2121 Adams Avenue, University Heights
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
At Farm House Café, chef-owner Olivier Bioteau claims to serve “rustic French cooking.” That he does — if you remember that France is a country where “rustic” and “sophisticated” aren’t contradictory terms. (Paris has no lock on Michelin three-star restaurants — many of the greatest are out in the boonies, near smaller cities in the provinces.) And unlike what’s served at many bistros south of I-8, Bioteau’s cooking is genuinely French in technique and in spirit — exquisitely artisanal and wholly free of shoddy shortcuts and heavy, tourist-food clichés. Little wonder the staff of Tapenade (and Marine Room, 1500 Ocean, and Kensington Grill, among others) have been hanging out here on their off-hours. If you’ve ever been to France and eaten well, you’ll want to eat here. If you’ve never been, then you’ll want to eat here to discover what you’ve been missing.
The website menu told me who among my posse would want to eat here most: Marty and Dave habitually vacation in France (even in winter, when they do apartment-switching with Parisians fed up with snow), and they know the difference between French cuisine and le faque-French blague made for the Yankee hordes of August-in-Paris. So Farm House was a natural for them and vice versa.
The neighborhood is very nearly rustic itself, one of the sweet green corners of the center city, and the interior decor is classy-rural — a small bar on one side of a divider, the eating area on the other, with an array of wooden duck carvings along a ledge, but also glam sparkly light fixtures over the blond-wood tables. Music plays softly, but the bass rhythms can penetrate the room. A small patio in front, shaded by an awning, holds a few tables and chairs for fair-weather dining or al fresco coffees and desserts, which are killingly good — but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The menu changes frequently with the seasons, so by the time you read this, many of the dishes I ate may have left the stage, replaced by fresh players of equal panache. We began with potato and leek soup topped with Stilton whipped cream. Unlike the spudsy German rendition, or ultrarich chilled vichyssoise, this is more of a light leek soup with a little potato — warm green velvet, not too thick and perfectly salted. It seemed like a French grandmother’s equivalent of Jewish chicken soup. (French doctors probably tell their patients, “Take a bowl of leek-potato soup and call me in the morning.”)
The chicken liver mousse is extraordinary, a rare lesson in how to do it right — that is, rare. The interior is pink, not brown — the chef gently precooks the livers in a bain-marie rather than the more usual hurried sauté. Hence, the mousse’s texture is nearly as lush as foie gras. It comes with the standard garnishes of mustard, toasted baguette, a cornichon, and a few lightly pickled veggies.
We found a “salmon confit” less successful — a hunk of raw salmon, very silky but rather bland, bathed lightly in citrus olive oil with a charming little salad of fingerling potatoes and celery, plus frisée. It’s supposed to include rosemary cream, but that was missing that night. A better current choice would be a new dish of escargots given a lighter, fresher treatment than the standard Burgundian snail butter. (Several friends who ate at Farm House after I did have raved about it, and the chef’s proud of it, too.)
The restaurant’s website menu is quite out of date, and to my delight, the sea bass has changed from New Zealand bluenose to local corvina from the Sea of Cortez. It’s one of the finest, most flavorful fishes of this hemisphere, and Farm House gave it all the honors due it. Cooked tender, barely opaque, it was served with fennel root, roasted tomatoes, and fava beans in a very light cream sauce — just enough to disseminate the sweet notes of all the vegetables. Dave raved about how the tomato complemented the fish. Marty thrilled to the young favas (as I did). And the faint licorice notes of fennel situated the dish firmly in Provence, where fish and fennel go together like, uh, steak and frites.
The inevitable steak frites was a grilled flat-iron from the admirable Meyer Ranch, which provides humanely raised natural beef. Rare as ordered, it was as tender as a toddler’s thigh. It came with perfect double-fried frites (see Joy of Cooking for the recipe), a little ramekin of superfluous ketchup that tasted housemade, and a lump of butter mixed with blue cheese to melt on the top. “This isn’t rustic, it’s bistro,” said Dave. Marty’s riposte: “Is there any town in France that’s still so rustic it doesn’t have a bistro serving steak frites?”
Braised pork shoulder (the tastiest muscle-meat of the pig) was done simply and beautifully; it brought to mind a dish I still remember from the early days of Chez Panisse, when Alice Waters was newly inspired by the foods she’d tasted during her travels in the French countryside. The pork was tender and delicious, and a lovely porky jus surrounded a ragout of turnips, carrots, and a few turned potatoes. The turnips were shockingly good — I never knew that I could love that vegetable — their faintly sharp earthiness actually upstaging the potato balls. “This is really ‘rustic French cooking,’ ” said Marty. “It’s everything that’s good about the genre. Everything is simple, natural, in proportion. Even the meat dishes feel light.”
Go hog wild with the totally affordable wine list. The white Graves (Bordeaux) and the Macon (Burgundy) are both terrific; so is the Côtes du Rhône Village. Plenty of far-flung bottlings and California choices, but — with a French chef carefully choosing French wines, why be a smartass? Drink those Aussies at Bondi!
It’s worth saving a little appetite for dessert because chef Olivier is a master of sweets and a genius of imaginative chocolates — equal to our local Chuao, and potentially challenging even San Francisco’s legendary Michael Recchiuti.
Clafouti is a light, creamy, baked-fruit dessert, somewhere between a custard and a pancake. Chef Olivier’s version features pear in the airiest, silkiest custard, amended with rosemary ice cream. It was exciting to discover that rosemary would work in a sweet, but I found the ice cream distracting, given the quality of the clafouti itself.
Pot au Crème is normally a chocolate pudding, but here the flavoring was coffee, which was much more interesting in this airy, mousselike confection dusted with cocoa nibs.
And then — ta-da! — there was the chocolate tasting with coffee. The chocolates range from near-conventional milk-chocolate hazelnut through bittersweet filled with passion fruit, blueberry, and a fierce black peppercorn wafer. It’s one knockout after another — and the coffee is fine, too. Ditto the decaf espresso (which is so often a huge enough drag to spoil the end of a meal). Marty was so thrilled, she told the handsome blonde waitress (an obvious pro at her job, not some surfer wannabe) to give our compliments to the chef. Olivier promptly emerged from the kitchen. He is compact, blond, handsome, with a smile as sunny as the first golden dandelion of spring. He graciously accepted the praise and returned to the kitchen. “He’s always so nice,” said the waitress. “A lot of chefs are very tense and egotistical, but he’s always sweet and good-natured.”
A week or so later, I returned for the weekend brunch. Normally I breakfast minimally and regard brunch as something of an ordeal, but when I looked at various foodie blogs, they were all a-rave about the ricotta pancakes and the eggs en cocotte. Jim, Fred, and I snagged a heavenly table on the shaded patio on one of the first warm days of spring.
Mimosas are made with Cava (Spanish sparkling wine) with interesting fruit purées — passion fruit, pomegranate, mango, and peach are among the choices, as well as standard orange juice. The thick purées aren’t housemade but are high quality, and they sink to the bottom of the glass, where, topped by the diamondine sparkle of the wine, they look like jewels.
The brunch menu offers numerous choices but no clichés — no Benedicts, no maple syrup (real or fake), no pseudo-Grand Slams or oeufs McMuffinées. (You can, however, get muffins from the list of side dishes if that’s what you want.)
The ricotta pancakes fully justify all the praise: They’re airy fluff, barely subject to gravity, garnished with poached mandarin sections. A swirl of tangy orange-butter sauce (made with reduced juice and no added sugar) is plated under them and lightly drizzled on top. It’s the perfect breakfast food. (Light eaters can get a “petite” portion for just $5; ditto the French toast.)
The French toast goes by its French name, pain perdu, because it’s the actual Gallic version of the dish, made with sliced day-old baguettes only lightly robed in egg batter. The slices are crisp rather than soft, very different from the soaked-through American rendition made with more porous bread. Their sauce is a discreet application of seductive warmed lavender honey.
Torn between the choices (eggs en cocotte? asparagus omelet? house-cured salmon?), we finally settled on the dish that most roused our curiosity: “sausage, biscuits, and gravy.” I’ve put quotation marks around the name because it’s not the sloppy Southern classic as you know it, but a conceptual art remake of the dish — and probably the healthiest rendition in the whole USA. The biscuits are moderate-sized, crisp-surfaced, and supernally light. They’re leavened with baking powder (not yeast), just like standard Georgia drop biscuits, but they’re more likely to fly away than to drop to the bottom of your stomach like starchy cannonballs. The crisp-skinned sausages are Bruce Aidells’s sublime chicken-apple links (I think Bruce actually invented this sausage), moist but lean and slightly sweet. Instead of the plumper, coarser, cured version you sometimes find in groceries here, Farm House has gotten hold of the original fresh (uncured) product with its fruitier flavor, slimmer profile, and more delicate texture. And the pale brown gravy? Instead of Bubba’s roux-thickened, sausage-studded starchy milk gravy, it’s light and silky — a puréed mushroom-cream reduction sauce. By the way, if you want the sausages without the biscuits, they (and apple-wood–smoked bacon) are available from the list of side dishes.
“I can’t believe it!” Fred exulted. “The prices are so low for such quality — and not one of these dishes makes you feel weighed down.” “Yeah, I feel like I could go for a six-mile run right now,” said Jim. “No more Sunday mornings at Rudford’s for me. This is the place.” Me? I’d eat brunch here every week if I could, even though I hate normal brunches — and I’d have dinner at Farm House once a month. It’s that good.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Olivier Bioteau was born in the Loire Valley, one of France’s loveliest regions, famed for its majestic riverside chateaux and lyrical white wines. He seems to have burst upon the local food scene from out of nowhere, but he’s actually been cooking in San Diego for 19 years.
Unlike many French chefs, Olivier chose the profession rather than having his family force him into apprenticeship at age 14. (Perhaps this explains his sunny temperament.) “Becoming a chef was a goal of mine ever since I was a little boy,” he says. “Both my parents were huge gardeners. They showed me how to [build] soil and grow strawberries and beans, and shaking the walnut trees until the nuts fall, and how to dry them out, and Grandma was hanging and smoking the hams and the sausage — we were growing our own food and fishing for our fish. It was such a good experience of raw product, you had to see what you could do with it. After graduating from high school, my parents said, ‘You’re sure you want to be a chef?’ and I said yes, so they sent me to chef’s school in Saumur in the Loire Valley for two years, and after that the school finds you a job, and after that you’re on your own.
“I moved around every year and a half to two years, to make sure I knew everything I had to learn in a place, and then [you] move to a new chef and learn new techniques and new dishes. So you went from summer season to winter season, places in Paris to places in southwest France, to make sure you learned everything that you could. It was hard, but I knew it was going to be hard. You just roll up your sleeves and go to work.
“Why I moved to San Diego? I was working in a little French restaurant in London in 1988, and that year, it rained something like 361 days. So I started to look in a French newspaper that offers jobs all over the world. I answered an ad, and I moved to San Diego in 1989. It was just marvelous. I would never live anywhere else.” He worked for Philippe Beltran (of Bleu Boheme) for about seven years, first at the French Side of the West and then at Beltran’s French-Caribbean restaurant Alizé. Next came stints at the Hyatt Regency, including working under Fabrice Poigin at Sally’s and subsequently as chef de cuisine at Poigin’s own Vignola in the Gaslamp. When Vignola succumbed to the endless construction obstruction on its block, Olivier worked for a while at the University Club. “But I was getting a little tired of the restaurant business,” he says, “so I found a job as a private chef in Rancho Santa Fe. It was very, very nice. I stayed there for seven years, got my life back in order. I got married. I bought a house. I kind of got my ducks in a row.
“But the restaurant business started to get to me again, and I went to work with Colin MacLaggan at the opening at Avenue 5. I wanted to go on the line, to see if I still had the hots for rushes on Saturday nights and all the chaos in the kitchen. The answer was yes. So [meanwhile] my wife and I were looking for a restaurant to buy for about the last five years. We looked in Del Mar, we looked in Hillcrest — there was always something missing or something wrong.… And suddenly we found this place advertised on craigslist.... The kitchen was there, everything was there, all we had to do was build an ADA bathroom, build a little bar, give it a good cleanup, and we were ready to go. We opened on February 1.”
Unlike most chef-owners, Olivier doesn’t have investors to answer to — he and his wife refinanced their house (three blocks from the restaurant) and took out a business loan. (Hence, it’s a neighborhood restaurant in the chef’s own neighborhood — just like a rural restaurant in France.)
Olivier uses locally made cheese and olive oil from Fallbrook and shops at the farmers’ market in the neighborhood. “I really want to respect the seasons. You have to respect Mother Nature and do your work accordingly. If you buy berries out of season, they don’t have the sugar, the flavor. We try to do everything in-house. We do homemade pasta, pâté, ice cream, sorbet. We’re starting to make homemade gnocchi and raviolis and things like that. The only thing we buy is the breads, from Bread & Cie.”
As a private chef, he had the leisure to learn new skills. “Cooking for a family of four, you start to get bored,” he says. Attending a pastry chef contest in Las Vegas, he attended an inspiring seminar in chocolates, with imaginative fillings like rosemary, lavender, rose petals. “At first I wanted to do cheeses, and the lady [I worked for] told me, ‘You’re not going to stink up my house.’ ” Chocolates were another matter, and he took an online Internet course in chocolate-making. Now, he designs his chocolates, hiring a small chocolate company on Market Street to execute them.
“I like to be as simple and fresh as possible,” he says. “I like simple recipes with quality ingredients, but executed very well, so every ingredient on the plate can be tasted individually but combine together to make a new combination in your mouth — but very subtle, very simple, not too excessive, just good quality, in a very casual, comfortable neighborhood place.”
Farm House Cafe
2121 Adams Avenue (at Mississippi Street), University Heights, 619-269-9662, farmhousecafesd.com.
HOURS: Dinner Tuesday–Sunday 5:00–10:00 p.m., Brunch Saturday–Sunday 9:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $7–$10; entrées, $10–$19; sweets, $7–$10; brunch entrées, $5–$10
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Fresh, refined, precise French country cooking featuring seasonal ingredients and locally grown produce. About 25 well-chosen international wines, all affordable, all by the glass; three premium beers. Corkage $8.
PICK HITS: Soup, housemade charcuterie, seared corvina (sea bass), braised pork shoulder, flat-iron steak, chocolate tasting. Weekend brunch ricotta pancakes, chicken-apple sausages. Chef’s pick: escargots.
NEED TO KNOW: Small room (28 seats at inside tables, plus bar and patio), reservations a must. A bit noisy when crowded. One vegan entrée. No kiddie menu but plenty of kid-friendly dishes.