Just as the pianist at Vincent's Four Seasons in Solana Beach began playing "Someone to Watch Over Me," chef-proprietor Vincent Grumel left his kitchen for a moment to watch over the dining room.
Standing in the doorway in a state of relaxed attentiveness, Grumel looked finally to have come to rest. The sight was encouraging, since Grumel, one of the most peripatetic of French chefs, has cooked at at least seven locations since arriving in North County a dozen years ago.
If there was a faintly regal aspect to his stance, it was because Grumel accepts the just accolade as the local king of ducks and potatoes, items that in his hands can reach rare degrees of perfection.
His duck confit , advertised by the menu as Vincent's prime specialty, is precisely that; these duck legs are carried nearly to a state of grace by long, slow simmering in their own seasoned fat and juices. Grumel knows no end of tricks with potatoes, but does especially well with a crisp, melting potato cake that he makes whenever the mood strikes him, and with the more frequently available gratin dauphinoise , or sliced spuds baked to a satiny finish in garlic-scented cream.
While the menu is French to the core and the dining room itself exudes an old fashioned formality, Grumel does seem to be having fun with the cooking, especially with his daily specials.
This list recently included such novelties as a sauteed filet of sole with golden caviar, Sauterne sauce and a confit --really a sort of marmalade in this case--of apples and onions; grilled ahi with tapenade (Provencale olive relish) and mozzarella cheese and butter-sizzled slices of fresh foie gras from an Oceanside farm, served with sauteed watercress and Sherry sauce. Most surprisingly, though, was grilled chicken with chiles rellenos and tomatillo salsa.
Grumel explained the presence of this last item, which seemed far afield, by saying, "It's pretty interesting. You gotta change, and we change every day." His chicken was coated in mixed fresh herbs, and the chilies were roasted and peeled rather than battered and fried. For the filling, Grumel replaced the usual Jack cheese with Port Salut.
But Grumel does excel at traditional French fare. A lobster bisque was every bit as smooth and deeply lobstery as this grand soup should be. A simple salad of Romaine with walnuts and Roquefort was treated as a dish of great moment, right down to the placement of an auxiliary pile of alfalfa sprouts, that, while attractive, was a touch unnerving at a French establishment.
The standing menu runs through appetizers of house-cured salmon, duck liver mousse, shellfish in puff pastry and the day's pizza (usually excellent) to entrees of salmon with oyster mushrooms, scallops with ginger and candied orange peel, grilled veal chop stuffed with goat cheese, rack of lamb coated with herbs and garlic, and a low-cal grilled chicken breast in fresh raspberry puree. There are several low-cal entrees, in fact, including a salmon named for weight-loss queen Jenny Craig, and these are fine, as long as you order the waiter in advance not to deploy the dessert tray anywhere near your table.
In addition to the duck confit , Grumel offers a roast duck with a light, stock-based sauce flavored with lime. The flavor is illusive and rich, a fine foil to the ravishingly tender meat encased in paper-crisp skin. A recent special, a simple filet dijonnaise , was a good pairing of beef and mustard sauce; the interest came from the tenderness, which Grumel achieved by partly sauteing the meat and then finishing it in the oven. This is a typical and successful French trick of which few local restaurant kitchens seem aware.
Grumel's dessert par excellence remains his bavarois au chocolat , a miniature bombe of cake, vanilla Bavarian cream and chocolate mousse, all buried in hot chocolate sauce. Put simply, it is a four star plate-scraper.
VINCENT'S FOUR SEASONS 731 S. Highway 101, Solana Beach
Hours: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner nightly
Cost: Entrees cost from $13.00 to $25.00. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $60 to $100. Credit cards accepted