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Le Marengo Charms Both Eye and Palate : Decor Is Done With Mirrors; Food Isn’t

In the unlikely event that its fascinating way with food fails to catch fire, the new Le Marengo in Carlsbad may find success as a prime destination for narcissists.

This restaurant is a house of mirrors and marble--the stone underfoot and the mirrors everywhere else, even embedded in the ceiling. Just as in an amusement park fun house, most of the walls are mirrored from floor to ceiling, so that everywhere diners look, they see themselves.

The effect is odd and at times disorienting, but as a compensation for the initial discomfiture, it can be rather fun to catch the startled looks on the faces of people making a first entrance into the room.

Le Marengo goes in for visual effects in a big way. Not only do the plates sometimes look as if a disciple of Matisse were toiling in the kitchen, but the waiters also wear chef’s outfits, suggesting that the table is being served by the same man who whipped up the mousseline de poissons aux deux coulis (seafood mousse served with two sauces).

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Sometimes the men dressed as cooks really are cooks, doing double duty as servers thanks to a staffing situation that seems rather disorganized. The service on a quiet weeknight was acceptable, but much less so on a busy Friday when a newly seated party of guests waited more than 20 minutes before being approached about drinks or appetizers.

Contretemps between the staff and the proprietor are resolved in the classic Gallic manner, which is to say with public, highly vocal dressings-down that, frankly, are less than pleasant to witness.

These dissatisfactions aside, Le Marengo is in some ways an astonishing restaurant. The food so charms the eye and gladdens the palate that, were one less than sure of the authority of one’s own taste buds, one might suspect it all was done with mirrors.

The menu casts an eye at the sea for its inspiration and bills itself as a menu degustation , which translates as a “tasting list” and can be understood as the French equivalent of the American term “grazing.” In other words, the portions are a bit smaller than might be the case at a traditional restaurant, but the prices also are lower.

The theory is that one may be tempted to sample a number of small plates; in practice, most guests should find an appetizer, soup or salad and entree quite sufficient. Dessert plates are lavish and easily shared by two.

Anyone who likes seafood should be able to eat his way through the appetizer list with an ever-widening smile. The dishes are clever and at times even playful, as in the meli-melo , which pairs bits of melon wrapped in salmon with slices of sauteed apple sheathed in prosciutto ham; both rest on a light sauce that hints deliciously at curry.

Another winner, this one quite elegant, consists of shrimp-stuffed French ravioli (there is nothing Italian about this dish) arranged over a toothsome mound of chopped shrimp and fresh tomato. A beurre blanc mixed with shredded basil simultaneously lightens and enriches this dish, a process that would seem impossible but nonetheless takes place.

In a more classic mood is the gratin of mussels and clams, a dish of in-the-shell bivalves heated in a light, teasing saffron sauce. The house version of escargots bourguignon is straightforward, the snails served out of the shell and sizzling hot in plenty of aromatic garlic butter.

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The charlotte de crabe certainly ranks as the most clever of the starters, and possibly the most delicious as well. It takes San Diego’s primary local food specialty--avocado--and turns it, hallelujah and glory be, into something finer and more imaginative than guacamole. Molded into a small, round cake that mimics the bucket shape of French charlotte desserts, this finely seasoned and beautifully textured mousse of crab and avocado is spread with a rich, thick creme fraiche flavored with shallot and cilantro. Fingers of avocado arranged on the sides imitate the lengths of bread or cake used to line a charlotte mold.

The salad offerings lift this course above its sometimes humble and utilitarian role. The salade panachee californienne presents a wild, beguiling jumble of tastes and textures in its mix of crisp celery, bell pepper and red cabbage (all sliced to paper-thinness), soft cucumber, and rich, sweet and utterly unexpected chopped dried dates and figs.

A light raspberry vinaigrette binds together a dish in which the whole definitely adds up to more than the sum of its parts. By spending an extra dollar, one can order this salad garnished with garlic bread baked with a topping of smooth, pungent goat cheese. It is a dollar well spent. A third choice, the salade pecheur, tops greens with slices of smoked ahi and salmon and is simple but nice.

The entrees differ from earlier courses primarily in that they are more generously portioned and more elaborately garnished; otherwise, the same creative mood and delicate touch continues to prevail.

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Even though the restaurant emphasizes seafood, a couple of meat dishes come off remarkably well. The sliced tenderloin of veal, for example, is picked up by a most imaginative and unusual sauce of caramel and lime, moderated by the roasting juices; this is a subtle variation on the sweet-sour theme. Fine vermicelli tossed with shreds of crisp and tender vegetables makes a fine accompaniment.

The roast lamb loin, fragrant with thyme and remarkably tender, is similarly excellent, as is its designated garnish, a bayaldi d’aubergines. In effect, the bayaldi amounts to a ratatouille reduced to its component parts, or a mound of garlicky chopped eggplant surrounded by a wreath of sliced zucchini and hillocks of chopped tomato.

The name is worth noting because it is meant in jest; in Turkey, a popular eggplant dish is called “imam bayaldi,” which means “the priest fainted.” The priest fainted, of course, because the eggplant was so very, very good, as it is at Le Marengo.

Among seafood entrees, the daurade (a type of sea bass) baked in puff pastry shells and sauced with a creamy beurre fondue , was interesting, although the pastry had been baked to a shade too dark. The casserole de fruits de mer mariniere came closer to tradition than do most dishes here, and consisted of scallops, mussels, clams, shrimp and a portion of bass baked in a fennel-scented champagne sauce. The ingredients and preparation were both first-rate, but the end result was less interesting than others.

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Among unsampled offerings that sound like good bets are the sauteed frog legs; the mille feuilles de saumon, a many-layered “cake” of spinach and thinly sliced fresh and smoked salmon; the sauteed snapper served with a garnish of julienned cabbage, bacon, garlic, tomato and chives, and the roasted, boned duck breast finished with honey and cider vinegar.

Desserts are prepared daily, and an order includes a taste of each, which recently included several fruit mousses and a pleasingly bitter chocolate pate (a mousse with body, really). These taste much less sweet than do most desserts because they are sweetened with fruit juices and purees rather than sugar, and they have a lighter effect for this reason.

As a final note, the restaurant has chosen the modest motto “Probably the best seafood restaurant in San Diego.” Le Marengo is very good, but it seems rather daring for a new establishment to make such a boast, especially one that occupies a glass house.

LE MARENGO

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3050 Pio Pico, Carlsbad

720-0102

Lunch served weekdays, dinner nightly.

Credit cards accepted.

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Dinner for two, including a glass of house wine, tax and tip, about $30 to $60.


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