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Arthur’s and Yae: A Look at Two Restaurants in North County

One of the more interesting aspects of the current steak house renaissance is that almost all of these new restaurants are grand, and consequently quite expensive.

The new Arthur’s Steak House in Encinitas stands as a notable exception. It is far from grand--far, far from grand--and, relative to its flashier sisters in San Diego, it is quite inexpensive. However, the steaks and garnishes could hold their own very nicely in a competition against those offered by nearly any restaurant in the county.

This small, unassuming place occupies the downtown storefront that once housed Rhinehart & Co., which was itself a modest but most likable eatery. If anything, Arthur’s management seems to have toned down the decor even further, so that one is forced to concentrate one’s attention on one’s companions and plate--there is not much else to look at.

There are worse views. Working with a menu that is almost as minimalist as the decor, the cook makes lush still lifes out of grilled cuts of meat, and potatoes and vegetables, foods that in most hands are merely prosaic but become something special here.

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It takes little enough time to contemplate the menu, and even less to order. There are a total of 10 entrees, each of which is preceded by salad and accompanied by an identical array of garnishes. Soups and appetizers do not exist, and the only options are a dish of juicy sauteed mushrooms (a good choice if the party numbers three or more), and homemade cheesecake for dessert, an item that people with ordinary appetites should not be able to attempt. Arthur’s serves a big meal.

Beef choices range from a humble ground sirloin steak, priced at $6.95, to top sirloin; filet mignon; a “steak-a-bob” (a skewer of marinated beef chunks); a 16-ounce Porterhouse, and the most extravagant offering, a New York sirloin priced at $13.95. As alternatives to beef, the menu offers grilled chicken breast, swordfish steak, monkfish and, usually, a fish of the day.

Two things make Arthur’s special--the obvious care taken with the cooking and a fine attention to detail that results in meals somewhat different from the usual steak house fare.

For example, the salad, served family style in a large bowl from which guests help themselves, is in most respects quite ordinary, consisting simply of everyday greens tossed with cherry tomatoes and a few vegetables. But the three homemade dressings, also passed among the guests, make something special of this otherwise ordinary greenery. The most unusual consists simply of pureed green bell peppers thinned with olive oil (the restaurant calls this “zippy emerald dressing,” a fair enough description that encompasses the concoction’s moderately spicy flavor and color). Somewhat typical, but perhaps more agreeable as well, are the honey-mustard and creamy herb dressings. Crusty rolls, split, basted with garlic butter and Parmesan cheese and toasted, accompany the salad.

The kitchen makes a little stab at Epicureanism by sending out tiny dabs of sorbet between the salad and entree courses. The gesture is entirely unexpected here, but not regretted; a recent watermelon sorbet was refreshing and not at all sweet.

The entrees arrive in good order, their oval platters handsomely--and rather amazingly--loaded with good things to eat. The steaks, nicely burnished by the grill, support little blobs of herb butter that rapidly melt into a light and flavorful sauce. A butter-soft filet mignon yielded willingly to the touch of a fork; a top sirloin, generally understood to be a less tender but more flavorful cut, made equally good eating. The steak-a-bob benefited from its preliminary bath in oil, wine and seasonings, and the chunks of meat were alternated on the skewer with segments of onion and zucchini, rather than the more common onion, bell pepper and tomato garnish.

The steaks themselves were substantial, but plates also included lengths of grill-charred zucchini; plump tomato halves baked with a dusting of herbs and Parmesan; batter-fried onion rings that measured about four inches in diameter and were as good as they looked; immense, juicy mushroom caps, and baked potatoes garnished either with the usual toppings, or with a mild and rather nice cheese sauce.

This obviously was a substantial meal, but room was found for a taste of the cook’s own blueberry cheesecake, a dessert notable for its delicate texture and robust flavors.

Another interesting North County eatery, Rancho Bernardo’s Japanese Restaurant Yae, has been around for quite some time, and a recent lunch indicated that this popular establishment may be resting somewhat on its laurels.

The lunch, it must be said, was very nice; everything was cooked just as well as in the past. However, this is a relatively grand and pretentious place, and it would have been nice to find a menu that requires more ambition of the kitchen and offers a greater challenge to the customers.

The nearby Shien of Osaka, a much smaller and less formal eatery, offers a considerably more complicated menu. As an additional complaint, Yae has been allowed to age gracelessly; the premises are starting to look a touch tired after the restaurant’s nearly seven years in business. This is quite disappointing because it was such a beautiful place when it opened.

Even though the luncheon menu is limited largely to the tried-and-true, the kitchen seems to maintain its interest in cooking these dishes well. A starter of beef negima was especially attractive; these tasty mouthfuls, served six per order, consist of thin squares of tender beef wrapped around bundles of scallion tops. Brushed with teriyaki sauce, grilled until lightly charred, and served burning hot, the negima made an entirely successful appetizer.

A bento, or box lunch, included tastes of many standard Japanese foods, including squares of sweetened omelet, more beef negima, a chicken teriyaki skewer and a bit of excellent grilled yellowtail. The star of the serving was a pile of beautifully done tempura, or shrimp and vegetables fried in a puffy batter so crisp that it shattered noisily between the teeth. Each food occupied its own little compartment in the box, and since decoration is important in Japanese food, little flourishes of paper greenery were added here and there; equally attractive but much more edible was the rice, which, though hot, had been rolled into bundles that resembled tiny wheat sheaves.

Because the bento included samples of tempura and teriyaki, little remained to be tried except the sukiyaki, probably the most popular Japanese dish served in this country. Although the luncheon version is prepared in the kitchen, rather than at table as is customary, it is a fine sukiyaki, the broth sugared to an alluring sweetness and enriched with the essences of the meat and vegetables that have simmered in it. The various vegetables, including some young, flavorful cabbage leaves, were cooked to a toothsome softness, while the thin slices of beef, added later, maintained a firmer texture.

As an alternative to the hot dishes, Yae offers sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish), and a wide selection of sushi, or mouthfuls of vinegared rice garnished with anything from raw seafood to quail eggs to broiled eel basted with sweet sauce.

ARTHUR’S STEAK HOUSE. 527 First St., Encinitas. Dinner served nightly. Credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, with a glass of house wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $40. JAPANESE RESTAURANT YAE. 485-0390. 11616 Iberia Place, Rancho Bernardo. Lunch served Tuesday through Friday; dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays. Lunch for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $20 to $30.


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