The great French chefs of the 19th Century and most of this century would be horrified by contemporary menus, as would the majority of their guests.
There was universal agreement, until recently, that restaurants were nothing less than temples of dining. Informal meals and casual foods were to be consumed elsewhere, and preferably out of sight of those who took their stomachs seriously.
Formal restaurants have not vanished, although there are fewer of them and they certainly occupy a less vaunted position than formerly. Their place to a degree has been usurped, especially in Southern California, by hybrid establishments that pay close attention to contemporary tastes and try to accommodate a wider range of pocketbooks.
The menu at Biarritz in Encinitas, for example, would have seemed impossible to the reigning chefs of the 1960s. The complicated, expensive appetizers and entrees of traditional menus are present in substantial number, to be sure, but so are a selection of updated pizzas and pastas that formerly would have had no more chance of making a formal list than would have a plate of franks and beans. The reason for this extends beyond the fact that pizza and pasta are quite outside the realm of classic haute cuisine ; they are relatively inexpensive, which means that guests have a much greater discretion in the amount they spend.
Biarritz actually is as likable for its pizzas and pastas as it is for its more formal foods. But its hybrid nature has resulted in a casual tone that guests who are paying for a big night on the town--if such situations actually can be found these days--may find disappointing. On the other hand, those who come in for a quick, inexpensive bite probably will leave feeling that they got their money's worth.
The appetizer and salad lists, which certainly can be viewed as interchangeable, look for their inspiration as much to California and its variegated cuisines as to France. The starter selection begins with black bean soup (garnished with sour cream and salsa, no less), which is about as un-French as a dish can get. But it then immediately swings back in step with a classic salmon baked in puff pastry.
The list turns to California with salmon carpaccio (marinated but uncooked fish garnished with cucumber, avocado and a salad of sliced red onion), and basil-wrapped shrimp grilled over mesquite and dressed with salsa.
Among the salads, the greens topped with raw, marinated Ahi in soy vinaigrette may be the most exotic, and the mix of spinach with feta cheese and crumbled bacon the most homey. Between these extremes is a rather nicely done Caesar, one that pulls no punches when it comes to anchovies and is made with first-rate ingredients.
The pizzas can serve quite well as shared appetizers, or, of course, as light entrees. These by and large are Italian more by association than by flavor, although the basil and tomato pizza follows the lines of the classic Neapolitan margherita , and another features a trinity of spiced Italian meats--pepperoni, pancetta bacon and hot sausage--teamed with sharp pecorino cheese.
The most effete combines smoked chicken with artichoke hearts and goat cheese, but a version that really works combines shrimp, clams, scallops and mussels with cheese and tomatoes. The seafood flavors sparkle, and this seems much lighter than the usual pizza. The crust is excellent (the open kitchen displays an impressive pizza oven, in which the crusty house bread also is baked), and the seasoning nicely understated.
Formal French Fare
The same selection of shellfish, this time flavored with a bit of saffron, tops a plate of black-and-white angel hair pasta. Angel hair pasta again stars under a meatless but savory mix of sun-dried tomatoes, herbs and garlic simmered in a light tomato sauce; this has a great depth of flavor, but may put off some diners with the salty taste it picks up from the dried tomatoes. A non-traditional spaghetti carbonara that includes Black Forest ham and cream (the classic calls for eggs and Italian belly bacon, tossed with the hot pasta until the eggs turn creamy), is agreeable enough, but nothing special. Pizzas and pastas range in price from $9 to $13.50.
The menu reverts to more formal French fare with the entree list, a brief but interesting selection of grills and sautees that generally come off quite well. They are not all expensive, because a grilled, marinated breast of chicken costs $12.50, but the list does rise as high as $20.50.
The crisp duck is perhaps the most interesting; the crunchy, gilded skin encases moist flesh, and both of these features always point to a kitchen that understands this often ill-treated bird. The garnish really makes this dish, though, because it blances sweet, pungent and bland tastes by juxtaposing grapes, an aromatic brown sauce and flat, French corn cakes.