There's something a little Dickensian about the twisting route guests must take to reach Fallbrook's Le Bistro, situated on this town's old fashioned, ever-charming Main Street.
It is easy enough to miss the entrance, which opens not into the restaurant itself but to a warren of galleries and shops built along an enclosed court. Toward the back, a narrow staircase leads up to a room with lattice walls and ivy; if this room is empty, simply pass through and continue to the inner sanctum, which on a slow night is where all the guests will be clustered and where a server finally will take notice of your party and offer seating.
The country mood of the place fits the mood of this rural but sophisticated enclave built among the hills and avocado groves of far North County. The menu would have seemed endowed with savoir faire 20 years ago, and if now it seems quaint, it nonetheless lists a number of simple, attractive French dishes of the sort that have become difficult to find since the different styles of contemporary cuisine took over.
The menu takes notice of the town's famous cash crop with the Fallbrook chicken, a boned, fried breast topped with avocado slices. But, more importantly, this dish also shows chef-proprietor Robert Penkava's bent toward the classic, rich side of French cookery by including hollandaise sauce. The majority of dishes are finished with a rich sauce of lesser or greater complication, and one of them, the sauce archiduke --a reduction of cream flavored with onions, Sherry and cognac--repeats from salmon to chicken to veal.
Hot and cold appetizers each take a page of this lengthy menu, and there are a few nice surprises tucked in among the offerings of Caesar salad, mushrooms sizzled in garlic butter, shrimp cocktail and smoked salmon with caviar and sour cream. One of the most savory is the old-fashioned ham and asparagus roll, the vegetable joined inside its meaty wrapping by logs of Cheddar; after the whole is briefly baked to melt the cheese, a ladle of hollandaise is added in the cause of smooth luxury. Penkava also gives a slight twist to the usual escargot theme by seasoning the snails with white wine and capers, and baking them under puff pastry, which he uses again as a lid for the onion soup. A likable cold appetizer that doubles as a salad is the plate of artichoke hearts stuffed with crab, flaked and shredded and mixed with a well-seasoned, creamy mayonnaise.
The five pages of entree listings--there is one each devoted to seafood, chicken, veal, lamb and beef--offer a vastly greater choice than is common at formal restaurants nowadays. There is nothing novel about the dishes, some of which, like the duck in orange sauce, the chicken "viva" (topped with ham, Cheddar and mushroom sauce) and the veal Oscar are downright stodgy. There are, however, quite a number of attractive variations on typical themes, so that thin scallops of lamb appear in a shallot sauce, and rack of lamb with a Sherry vinegar sauce.
The seafood page devotes quite a bit of space to lobster, unfortunately to frozen tails, which just don't make the grade. Even so, the lobster Newburg was essayed, since this is a wonderful dish--when well made, of course--that virtually no one bothers to offer these days. The Le Bistro version suffered from restraint; Newburg requires a lot of cream, thickened with egg yolks to a voluptuous consistency, and this one was rather marginally sauced. To moderate
this dish in response to contemporary health concerns is pointless, since it is a dish that defies moderation: You either go whole hog or skip it altogether.
Other seafood choices include lobster Thermidor; the wildly improbable-sounding halibut scaloppine, finished with shallots, tomatoes and a Madeira-flavored cream sauce; salmon in a tarragon-flavored Champagne sauce, and a better-than-usual-sounding shrimp "scampi" that includes tomatoes and herbs along with the usual garlic butter.
Of the many meat entrees, the veal scallops stuffed with Roquefort and sauced with cream and Port wine come off quite well. There are also the classic veal normande , with apples and apple brandy; roast lamb stuffed with aromatic herbs; a classic pepper steak and the even more classic beef Wellington.
Penkava offers such old-style (if pleasant) grandiosities as bananas Foster and cherries jubilee for dessert, but hits his stride most surely with his own, homemade ice cream flavored with vanilla, crushed walnuts and brandy. It has a marvelous, airy texture and a magnificent flavor made all the more grand by a finish of smooth chocolate sauce.
119 N. Main St., Fallbrook
Calls: 723-3559; reservations suggested
Hours: Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, closed Monday
Cost: Entrees $12.95 to $22.95. Dinner for two with a moderate bottle of wine, tax and tip, about $60 to $100