Seasonal Bouquet

Mille Fleurs

6009 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe

What a difference nine years makes, just 80,000 little hours. Over those years, Mille Fleurs has mellowed markedly, adapting to leaner times. This major mood change takes the restaurant out of the big-occasion realm of celebs and debs and plutocrats and opens it to regular foodies looking for a delicious night out. And the food (served in a lovely country setting) is certainly worth foodie attention — including the three-course $40 prix fixe.

When last I ate here in 2000, the food was more than fine, but my fellow diners left a faintly bitter aftertaste. All the older women had surgically converted to Anna Mae Wong dragon ladies with eyes pointing to their hairlines, while the young ones sported Anna Nicole Smith torpedo implants (bombs away!). Many flaunted great gleaming rocks for a midweek dinner at their country-style neighborhood restaurant. A Hollywood type in a charcoal cashmere turtleneck presented his little cupcake with a diamond tennis necklace; she put it on and ran squealing through the rooms, showing it off. I wore my best silk and a heavy Zuni petit-point turquoise necklace, but covert glances from a table opposite telegraphed: “Mere stones! No ice, no facelift? Tsk tsk, no belong here.”

Apparently that’s over — whew — at least on weeknights. In those days, the menu was upscale Continental haute cuisine — “Euro,” but mainly French. Now, there is not only an affordable prix fixe but also a new “bistro menu,” featuring less flamboyant French bourgeois cuisine, dishes that you might find in middle-class restaurants in the provinces (or Paris). The host (although we didn’t see him on a Monday) is now owner Bertrand Hug’s handsome son Julien, locally famed in gossip columns as an “eligible bachelor.” And the crowd vibes are different, too. Freed from suits and Manolo stilts, they turn sweet.

My posse and I went on a no-corkage Monday night to try out the bargain prix fixe plus a few à la carte dishes, bringing a couple of good French wines from my cellar. (Well, closet.) Most of our immediate neighbors seemed to be enjoying comfortable retirements, wearing comfortable clothing (men in long-sleeve plaid shirts, women in sensible shoes, nice pantsuits, costume jewelry). And the natives were friendly. As we sat down, Lynne set our shopping bag of wines on the floor with a resounding clank. “Did you drop an earring?” teased Ben. “That must be some earring!” laughed the lively lady at the nearest table. Other patrons were equally gentle — many minuscule acts of kindness. This time, I felt welcomed, included. Meanwhile, on the garden patio, one table was occupied by a slightly disreputable-looking male foursome: leading the pack of three unshaven guys in ball caps was a hatless, sexy-looking French chef whom I couldn’t quite identify — enjoying their Monday night off by eating together at another French restaurant.

The joy of no-corkage night is that you can bring good wines cellared back when you were flush, to enjoy with professional cooking that does them justice, leaving budgetary freedom to choose your foods: for instance, it was still affordable for three of us to order the prix fixe and one to eat à la carte. The à la carte two courses also totaled $40, and we had plenty of desserts from the prix fixe to share.

But you don’t want to risk corkage prices on other nights, due to owner Bertrand Hug’s painful rules (also in effect for Bertrand at Mr. A’s): if you bring a wine that’s already on the wine list — and the list is vast, so if it’s a good bottle, the risk is high — corkage is half the restaurant’s normal charge, bringing it to approximately current retail price. Example: years ago I gambled on some ’82 Lynch-Bages “futures” for about $60 a bottle. They currently retail for $240. If they’re on the wine list, they’ll probably cost double current retail price, e.g., about $480 per bottle, hence $240 corkage. So I’d be paying $300 (corkage price plus what I originally paid) to drink the wine I’ve cellared and aged for 26 years. Say, I wonder what the corkage is for “two-buck Chuck” — we know that one isn’t on the list. (Don’t even think about it.)

Okay, so when do we eat? This leisurely intro gives you a real-life idea of Mille Fleurs’ pacing. They don’t rush you at all. I don’t think you can rush them, short of announcing a plane to catch or an early-morning makeup call in Burbank. The charming maitre d’, Marco (accent sounds French, but he’s Serbian), dealt rapidly with the wines, opening and pouring our already-chilled Meursault and decanting the young fifth-growth Bordeaux that needed to breathe. Then came bread and water, and, at all deliberate speed, the menu. Another while passed before our order was taken. We had plenty of time to admire the charming French-country-inn decor, with nooks and rooms and crannies and window views of the cute village-style main street of rarefied Rancho Santa Fe. A lot more “view” happens en route. Don’t believe the website; it’s not five minutes from I-5. And there’s a curvy two-lane country road to negotiate. It’s worth an early arrival to enjoy the scenery before sunset.

The “amuse” was a shot glass of fresh green-tomato “soup” — sharp, vibrant but not sour, with bits of multicolored tomatoes, herbs, and avocado. We played guessing games about the liquid. Best guess: “tomato water,” saved and strained from the de-seeding process. However made, it was riveting.

The prix fixe offers three choices each for appetizers and entrées, two choices for dessert. All choices are drawn from the regular menus (which change daily with the seasonal produce), so this is not some dreary economy-fare spread. The star of our starters was a salad — ripe red and green Chino Farms tomato with grilled eggplant, chevre, basil, and a great olive-oil dressing. It’s the very essence of summer in San Diego, a reason to live here.

Also rewarding: an intense mushroom soup with dry sherry topped with a mandalic moiré pattern of light cream and parsley pesto. Every spoonful brought up thin mushroom slices — not button mushrooms, although we couldn’t guess the species. Whatever they were, they tasted pretty wild.

“Ahi tartar cannelloni” wasn’t what the name led us to expect — no pasta, but thin slices of cucumber wrapped around hunks of raw tuna with a little crème fraîche for garnish, shreds of mint leaves, and a splash of truffle oil — plus baguette toasts on the side. I liked the fresh, clean flavors, but my tablemates were disappointed with a certain not-enough-ness. It did seem lean, perhaps one ingredient short of mouth-feel richness. (Would avocado be too plebeian?)

The à la carte appetizer of smoked-eel salad ravished us all. Chef Martin Woesle (who’s been at Mille Fleurs for 20 years) underwent much of his culinary education at Munich’s top restaurants and Alpine ski-resorts and occasionally unleashes his German side to thrilling effect. This starter combined tender, velvety slices of smoked eel with poufs of fresh salmon mousse over lightly pickled multicolored beet slices, a subtle hint of horseradish, and a quail egg fried sunny-side-up to break up and drip all over the eel. Ordering, it was hard to choose between this and poached veal tongue — another dish that sounds like Woesle’s German roots are showing. (Wish we had a serious German restaurant here with a chef like “Mah-tin.” This is an unexplored cuisine!)

With one exception — a dish from the “bistro menu” — entrées were less rewarding than appetizers, as is so often the case. “My favorite things to cook are salads and appetizers,” chef Martin told me back in 2000. In fact, an alternative to the prix fixe might be a meal for two of four or five starters, plus a dessert to take advantage of the restaurant’s most exciting flavors. (See “Pick Hits,” including “Great bets,” and there you are.)

The “bistro” entrée had crispy sautéed veal sweetbreads with porcini mushrooms (dried, rehydrated) and Madeira-veal jus. The bites of meat were crisped outside and tender within, and the dark mushrooms played off against the earthy notes of the organ-meat (beef thymus, if you must know). “I could bury my face in this and lap it up,” said the Lynnester. “I’ve never tried sweetbreads before,” said Mark thoughtfully. “I’d happily eat them again.”

Ben was startled by the unexpected tenderness of the grilled bison New York (loin) steak — rare, of course (has to be; bison is very lean and dries out if cooked even to pink). It came with a standard shallot-Cabernet sauce and fine local green beans. Bison’s growing common in restaurants now, but I still like it best grilled cowboy-style over mesquite wood, which complements its residual wildness even better than this sauce bordelaise.

A plump pair of rainbow trout fillets meunière boasted crisply blackened bottom-skin and a topping of lemon, parsley, and browned butter with a bed of spinach. In the film Julie and Julia, you’ll see Julia Child’s sudden life-changing awakening to the joys of food with the taste of a sole meunière at a restaurant in Rouen. Mille Fleurs’ meunière is competent, but I can’t imagine it sending someone careening into a new career. It tasted more like the sort of Julia Child cookbook basic one might cook at home, made with an American substitution for a legendary fish. Perhaps trout simply isn’t comparable. I doubt that I’ve ever tasted the type of Atlantic sole that Julia ate in Rouen — certainly not fresh-caught, given the 7000-mile plane ride to the West Coast — so I can’t speak to the difference in species.

Our lightest entrée, which is an appetizer on the regular menus, had fresh chanterelle mushrooms cooked too crisp and firm for my taste, topping sweet but bland vegetable ravioli with roasted garlic and cream sauce. (Aside from a few random bits of potato on other dishes, the ravioli were the only starch of our whole dinner — low-carb without even trying!)

Mille Fleurs has pastry chefs, but chef Martin generally designs the desserts that they execute. Both our sweets were splendid. A gratin of white nectarines was swathed in light sabayon sauce, punctuated with crunchy macadamias and plated around a scoop of divine vanilla ice cream. Fresh cherries with chocolate sauce were richer, a beautiful blend amplified with kirschwasser (clear brandy made from sour cherries), crème chantilly (vanilla whipped cream), and a tasty, nutty tuile cookie. My espresso was outstanding, the real deal with crema and all. Ben and Mark loved the special house blend of Cafe Moka coffee.

You may still see stars here, but this legendary restaurant is no longer the exclusive realm of Rancho Santa Fe tres riches and L.A. luminaries. The recession has humbled both the ambiance and cuisine — still excellent food in a lovely setting, but now within reach. The “thousand flowers” of the restaurant’s name are no longer just precious orchids and roses but now include sweet alyssum and forget-me-nots.

Bargain Bites:
At Anthology, bargain Tuesdays include selected menu items at half-price from 5:30–7:30 p.m., with a piddling $5 cover charge for tasty live music. Worth dating on a Tuesday!

Fleming’s (both downtown and La Jolla) offers “5 for $6 till 7” — five cocktails, five wines by the glass, and five appetizers, each at $6 nightly, before 7:00 p.m.

Oceanaire Seafood Room’s big deal is fresh West Coast oysters for $1 each, 5:00–6:00 p.m. in the bar, with other early-bird bar specials available.

Starlite Lounge, north of Little Italy, offers a $20 three-course prix fixe on Tuesdays, and their popular Starbuck Mule cocktail, $5, on Sunday and Monday, all in a hip scene frequented by off-duty chefs.

Stingaree’s happy hour (Tuesday–Friday, 5:00–8:00 p.m.; until 10:00 p.m. on Thursdays) entices with half-price grazes in its lounge (including Brandt beef sliders, spicy shrimp sauté, mac ’n’ cheese with bacon). Early birds avoid the club-kid scene.

The Shores, with brilliant ex-Molly’s sommelier Lisa Redwine now managing the restaurant, entices with a three-course “Crab Fest” Friday– Saturday from 5:00–10:00 p.m., for $25 ($35 with matched wines). Through September 12. Weeknight prix-fixe dinners also $25.

The Palm offers a steak dinner (filet or New York) with a starter and a side for $39.95, through September 30.

Truluck’s, the retro surf ’n’ turf Floridian chain in the Aventine Complex, offers filling “date night” specials for $35 per person (appetizers, entrées, shared dessert) through summer. On Wednesdays, wine bottles are half price. Free validated valet parking.

Waterfront Bar & Grill offers free pub grub — free! Comfort food for nothing, Monday–Friday, 4:00–7:00 p.m. Also, chicken wings on Mondays at a quarter each.

Mille Fleurs
6009 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe, 858-756-3085, millefleurs.com.
HOURS: Lunch Tuesday–Friday, 11:30 a.m.–1:45 p.m.; dinner Sunday–Friday, 5:00 p.m.–closing (about 10:00 p.m.), Saturdays from 5:30 p.m.; bar menu daily 3:00–11:00 p.m.
PRICES: Three-course prix fixe Sunday–Thursday, $40. Five courses (any night), $75 (with wines, $110); seven courses, $95 (with wines, $145). À la carte starters, $9.50–$24; “bistro” entrées, $20–$30; “classic” entrées, $27–$34 (some choices may be higher on weekends).
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Menu of seasonal modern French cuisine changes nightly, with occasional German surprises; features Chino Farms and other local produce. Huge, French-dominated wine list, steep even at normal markups; full bar.
PICK HITS: Prix-fixe and regular menu: Mushroom soup, Chino Farms tomato salad, grilled bison. À la carte: Smoked eel and salmon rillettes, veal sweetbreads. Great bets: clam soup; veal tongue; lobster salad; duck confit; any version of “wiener schnitzel.”
NEED TO KNOW: Star rating applies primarily to $40 prix-fixe and “Casual Bistro” menu; à la carte starters and “classic” entrées are more ambitious. Free corkage Mondays. Business-casual (coat and tie not required, rarely worn on weeknights), but weekend crowds may be date-dressed. Secluded garden courtyard seating available. Low-carb; loads for lacto-vegetarians; minimal vegan.

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