Given the eagerness with which so many of us embrace the cuisine of the month, bistro cooking--a distinct and honored branch of mainstream, traditional French cuisine--would seem hopelessly passe.
There's sure not much of it around, which is a pity, because this saucy, earthy, relatively uncomplicated style of cooking--in France it is considered the equivalent of good home fare--has an appeal that all the culinary novelties of the past two decades may have eclipsed, but have not diminished.
La Bonne Bouffe, an attractive, low-key place that long has occupied a quiet corner of an Encinitas shopping strip, continues to offer a menu that is faithful to the peculiar style of bistro cuisine. Many of the dishes are those that first familiarized this country with French food, such as trout with almonds, boeuf bourguignon , chicken in tarragon sauce, shrimp with garlic and herbs, and rack of lamb with a similarly strong, pungent seasoning.
These are all simple, straightforward dishes that are characterized by sharp, definitive flavors; the cooking is not at all indelicate, but it does not strive for nuances. It's the sort of food you still notice while arguing over politics or any of the other topics that distract the attention from more subtle preparations.
La Bonne Bouffe never tampers with the menu, which is permanently painted on a large signboard hung over the entrance. Nearsighted guests need not strain these days, as the restaurant now offers printed menus as well. Specials are recited by the server, remain well within the bistro vein and can be, as they were on a recent occasion, quite irresistible.
A certain generosity also characterizes bistro food, and La Bonne Bouffe tends to go whole hog with its various pates, the dry, garlicky rosette sausage from Lyon and the prosciutto-like Bayonne ham. These are available individually at $4.50 a plate, or together on a large platter priced at $8.75 that will serve several guests.
The rillettes , best described as a pork paste so rich that it makes a simple pate seem austere by comparison, had a fine, utterly satisfying flavor. Served in a slab meant to be eaten with knife and fork rather than spread on bread--as we somehow have learned to eat pates in this country--it was garnished with the usual sour pickles and a tiny pot of delicious but explosively hot French mustard.
Hors d'oeuvres of highly seasoned vegetables also are available singly or en masse and at the same prices; the choice includes both leeks and beets in vinaigrette and carrots in a tart lemon dressing.
The day's special appetizers recently were a pleasant, well-constructed but unexciting spinach salad and a ravishing salmon quenelle , a log-shaped dumpling of airy texture that seemed virtually weightless. As light as it seemed, it wasn't slimming, since it reposed in a fine, creamy, lobster-based sauce perked with saffron. Quenelles require much labor and some finesse, and La Bonne Bouffe certainly turned out a winning product.
The same lobster sauce, this time flavored with fresh basil, dressed a skinned, boned filet of trout that had been poached in white wine. The flavors matched so perfectly that the guest who ordered it said, "I could eat this every day."
The evening's other special entree, boned, roast duck, arrived in a creamy mustard-tarragon sauce, which may sound altogether out of the proper idiom for this fowl, but was quite successful and made a change for the better from the usual fruit-flavored duck sauces. Simple but carefully cooked rice, carrots, broad beans and turnips garnished both entrees, along with whimsical pastry cutouts in the shape of a fish for the trout and a duck for the canard . Choices from the standing entree list include frog legs with garlic, tomatoes and mushrooms, sole with lemon butter, a veal chop in a creamy mushroom sauce and filet of beef sauced with green and black peppercorns.
Dessert options include a cheese plate as well as such sweets as lemon tart, a meringue with ice cream (very much a bistro-type offering), the inevitable chocolate mousse and a Bavarian cream with bitter chocolate sauce that was good, if rather steeply priced at $5.50.
LA BONNE BOUFFE 471 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas Calls: 436-3081
Hours: Dinner served Tuesday through Sunday
Cost: Entrees $12.75 to $21.25; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $40 to $70