For all its restaurants, San Diego has yet to become what food enthusiasts like to call a "real food town."
Perhaps the city offers too many recreational alternatives for dining out to become the leading indoor sport, as it has in cities with less graceful climates. But no matter the cause, it can be said that few enough local restaurants present the sterling combination of fine food, service and atmosphere that tempts patrons to return again and again.
There are bright spots in the restaurant landscape, however, safe havens for those who wish to receive pleasure and value in exchange for the considerable investment it can take to spend an evening out. A new addition to the list of such places is Richard's, a cozy bistro neatly hidden in a Bay Shores convenience center.
The roof that shelters Richard's is accustomed to the scents of good cooking. Several years ago, the premises housed Le Cabanon, a delightful little place that served authentic French food and that consequently endeared itself to some of San Diego's more sophisticated eaters. The cooking, unfortunately, was rather too authentic (one specialty, for example, was tripe in the style of Caen) ever to gain for Le Cabanon the wide public support it needed for survival.
The menu at Richard's seems a careful distillation of the classic and the contemporary. In tone and approach it resembles the menus at Gustaf Anders and 926, although it could not be said to be quite in the same league as those two powerhouses of fine dining. At its best, the food is quite exciting, and even in its more conventional moments it is at least enjoyable.
Chef/proprietor Richard Savitch creates a new menu every day, a practice that gives him plenty of room to play with new dishes and to take advantage of the market's best and freshest offerings. Some dishes, such as the halibut with peach sauce, betray a lingering fascination with modern trends that already have gone out of favor. But overall, Savitch seems to have an excellent sense of how to combine foods in ways that are innovative but workable, and ultimately successful.
As new as some of his dishes may be to San Diego, Savitch himself is not; before opening Richard's, he was chef at several large but undistinguished restaurants. The fact that the cooking at his own establishment is so vastly superior to that served at his previous places of employment demonstrates how creativity can flourish when a chef signs his own paycheck.
Savitch and his wife, Erin, who runs the front of the house, considerably expanded the Le Cabanon premises. They also gave them a delightful face lift; stylish paper sculptures adorn the fashionably stark white walls, which are further softened by the red-accented banquettes and tables. Since meals also are served on an adjacent terrace, the restaurant actually has quite a few seats, which must mean that the Savitches are confident about their ability to attract and retain a sizable clientele.
This sense of confidence may give Richard's its unusually attractive ambiance. The servers work smoothly and unobtrusively; not one of them seems inclined to volunteer either his name or information about the latest surf forecast. And then there are thoughtful little touches like the custardy vegetable terrine, moistened with a nice beurre blanc, that is offered as a complimentary snack while the guests peruse the menu.
Since the menu changes on a daily basis, it sometimes may give heavy emphasis to one particular type of food. At one recent visit, for example, the appetizer list centered on bivalves; the only alternative to shellfish was a plate of peppered goat cheese served with walnut bread and champagne grapes. But the seafood preparations were attractive; among them were oysters baked with prosciutto and basil, clams steamed in garlic broth, and poached mussels in a buttery parsley sauce. A fourth offering, clams baked on the half shell with a covering of lightly cooked spinach and a creamy butter sauce, made a simple but effective first course for a warm summer night.
Savitch's willingness to experiment leads him in some interesting directions. Since cream of carrot soup can be pleasant but predictable, Savitch recently spiked it with caraway, a pungent seasoning that gave this smoothly pureed soup considerable verve.
His house salad, offered as an alternative to soup, was more formal and traditional, but also quite pretty. Leaves of bitter, precious (this lettuce costs a fortune) radicchio added color and snap to a crisp toss of greens, tomatoes and hearts of palm, all nicely flavored with a mustardy vinaigrette.