeous, surrounded by a beautiful fluted crust of browned potato. I am sure it was the most expensive pot pie I've ever eaten; unfortunately, the potatoes tasted almost like a paste of instant powder, the creamy sauce was little more than cream, and the good salmon itself was lost in the bland soup. I had heard that the Auberge served French fried parsley, and I long imagined how the stalks would look, black-green, perfectly stiff as if dipped in liquid nitrogen, and I imagined too how when my tongue attacked this hot lacy stuff, the cool flavor of the vegetable would burst through. But what I ultimately served was a pile of interesting cinders, wittily resembling the pile of julienne potatoes sitting next to it. Details, but disappointing. And dessert was ironic; the mousse was smooth and rich and light and white, really wonderful. The peaches in the peach melba were canned. We were by this time happy with the wine, and when the snail slid across the floor to repeatedly ask us if everything was all right, we could only (Cowards that we were) keep nodding our heads in agreement, like demented toys. The bill that evening, for two people, came to thirty dollars.