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Eating With the Elephants

August 15, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

The week before the Republican National Convention, downtown San Diego was already battened down for the extra traffic. The blocked-off Convention Center stood in eerie isolation like a glowing gadget from outer space. A few blocks away, you couldn't drive straight into the Hyatt Regency Hotel; you had to crawl down a designated lane of Harbor Drive for blocks until you could make a U-turn and sneak back.

So why do it? Hey, to taste convention cuisine.

The San Diego Hyatt is calling itself the official headquarters hotel for this convention, as the Chicago Hyatt will during the Democratic Convention. Bob Dole has a suite at the Hyatt; Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour and a couple of state delegations are staying there. On the second floor, the bar is serving what you might call campaign cocktails (e.g., the Hillary--based on vodka and Midori liqueur, it "turns Whitewater into green") and quantities of Carlsberg's Elephant brand beer.

Adjacent to the hotel is a restaurant named Sally's, which was expecting to serve a lot of conventioneers. Sally's chef Fabrice Poigin, formerly personal chef of the late Francois Mitterrand, is also a kick boxer, so he might be the ideal chef for a political event. Presumably, he could pitch in as a bodyguard.

Three San Diego restaurant reviewers--one of whom, it seemed, is also a singer with a big band--and one Los Angeles food writer had gathered to sample Poigin's wares. Would this be exactly what delegates might be tasting during the convention, we wanted to know?

Well, not exactly. Poigin is a devotee of la cuisine du marche, where you go with whatever ingredients look best on a given day. Or as a publicist put it, "He'll be flying by the seat of his pants."

But the conventioneers eating here could expect to find something like the menu we had. It started with a Maine lobster on a nicely smoky grilled portobello mushroom, the whole thing resting on a couscous "tabbouleh," like a molto al dente pasta salad.

Then came a baked John Dory filet with deep-fried green beans, a grilled Japanese eggplant filled with diced red and yellow bell peppers, and a yellow pepper filled with sauteed red onions. Nice.

Then a grilled duck breast with a mild, meaty horseradish sauce, a ribbon of deep-fried horseradish (strictly for show; it loses all pungency in frying) and, best of all, a sweet gratin of turnips. And finally, a tall dessert--a slender tower of ice cream-filled chocolate cake rather in the style of New York pastry chef Maury Rubin, representing the tower-like Hyatt.

On Saturday, the 5,000-odd reporters converging on the convention had their own feed in Embarcadero Park, the food provided by Rex, Postrio, Spago, Campanile, Patina and 45 other famous restaurants around California. How nice for them, but they were just the media chowing down among themselves. We food writers had been, in effect, eating with the elephants.

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