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DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS

A Great Old Restaurant Gets a New Chef and Culinary Outlook

January 14, 1988|DAVID NELSON

Transitions can take place almost instantaneously, as when Lenin disposed of the Romanovs and transformed imperial Russia into the Soviet Union, or gradually and out of sight, as when a caterpillar enshrouds itself in the cocoon in which it will slowly grow butterfly wings.

The quiet changes currently transforming Thee Bungalow fall into the second class. This Ocean Beach restaurant ranked among the city's best no more than a decade ago, but was left behind when it failed to keep pace with evolving tastes and cooking styles. Its proprietor of recent years, was Siegfried Heil, who also owned the restaurant during its heyday. Heil, who temporarily gave it up when he left in 1980 to open the Cafe Europa in Oceanside, retained the traditional French menu when he returned from North County.

According to the new chef/proprietor, Ed Moore, Heil's clientele regarded this menu as graven in stone, but the stone proved rather too weighty, because the selection of rich, haute cuisine dishes failed to attract new customers. None of this is meant to criticize Heil, who at least for the moment has gone into retirement, because his handling of the classics always was on a high plane.

Moore, who founded Hillcrest's trendy, satisfying and contemporary Cafe Eleven, sold his interest in that restaurant when he bought Thee Bungalow in October. Interviewed in the aftermath of an entirely pleasing dinner, Moore said that the return to Ocean Beach was very much a homecoming, since it was at Thee Bungalow, in the early 1970s and under Heil's tutelage, that he learned to cook.

Menu in Two Parts

The menu now comes in two parts, the formal list of extravagant presentations that was Heil's trademark, and an insert that changes weekly and features dishes in the same French mood, modified by Moore's modern attitudes. There is a subtlety at work here that one perceives slowly, because the new dishes do in many ways mimic the old--but the differences are noticeable, and the dishes themselves generally are lighter and more gently cooked. Moore said that he has developed a two-year plan to transform the menu into something more exactly his own, but that his gradual, cautious course of action is intended to retain the affections of his current clientele.

Everything sampled at a recent dinner was chosen from the weekly menu, and each dish exhibited a comforting sureness of execution. The idea behind a plate of pates served as an appetizer, for example, derived directly from French tradition--nothing could be more French than pate--but the execution nonetheless was slightly updated, slightly different. The most unusual was a rillettes de canard , a creamy hash of meats simmered to a smooth paste (pates generally are baked), in which duck replaced the usual pork as the main ingredient. A mousse of chicken and goose livers was firmer than seemed needful, and also a touch strongly flavored and livery , as it were; such concoctions usually have a more delicate flavor. However, there were no possible grounds upon which to criticize the venison terrine , a well-textured melange of highly seasoned ground pork and veal baked around strips of marinated deer meat, concocted when Moore sought out a use for some leftover venison. This terrine was devised in exactly the right tradition, because it was the need to find uses for odd bits of meat that originally gave birth to the idea of pate.

Contemporary Appetizer

The appetizer list showed itself at its most contemporary with the shrimp Milan (sauteed with red and yellow bell peppers, cilantro, garlic and brandy) and the duck confit salad (slices of preserved duck served warm with fresh fruit in a ginger vinaigrette), but since Moore has undertaken to cook the old way as well as the new, it was impossible to pass up the quenelles Kermor.

A real triumph of haute cuisine , quenelles could accurately be described as fish dumplings, although to do so would be to deny them the elegance they so properly claim. Their painstaking, demanding and sometimes frustrating preparation requires pounding firm, lightly textured fish and/or shellfish into a very smooth and light paste, and then gradually beating in an extravagant amount of cream. This mousse is then shaped into oblongs, poached in salted water or stock, and baked under a coverlet of one of several rich sauces. Moore used a lovely sauce americaine , a sauce compounded from lobster, Cognac and cream, to dress his feather-light and altogether admirable quenelles .

Meals include the choice of soup or salad, and since portions tend to be outsized (another tradition retained from the ancien regime) , the salad definitely is the wiser choice if the meal has commenced with an appetizer. The plate is simple and pretty, a congenial mix of greens that may be best dressed when moistened with the house vinaigrette, which includes a initially startling and ultimately delightful dosage of tarragon.

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