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Bountiful Basque Dinner Goes Over in a Big Way With Patrons

About 100 years ago, a gastronomic society called Le Club des Grands Estomacs (The Club of the Big Stomachs) existed in Paris.

Composed of wealthy men, it met in the Restaurant Pascal at 6 p.m. every Saturday and spent the next 18 hours devouring more courses than I care to name, accompanied, in toto, by 12 bottles of wine, 4 bottles of champagne and 1 bottle of cognac per man. This seems unbelievable, but the members’ doings are well-documented, and are a very real slice of the multi-tiered cake that makes up the history of French gastronomy.

The odd thing about this club is that no one in it was Basque. These people really know how to eat, even today, when having a grand estomac is considered rather less than stylish. The Basques, a unique group (their language is not related to any other) that occupies a region half in France, half in Spain, have a cuisine that is influenced by both countries but dominated by neither.

In broad terms, they can be called true gourmands because they like to eat lots of good food (gourmets merely like to eat good food), a fact attested to by the hundreds of men’s eating clubs that keep bread-winners away from the family circle night after night after night.

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California has quite a number of Basque immigrants and their descendants, of whom the majority lives in the northern part of the state. Many were drawn by opportunities to herd sheep, at which Basques are acknowledged masters.

Over the years, many have opened restaurants (again largely in the north), which share certain characteristics: Meals tend to be served family style and in such a progression of courses that the uninitiated may think they have encountered the final gastronomic apocalypse.

San Diego County has two Basque eateries, the venerable Chateau Basque in the tiny East County settlement of Boulevard, and the new (4 months old) Bonita Driftwood in Bonita.

The letter “G” must figure prominently in any discussion of the Bonita Driftwood: “G” as in garlic, Gargantua, gourmet (and certainly gourmand) and Gascon, as the French call the Basques (they are Vascones in Spanish). Garlic permeates everything ( lots and lots of garlic, with extra garlic added for good measure)--a square deal as far I’m concerned--and the meals are absolutely Gargantuan. Five courses, each composed of several dishes, make up the dinner, and all of them come on daunting platters containing far more food than a party can possibly consume.

The good news is that the food by and large is delicious and that dinners cost $12.50 per person. The surprising news is that the proprietor is Italian, but that’s OK: Owner Jim Duerson learned his cuisine by spending 30 years among the Basques near Bakersfield. Because Duerson is Italian, every meal includes a hearty serving of a very non-Basque but very delicious pasta, typically rigatoni tossed with a tasty tomato-and-meat sauce flavored with herbs and garlic.

The only choice facing the diners is the choice of entree because all other courses are predetermined. Recently, the entree selection counted five offerings: roast chicken; medallions of filet mignon on a bed of wonderfully savory black beans; halibut in lemon, herbs and white wine; roast leg of lamb (traditionally the dish par excellence of la cuisine basquaise ), and cassoulet, the southern France casserole of white beans baked with a lavish garnish of cured and fresh meats. At other times, the list will include prime rib, sweetbreads and shrimp.

Tables are preset with a bowl of sophisticated salsa (a surprise, but useful, as things turn out), and soup bowls set atop two dinner plates. The crockery is meant to accommodate the first three courses only.

Basques like beans, and Bonita Driftwood serves them in many guises. The first course consisted of a huge bowl of beans of the frijoles refritos school and a tureen of lentil soup containing chunks of Italian sausage and vegetables. The waiter suggested combining both, along with a spoonful of salsa, in the soup bowls, but I was content to eat the mild beans (they needed and benefited from the salsa) first, and the excellent soup second. By the way, that it it is both wise and necessary to take small portions became quickly evident.

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The second course consisted of salads--note the plural--all served on platters. The best was a mix of gorgeously ripe tomatoes garnished with strips of bell pepper; the others were green beans mixed with bits of hard-boiled egg, and iceberg lettuce in a commercial “Italian” dressing partly redeemed by fresh parsley. The crusty sourdough bread, consumed judiciously, went nicely with this course.

Course three was a rather odd pairing of the aforementioned, excellent rigatoni, and catfish sauteed in white wine, lemon and butter. So much garlic pervaded the catfish that even for one who normally dislikes this fish, it tasted pretty good. These items were of course served on separate platters, and again in quantity sufficient to feed a hamlet.

By the time the entrees arrived, two of us were begging for mercy (the third guest was begging for more), but the sense of satiety did nothing to deny the high quality of the roast chicken and sauteed filet mignon.

The chicken--garnished with sauteed vegetables and fragrant with thyme and rosemary--was juicy and sat atop a bed of beautifully seasoned white beans. The filet, cooked correctly as ordered, rested on a pool of black beans that were spiced, herbed and possibly bewitched to a wonderfully savory finish. The leg of lamb, described by the waiter as the ultimate house specialty, as indeed it should be in any Basque restaurant, was quite disappointing--overcooked, it also had a strong flavor that declined to be tamed by the herb-scented gravy. The same gravy dressed a platter of crisp, oven-roasted potato wedges. As the vegetable, the kitchen sent out a platter of lovely, freshly sauteed zucchini. (It seems redundant to mention again that there was garlic, garlic, everywhere.)

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The dessert course mercifully consisted of nothing more than a bowl (huge, of course) of grapes, apricots and plums, all beguilingly plump and tasty, and a plate of Danish blue cheese. The cheese went well with what was left of the table’s red wine. The wine list offers exactly two reds, both nondescript but hearty enough for the food, and decidedly preferable to the pair of whites.

As at so many restaurants, the focus is on food rather than glamour. The mood is casual, the crowd generally happy, the service pleasant and efficient.

BONITA DRIFTWOOD

5202 Bonita Road, Bonita

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470-0900

Dinner served Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday.

Credit cards accepted.

Dinner for two, with a bottle of wine, tax and tip, about $40.

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