Innovation sometimes consists of nothing more than resuscitating obsolete practices, and way, way back in 1980, few restaurants were so innovative or so on the cutting edge as was Frederick's Bistro.
In that year, this tiny restaurant on a Solana Beach back street opened with its own version of nouvelle cuisine and a prix fixe menu that changed daily; both were novel at the time, although the offer of a multi-course menu at a fixed price was merely a revival of a practice standard at top-flight restaurants until the early 1960s.
Founders Chuck and Jill Frederick, who gave the place so much of its elan, retired the other year and sold out to a partnership of chef David Tennaccio and front-of-the-house manager Farrell Carson.
They kept Frederick's pretty much in the original mold, although Tennaccio brought Italian overtones to the menu. Just within the past month, Carson bought out her partner and replaced him in the kitchen with Peter Lehmar, a young chef who cooked at the Westgate hotel in downtown San Diego for a couple of years after graduating from the noted Culinary Institute of America (known within the trade as the CIA).
A result of this switch is a return to the French culinary underpinnings that always made Frederick's a hit.
The charm of this somewhat funky, one-of-a-kind restaurant remains intact. The dominant feature in these three tiny rooms on the ground floor of a modest commercial building remains the tumbled piles of wine racks and crates that seem to prop up the walls. The profusion of bottles is, however, a happy reminder of one of the best wine lists in the county, one not only extensive but generally priced on a fair scale.
Now, a four-course meal that includes soup, salad, entree and dessert is priced at $26 to $29, the figure determined by the entree. Optional appetizers are in the $6 to $8 range. The menu changes daily.
Lehmar cooks with a bold but careful hand, which is to say he seasons generously but knows when to quit.
A recent menu opened with two optional appetizers, a terrine of smoked chicken and crushed walnuts dressed with a cilantro-flavored yogurt, and a delightful, very French ravioli stuffed with ratatouille.
The vegetables that filled these rounded pillows of herb-flecked pasta were light but savory, a comment just as applicable to the mild but flavorful sauce of chopped tomatoes, roasted garlic and basil that finished the dish.
The black bean soup that followed was, to put it simply, a wow. The flavor indicated a hambone somewhere in the pedigree of this puree, and a spicy undertone that just barely made itself felt suggested a masterful use of cayenne. Snippets of fresh cilantro brought up the flavor wonderfully.
The day's menu offered a choice of salads, a mesclun (the trendy French way of saying "mixed") of choice baby greens and a rich, heady mound of chopped eggplant that had been drizzled with olive oil, baked until meltingly tender and tossed with minced onions cooked until their native sweetness rose to the surface. This was excellent, and an excellent change of pace.
Among the six entrees were beef filet with shallots and Port, shrimp in orange-tarragon beurre blanc , rack of lamb with rosemary-flavored bordelaise sauce and grilled chicken in thyme-spiked wild mushroom sauce.
These were bypassed in favor of the very fine baked king salmon in a light cream sauce tinged with tart sorrel, and an unusual veal "rarebit." Although rarebit usually implies a richly cheesy Cheddar sauce, the sauteed veal medallion reposed in a fairly restrained cream reduction only mildly laced with white Cheddar, the whole thinned, colored and nicely flavored with Guinness stout.
Both entrees pleased mightily, as did the overly generous garnish of seven perfectly fresh, tender vegetables.
The desserts disappointed, except for the fresh strawberries, which Nature grew but the restaurant chose selectively. A white chocolate cheesecake was passable, but a "flour-less" chocolate tart was soggy. The sweets, in any case, were but a minor letdown after the fine preparations they succeeded.
128 S. Acacia Ave., Solana Beach
Hours: Dinner served Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday
Cost: Fixed-price dinners $26 to $29, exclusive of wine, tax and tip.