Last December, and for the second time in six years, Piret Munger sold her name and the landmark Encinitas restaurant that bears it.
Munger and her husband, George, quietly sold the PiretM Bistro in The Lumberyard in Encinitas and the Piret's restaurant in La Jolla Village Square to their bookkeeper, Tom Hamand. These two locations were all that remained of what briefly had been a relatively extensive Piret's chain, sold in the mid-1980s to a major restaurant corporation that gutted the operation before selling the Encinitas and La Jolla eateries back to the Mungers. According to the Mungers, the most recent sale allows them to focus on their newest establishment, Canes, in San Diego's Hillcrest neighborhood.
Under Hamand's direction, the Piret's (the PiretM name has been shed) in Encinitas seems barely to have changed, except in size: The large back dining room that doubled as an art gallery has been permanently closed. But the brightly lit, cafe atmosphere remains, and long-running chef Scott Wright continues to do well with the extensive, bistro-style menu. Based on a recent dinner, in fact, Wright seems to be cooking better than in the past.
The standing menu, which offers a goodly many small plates that can double as starters or light meals, also runs to a healthy selection of salads, designer pizzas (which Piret's helped introduce to San Diego County), dressed-up pastas and contemporary cuisine-style entrees. A special Bastille Day weekend menu offered fixed-rice, three-course meals of dishes that frequently appear as specials and was a relative bargain at $22.
A crab bisque offered as a special was so good that it deserves a place on the standing menu. Full of the taste of the sea and not too heavily creamed, it had a rich effect while remaining light on the palate; a bit of tarragon added a novel and delicious flavor, and the shreds of crab were a luxurious and welcome enrichment.
A surprising lavishness characterized the starter of assorted pates and cheeses, garnished with mounds of gnarled black olives, tiny cornichon pickles, halved grapes and apple slices. The pates, a smooth, classic chicken liver loaf and a coarsely textured, peppercorn-studded rustic version, were excellent. The appetizer of roasted peppers and anchovies, however, although satisfying on its own, was arranged somewhat stingily on a too-large slice of bread.
The bread basket can serve as a starter on its own, since the kitchen sends out a head of roasted garlic--the individual cloves can be spread like pungent butter--along with the house-baked assortment of French, nut and whole-grain loaves. Other appetizer choices include a crab salad with lemon-sorrel dressing, grilled polenta in herbed tomato sauce, oysters Rockefeller and, a holdover from the cutesy, precious Southwestern cuisine fad, black bean terrine with goat cheese and two salsas.
Piret's simple green salad, garnished with bacon, walnuts, cheeses and a tangy dressing, is included in the price of most entrees and remains a small triumph of the genre. Entree-size greenery plates include a chicken-based Waldorf, salad Nicoise with a choice of tuna or roast chicken and a grilled chicken salad with spinach and cashews.
The pastas primarily are entrees arranged on beds of noodles, and a guest made short work of the sliced, grilled lamb loin placed atop fettuccine tossed with sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil. The shredded cheese strewn thickly over the top was unusual with lamb, and quite successful.
Other entrees were chosen from the special menu and were excellent, particularly an old-fashioned puff pastry vol au vent , filled with an up-to-the-minute braise of scallops, shrimp, clams and lobster in a stock-based sauce flavored with fennel and Pernod. Caramelized shallots brought an unexpected sweetness to a top sirloin stuffed with morels and sage, but, once again, the play of flavors came together happily. Other entree choices include roast lamb leg in Zinfandel sauce, grilled Muscovy duck breast in green olive-sherry glaze, salmon in sun-dried tomato butter and meat loaf in the style of George Munger.
The dessert tray remains heavily laden with a wide array of classic sweets, such as creme brulee and chocolate mousse, and such less-typical items as a tasty peach tarte tatin (an upside-down tart caramelized in its own juices) and a wonderfully good plate of crepes swimming in a warm compote of fresh berries.
897 1st St. (in The Lumberyard), Encinitas
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Entrees $9.50-$15.25; dinner for two, including a glass of wine, tax and tip, about $30 to $60