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French From the Garden

December 21, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA

When friends from New York were in San Diego for a week last summer, I drove down to meet them at Chino Farm and lunch at the haute French restaurant Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe. At the tail end of August, the display of produce at the Vegetable Shop, the Chino family's farm stand, was enough to set any cook's pulse racing. There were baskets of heirloom tomatoes and satiny-skinned eggplants in a rainbow of colors. Gnarled knobs of earthy celery root. Neat bundles of silvery thymes, fresh bay leaves, all sorts of basils. And tiny bouquets of fuchsia-tipped spinach blossoms I'd never seen before.

Only a few chefs are privileged enough to get the Chino family's produce regularly: Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, our own Wolfgang Puck and Mille Fleurs chef Martin Woesle, who stops by every morning to select the vegetables he'll use that day. After my friends and I filled our car with enough fruits, vegetables and herbs to cook for a week straight, we adjourned to Mille Fleurs, just five minutes away.

Set in a flowered courtyard with twinkling lights strung in a twisted pepper tree, the restaurant's entrance is marked by Spanish glazed tiles. Past the small bar are cozy dining rooms decorated with blue-and-white tile murals and paintings of cafe scenes. With corner tables and private nooks, this is a place for romantic tete-a-tetes and for the golf set's expansive dinner parties.

But above all, Mille Fleurs is a first-rate French restaurant because of the graceful cooking of its German-born chef. Though Woesle writes a new menu daily, his dishes are really subtle seasonal variations on a theme. Chino Farm's vegetables, with their astonishing intensity of flavor, play a larger role here than vegetables normally do in French cuisine, except, perhaps, in Provence.

On that summer day, Woesle prepared a wonderful chilled tomato soup--three different purees in the same shallow bowl. The red one was snappy as a gazpacho; the gold tasted sweet and mild; the third, the color of green grape tomatoes, had a refreshing bite of acidity. A cream of parsley soup with smoked chicken was equally good. Roughly pureed, the hit of Italian flat-leaf parsley was potent, stirred into a gentle stock lightened with a few drops of cream.

I can't remember a more delicious lobster salad. Not only was the Maine lobster beautifully cooked, but the delicate, ruffly lettuces tasted as if they'd been picked minutes earlier and the sliced avocado and mango were perfectly ripe. Dressed in a lightly emulsified vinaigrette and showered with chives, the salad erased the memory of all the sorry versions I'd had in the past.

A veal loin Wiener schnitzel in a sharp lemon butter scented with parsley and capers was so good that one of my guests pleaded to order another. A juicy roasted pork chop in a veal stock reduction was strewn with wrinkly morel mushrooms from Oregon that absorbed the delicious sauce like tiny tree-shaped sponges.

For dessert, we sampled ripe, flavorful strawberries and raspberries topped with pale, elongated fraises des bois (wild strawberries with a hauntingly sweet perfume) and an eggy creme brulee beneath a glassy sheet of caramelized sugar, a superb rendition of the classic. We also tried sliced nectarines with Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream and a frothy gratineed Champagne sabayon sauce.

Lunch was so impressive that I vowed to return for dinner. On my next visit, Woesle's pickled herring--a beautiful plate of red, gold and white beets and earthy new potatoes topped with vinegary herring and lightly salted radish--was terrific. So was the poached veal tongue, sliced and served in a splash of broth with a pungent whole-grain mustard vinaigrette and tender baby leeks. But a watercress soup was garnished with chicken-pistachio quenelles that resemble rubbery chicken sausages more than cloud-like quenelles.

Most main courses were as interesting as the appetizers. A tender rack of veal was paired with trompettes des morts (black chanterelles), redolent of dank forest and served with handmade spinach spaetzle noodles. Grilled filet of beef in a beautifully rendered Cabernet sauce came with melting rounds of bone marrow and milky-sweet white corn.

Service at Mille Fleurs can be just a touch stiff, however. Attempting to convey the idea of a custom-made meal, waiters repeatedly invoked Woesle's name, assuring that "Chef Martin" would personally prepare this or that. They also defer to women with stilted language, as in "Madame, your table is ready," which strikes a false note coming from a young Californian. Just as silly, when we were seated next to the fireplace one night, our waiter offered to turn up the air conditioning if we were too warm!

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