Hello, So Long, Au Revoir

"The French onion soup was indeed classique," but the fricasee was not as good as Aunt Frieda's.
  • "The French onion soup was indeed classique," but the fricasee was not as good as Aunt Frieda's.

Au Revoir

420 Robinson Avenue, Hillcrest

I’d spent most of a hot muggy afternoon at the dentist’s office, getting inspected and x-rayed and filling out a long, nosy form that began with “Are you alive? Y/N.” The obvious thing to do afterward was to go out with my friend and ride-giver, Dave, drink well-chilled white wine, and eat some good food. Since Dave has spent a lot of time in Paris, we headed straight for the newish Au Revoir Bistro.

Au Revoir occupies the former space of La Vache, a French bistro where I never ate; the unchanging menu and drab decor seemed too depressing. Now it’s owned by popular nearby Italian restaurant Arrivederci— hence the name, Au Revoir, French for “arrivederci” (“so long”). The decor has been freshened up to look as rough-hewn Gallic as Gérard Depardieu, with a marble bar and corner seats for two in leather booths, the rest on unpadded wooden chairs. An eclectic music track (French, Spanish, Nashville) plays on the speakers. You’re greeted and seated by a charming Frenchwoman who can answer all your food questions. Ah, nothing like some French staffers to make it feel real.

That, and a French chef who nearly became a local superstar: René Herbeck. Twelve years ago, Herbeck excelled at Marius, in the Coronado Marriott. When the hotel replaced that French restaurant with something more plebeian, Herbeck went to work in the Encinitas Lumberyard at a new venture called Twins, where I first tasted his cooking and was highly impressed. Too soon, the owner fired him — “Spending too much on ingredients” was the excuse I heard — and without the chef, Twins expired.

Herbeck hooked up with Amiko Gubbins at Parallel 33. When that came to an end, he went to work for Philippe Beltran at Bleu Bohème (the ever-wandering Beltran has since moved on from there, too). I was shocked by Herbeck’s seeming decline, finding the food there stodgy, mediocre French-for-Yanks, with certainly not too much spent on ingredients. So, here the chef is again, hopefully free to be more himself.

I began with a glass of cold Vouvray, Chenin Blanc from the Loire. Just what the doctor (dentist?) ordered, a bit sweet (must have been a sunny year) but light, insouciant, cooling in the wet heat of the day. Dave found a delicious red Côtes du Rhône, probably a Chapoutier (a top Rhône négociant) given its high quality and easy price.

The menu is rather short, 14 items in all (including the requisite cheese plate and a charcuterie plate that doesn’t claim house-made credentials on the menu). Choices are divided between a page of Classiques and one of En Saison, the latter prone to change seasonally — probably, before you read this. I did wonder, though, why a “petite salad d’automne” was on there all spring and into July.

With our menus came diplomatic negotiations, weighing our various taboos. My veto was boeuf bourguignon, the budget prix-fixe of every single restaurant I ate at during a week in Burgundy some years ago, until I never wanted to see it again. (Even in some great version, it’s still just beef stew, not a personal favorite.) I didn’t want halibut, either — too many disappointments with that fish. Dave’s a microbiologist: he doesn’t like escargots and distrusts all bivalves, including mussels. Fried calamari was too boring for both of us, ditto a variation on Caesar salad. Who needs these ubiquitous clichés at a bistro? Might as well eat at T.G.I. Friday’s.

Hence, to start: onion soup from the classics menu and a special of mushroom soup. The onion soup was indeed “classique,” a rich beef consommé sweetened by caramelized onions and touched by a hint of fresh thyme. The topping was a just-proper ratio of melted Gruyère cheese and melting croutons. The wild mushroom soup was problematic. Decorated with a lattice of balsamic vinegar, its texture was thick and grainy (hinting of flour-based roux thickener, rather than mushroom purée and cream reduction). The liquid tasted not in the least of wild mushrooms, but probably mere cremini, the brown version of common button mushrooms.

Now we paid attention to the bread plate, with slices of country wheat, some toasted, and a ramekin of a soft, bright yellow substance that definitely was not butter. Rich and tanged with mustard, it was aioli made from scratch, the mustard serving as a binder as well as a flavor. It was one of the most enjoyable tastes of the evening.

From the seasonal menu, we chose chicken fricassee with cremini mushrooms, pearl onions, rather large fingerling potatoes, and a flotilla of chopped string beans swimming on top like an algae bloom. (It certainly fit the new USDA “plate” version of the food pyramid, with three-quarters veggies and starch, one quarter protein.) The stew arrived in a blisteringly hot cast-iron casserole that, as time went by, never stopped sizzling and burned any finger that touched it, which made it difficult to cut a piece of chicken or potato without harm. The unstinting heat took a toll on the ingredients: while the broth was delicious, all the chicken was white meat, thoroughly desiccated (even the wing drumette), and the supernumerary green beans were mushy. In a fricassee-cooking contest between Chef Herbeck and my Aunt Frieda, the latter would be an easy winner. She made hers with wings, backs, hearts, and gizzards, and sometimes small thighs or drumsticks or tiny beef meatballs. Certainly no pricey breast meat, ever! Frieda’s broth was at least as good as Chef Herbeck’s, and all her chicken parts were moist and savory. Some dishes are just made best with the cheapest ingredients.

A special of rack of lamb with ratatouille had our name on it. (I’d bet it shows up on the summer seasonal menu.) It offered three meaty rib-chops cooked deeply rosy, on a fully loaded plate. The meat was coated with à la Provençale toasted fresh bread crumbs and fresh herbes du Provençe. Alas, the coating went atop a thick layer of untrimmed fat. This is not quite optimum.

Dave and I agreed that the ratatouille was worthy of having a movie named after it, cooked the untrendy, old-time way until all the vegetables (zucchini, eggplant, onions, bell peppers, fresh-tasting tomatoes, garlic) are thoroughly tender. (Lately, some restaurants are making a nearly crisp, low-oil version. Who wants hard eggplant, ever?) Sharing the overloaded plate were two sprigs of broccollini, a layer of spinach leaves under the lamb, and a ramekin of potato gratin with Gruyère topping. The potatoes were cubed rather than traditionally thin-sliced, making the texture weighty, and some of the cheese was oven-charred black. I love gratins, just not this way.

Desserts are simple, house-made, very French. We shared a tarte aux pommes, a gallette of sliced apples baked atop a very thin crust. (It’s not a tarte tatin because the crust isn’t puff pastry.) This came with a rich butterscotch syrup, drips of chocolate, and a refreshing topknot of bracingly sour crème fraîche. The accompanying espresso was decent, with a bit of crema foaming on top.

“Would you come back here again?” asked Dave. Yes, but I’d certainly wait for a seasonal change in the unimaginative menu. Because Au Revoir is a bistro doesn’t mean it has to cleave to so many touristic dishes or cook them as carelessly as that fricassee. At this reasonable price point, I can’t expect Chef Herbeck to reproduce the expensive delights of Marius, but it would be wonderful if he could return to the form he showed at Twins, a form that still shows in his best dishes here. ■

Au Revoir

★★1/2 (Good to Very Good)

420 Robinson Avenue (at Fourth Avenue), Hillcrest, 619-268-2400; aurevoirbistro.com

HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 11:30 a.m.–10:00 p.m., weekends until 11:00 p.m.

PRICES: Soups, starters, salads $4.50–about $12.00. Entrées $10.50–$23.50. Desserts $4.50–$6.75. (Note: menu changes seasonally, prices change.)

CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Classic French bistro, with menu divided between Les Classiques (escargots, onion soup, boeuf bourguignon, etc.) and En Saison (seasonal dishes). Wine list mostly French, affordable, with plenty of fine choices by the glass.

PICK HITS: Onion soup, rack of lamb with ratatouille (special). Good bets: mussels and fries, mushroom ravioli, petit fillet mignon with béarnaise sauce, boeuf bourguignon.

NEED TO KNOW: Small free parking lot (if full, pay parking is available at Rite Aid across the street). Wraparound street patio. Dining room noisy when half full; most chairs unpadded wood. A few lacto-vegetarian options.

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