America’s foodie culture hit a significant spike right around the turn of the century thanks to two important innovations — Food Network and the Internet. Both provided literally unlimited access to a culinary culture that, for the most part, was previously invisible to those not consciously peeking behind the curtain of everyday sustenance. People not only learned to cook — they learned to appreciate cuisine of a higher caliber, and seek out something more in terms of quality and innovation. Because of the significance of that era, the cooking and plating tendencies of its chefs are emblazoned in my memory. I remember all the tempura, beurre blancs, and red wine vinaigrettes; the Asian fusion and Creole influences brought on by the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse; the bent toward employing traditional French methods while venturing into territory and edibles far removed from France. They were good times; ones worth revisiting. And you can pay them many happy returns at Pamplemousse Grille.
Executive chef Jeffrey Strauss could easily shift his MO like so many of today’s kitchen professionals, chasing trends like high-end pub fare, enlightened comfort classics, or bacon everything. Instead, by sticking to his signature style, he is now providing something rather unique in a day and age where so many of the county’s (and the country’s) gourmet restaurants are so alike it’s like comparing apples to apples — of course nowadays it’d be blood oranges to blood oranges.
Strauss excels at creating dishes with various flavors not just coexisting, but intermingling. His offerings tend to be complete packages. Take for instance tuna tartare topped with wasabi-infused caviar and sauces of roasted pepper and wasabi. Meant for scooping onto crispy, petite potato gaufrettes, a single bite provides a perfect balance of salt, sea, savory, and spice. The same goes for a namesake salad of lobster, avocado, and grapefruit brought together by a simple poppy seed dressing, or a spicy Cajun-fried oyster with Bibb lettuce and buttermilk dressing. In both cases, emulsions that are substantial without resorting to crude pork or duck fat decadence bind simple ingredients while providing plenty of flavor.
Lobster ravioli reminds one why it is as ubiquitous as cross-cultural sauces like its accompanying ginger-soy beurre blanc. And ahi-crab lollipops with seaweed salad — Sam Choy would be proud. A number of hunky steaks and chops are available, from Prime Angus ribeye to veal chops, but entrées come across as more inspired, including two bone-in takes on pounded veal — Parmesan or Milanese. Neither would see the light of day in a modern eatery, and that’s a shame. Crispy duck quarters in a cherry-vinegar reduction with gnocchi and porcinis is a delight, while meaty fennel-dusted scallops engulfed in an avant-garde cauliflower and lobster gratin are creamy and satisfying.
On top of it all, Pamplemousse may offer the best dessert of the fall, a bread pudding that has the trademark flavor and texture of pumpkin pie filling. It’s served with caramel ice cream and a tart cranberry compote, saving that contrasting component for a heavy dish that needs it versus using it as a crutch throughout the entire bill of fare.
Today’s copycats could learn a thing or two about sticking to one’s gastronomic guns from chef Strauss. (858.792.9090, www.pgrille.com) Brandon Hernández
Photography by Vincent Knakal