French-Kissed Comfort Food


495 Laurel Street, Bankers Hill

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

For a few decades — roughly Carter through Clinton — old-fashioned French restaurants seemed increasingly vieux chapeaux, in view of the lighter, cleaner-flavored “new French” cuisine fermenting during those years. That was also the period of Julia Child teaching us how to cook the classics at home, often about as well as the chef at a “cute little neighborhood French place” — so long as we didn’t mind spending a couple of hours at the stove most nights, or a longer stretch on Sunday, fridge-loading for the week.

But then workweeks blimped out, commutes lengthened, and watching telegenic celebrity chefs compete, whine fetchingly, or yell “Bam!” replaced actual cooking. (Cooking shows are “reality TV” for the tasteful. Do we get brownie points for watching Gordon Ramsay instead of Simon Cowell humiliate some poor schnook?) In the current economy, we’re cooking at home again, but as quickly and cheaply as possible — still have those jobs and those commutes, if we’re lucky. We’re also seeing the rebirth of “the little French place” that offers moderate-priced Gallic comfort food — and we really want it, need it, love it again. Frog’s legs and snails and puppy dog’s tails (whoops — wrong continent!) still seem like faintly exotic adventures, making a refreshing change from ground-beef Stroganoff and spaghetti à la Ragu™.

Although Hexagone (named for the shape of France on a map) is still a very new restaurant, it’s run by a French-born old pro, Patrick Halcewicz, and his nephew, general manager Benjamin Halcewicz. Patrick is the owner of French Market Grille in Rancho Bernardo. Hexagone has slipped into a spot across the street from Laurel, formerly held by Gemelli, a pricey, failed spin-off of the Busalacchi empire. It promises to fulfill the “neighborhood French restaurant” slot that this neighborhood has craved ever since chef Nathan Coulon departed from nearby Modus.

The redone dining room is dimly lighted and romantic, with many slightly undersized tables for four and some for two, up a short staircase from a street-level bar that was fully populated on my visit but quiet in volume — evidently a bar for talkers, not shriekers. A loop of Edith Piaf plays over and over, repeatedly regretting nothing.

The menu is huge — nearly 20 appetizers, over 20 entrées. All the appetizers are $10 or less, and quite rich, so — you know where I’m going with this — you can make a grazing meal for two for $20–$25 each, plus the usual wine, tip, tax, and a dessert if you want one. And the wine list is humane, with French choices priced at close to retail cost, e.g., an attractive Châteauneuf-du-Pape for under $50.

Executive chef Daniel Durfort certainly has a French name, but whatever his professional background, the menu — nearly a twin of French Market Grille’s — hints that he’s largely confined by the owner’s concepts and adherence to tradition. Nearly all dishes are of the old-fashioned French provincial mode, sometimes with heavy sauces that are classically based on fond brun (a beef-stock–based sauce foundation) and/or veal demi-glace, if my palate tells me right. (These are the very sauces that the nouvelle cuisine chefs rebelled against 30-something years ago.) Whether the fond and “demi” are made in-house (a 12-hour minimum process over two days) or are purchased ready-made I’m not prepared to guess, but their ubiquity can make various dishes taste fundamentally alike, however the mother-sauces are amended.

Then, too, we found the same vegetables on nearly every entrée — not the old Sysco medley, but a more elegant one, perhaps le combinaison du Sysqueau. (That was not true of the “little neighborhood French places” that introduced me to French cuisine as a teenager in Manhattan and then as a young adult in San Francisco. I rarely encountered this restaurant shtick before coming to San Diego, outside of my college dining hall, and it’s a major contributor to our city’s bad rep for food.)

Hexagone’s French onion soup gratinée arrived seething hot and proved tasty (once cooled enough to sip) but absolutely standard. Frog’s legs Provençale were tenderer than normal — cooked longer, or slower, they’d lost that rubbery feeling, and came swathed in a light, pleasant, tomato-based sauce with garlic and herbs.

Scallops St. Jacques were a simple, homey version: The very tender, thick scallops were cooked just right, robed in a sauce of sautéed mushrooms and quickly reduced cream that made an irresistible dip for the house baguette bread. (There’s also an olive bread, but after a few bites we realized it couldn’t be Bread & Cie’s signature loaf, since it seemed coarser — rye flour? — not as olive-y, and also a bit stale.) Butter is doled out with French thrift, a slender slice cut along the length of a standard four-ounce stick to do for a table of four. You can, however, get seconds.

Crispy sweetbreads in wild mushroom ragout bring on the demi-glace or fond brun in a thick brown sauce. The “wild” mushrooms seem to be cremini. (Brown button mushrooms — gee, how wild can you get! Maybe it’s a typo and they meant “mild” mushrooms.) The sweetbreads are thinly sliced, lightly battered, and sautéed. The good part is, you get to eat sweetbreads. The bad part is, this rendition is sort of dreary. Other starter choices include lobster bisque, escargots, a fried calamari steak, the usual salads, charcuterie plate, and a cheese plate. I’d originally meant to come back for another meal, and unlike the Little Sparrow, I do have a few regrets. I regret not trying the appetizer of phyllo-crusted crab cake in spicy chermoula sauce, the most avant-garde dish on the menu, or the entrée bouillabaisse, the signature dish of French Market Grille. If Hexagone’s chef makes it the same way, it will (for once!) consist wholly of reasonably authentic-tasting warm-water seafood, with no far-northern ice-water species (e.g., salmon, Alaskan halibut) to upset the balance of nature, worldwide ecology, and the flavor of the stock.

The sea bass with corn risotto and fennel-vanilla sauce was our favorite entrée. The fish — beneath deliciously salty crusted skin — was tender, and the loose risotto was dotted with sweet corn kernels. None of us could discern the fennel or vanilla in the buttery sauce (nor did a replay from the doggie bag reveal them), but no matter, it was a dainty dish.

Marinated flat-iron steak (the tenderest muscle of the shoulder chuck), which came very rare to our order, was chewy but lively with a blond béarnaise and was garnished with crisp, narrow, tasty fries — really good salty fries, and I don’t normally go nuts for frites (give me gratin or give me mashed!). Braised short ribs were, of course, tender, set atop a truffled polenta needing a bit of salt, but the ribs also needed something more to lift them from the land of the bland. The brown, weighty sauce seemed like another variant of the sweetbread gravy. All three of these entrées came with slender flageolet green beans and small, firm-tender brussels sprouts, served at cool room temperature, evidently cooked long before the start of the dinner hour.

The veggie exception came with a roast rack of lamb with a mustard crust in light rosemary sauce, accompanied by a nice gooey potato gratin and soulful greens. As far as I could tell, Hexagone is using the same recipe that mon cher chef Robert at little Le Bouc in the Sunset District of San Francisco (now in Alameda) was using in the ’70s for rack of lamb, so it was like meeting an old friend you assumed has passed away — or emigrated to the Seychelles. The rib-rack was rigorously “Frenched,” stripped of all extra fat on the rib bones and backbone, so that the scant bits of fat that remained were welcome. Served sliced into slim, separate chops, the ribs were beautifully rare to our order (merci to chef Robert for teaching me that good lamb is good rare). The meat was crusted with fresh baguette crumbs mixed with gentle mustard and sauced with a light meat deglace with a touch of rosemary. An oldie but a goodie.

At the start of the meal, the waiter offered a Grand Marnier soufflé that needed to be ordered ahead, and we jumped at the chance. At the end of the meal, he announced that it was unavailable and hinted at an anti-soufflé rebellion in the kitchen. We imagined toqued line-cooks waving cleavers, rhythmically chanting, “A bas les soufflés! Vive le crêpe, vive le tarte tatin!” Odd, because last week, Currant wouldn’t cook its jasmine soufflé. Is this some sort of underground mass movement? Can’t they protest against tiramisu, chocolate lava cake, and vanilla bean crème brûlée instead?

We switched to crêpes suzettes, which weren’t flamed at the table (the servers at this new restaurant don’t seem up to that level of showmanship yet, and maybe never will be). They were pleasant-normal. “Upside-down apple tart” was, of course, tarte tatin translated into English, with a puff-pastry crust, but somewhat mushier, darker, sweeter apples than usual. It tastes homey and unpretentious, as it should, but with a little less sugar and maybe a side of cinnamon ice cream, it would be more worthy of its calories — a little more “pro” and less “home.” The espresso, in any case, was good-normal, too.

The food at Hexagone seems, for better or worse, nearly indistinguishable from that at its suburban parent-restaurant. I found the food better — more strictly traditional and less compromised — than at, say, the slightly more expensive Bleu Bohème, or various other local bistros that have come and gone (or come and boringly remained). At the same time, even within its modest price range, it doesn’t match the local-food delights of Farmhouse, which offers a fresher, more imaginative take on Gallic rural cuisine — much less the somewhat more costly brilliance of a Tapenade, a Cavaillon, or a BernardO’s, with chefs well versed in modern haute cuisine who then kicked back to less exacting bistro fare.

I’d originally planned to eat at Hexagone twice, given the size of its menu, but the first dinner really told me what I needed to know. The restaurant was already mature, with no major kerfuffles unless you count the cold veggies, and I could imagine what most of the untried dishes would taste like. That is, the fare is generally very good, but/and quite predictable. Predictable is sometimes exactly what you want, especially during scary tough times. No accident that moderate-priced “little French places” are suddenly multiplying again. We’re ready to welcome them back, seeking out the sensual Continental caress of their indulgent, familiar, only faintly foreign comfort food.

Bargains of the Week: Speaking of Tapenade and Cavaillon, both are offering bargain bites. Tapenade (7612 Fay Avenue, La Jolla, 858-551-7500, tapenaderestaurant.com) is serving happy hour snacks (most about $7) such as escargots, wild mushroom ravioli with truffle foam, and a vegetarian plate, plus select half-price entrées (steak au poivre, coq au vin) at its cushy bar from 5:30–8:30 p.m., Sunday–Thursdays. Cavaillon (14701 Via Bettona, suite 200, Santaluz, 858-433-0483, cavaillonrestaurant.com), owned by Tapenade’s former chef de cuisine, is also featuring happy hour tapas, starting at $3.

(Very Good)
495 Laurel Street, Banker’s Hill, 619-236-0467; hexagonerestaurant.com
HOURS: Open daily, 11:00 a.m.–about 10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $5.50–$10; Dinner, entrées $17–$29; desserts, $6.50.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Classic French bourgeois cuisine, encompassing all the old favorites, plus a few creative dishes. Reasonable wine list with some bargains among the French bottlings. Corkage, $15.
PICK HITS: Frogs Legs Provençale, Sea Bass with Corn Risotto, Marinated Flat Iron Steak with Béarnaise, Roasted Rack of Lamb with Mustard Crumbs. Other good bets: Bouillabaisse; Calf Liver with Onions.
NEED TO KNOW: Dining room up a few stairs; wheelchair access from side entrance on Fifth Street (phone for instructions). Restrooms at street level (below stairs), so access requires help in chair-wrangling or a long roll-around on the street.

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