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What’s in a New Name? Good French Bistro Food at an Affordable Price

Directory assistance operators may grow frustrated when callers request the number of “that new French place at 4th and Ivy,” but we may be able to glean some encouragement from the fact that the management of a new bistro has chosen to give it an outlandish, difficult to remember name.

The little-noticed Cafe des Beaux Arts has changed hands and been rechristened The French Side of the West. The name doesn’t have the same ring as something brief and punchy like Chez Jacques or La Grenouille, but it does signify something wonderful: The management is so thoroughly unacquainted with American restaurant procedures that it actually serves meals the French way--with simplicity but also with an endearing attention to detail.

From one point of view, the most important fact about the French Side is that it serves four-course dinners at a fixed price of $12.50 and the cooking happens to be quite good.

Chef is From Burgundy

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The chef, Guy Naltet, is from Burgundy, one of the two best-known wine producing areas of France and a region celebrated for its robust fare. The menu draws on the traditions of this region by featuring such pleasant and currently hard-to-find dishes as coq au vin , boeuf bourguignonne , poulet chasseur and salmon in the special, creamy butter sauce called beurre blanc .

Owner Philippe Beltran is a Parisian who came to San Diego by way of the Caribbean.

A generously sized plate of charcuterie (the English, and not quite satisfactory equivalent of this term would be cold cuts) appears while guests study the chalkboard menu. This plate of highly seasoned meat preparations is like the overture to an opera--it forcefully foreshadows that which will follow. Besides a slice of rather typical, country-style pate (in this case an unexceptional, semi-roughly textured loaf of veal, chicken and duck) the plate includes the excellent, seductively garlicky sausage of Lyon; jambon persilee , or ham cubes embedded in parsleyed aspic; rillettes , a very rich paste of crushed pork, simmered so long that it acquires the smoothness of butter, and a slice of Brie.

The Taste of Sorrel

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Chef Naltet does not always emphasize strong flavors. Meals include the choice of the soup of the day or a pretty, but rather bland, house salad. The greens of the latter are accented here and there with tiny mounds of minced, pickled red cabbage and shredded carrots, but the dressing, which a server said included mustard, garlic, shallots, herbs and vinegar, tasted almost exclusively of oil. It made a disappointing interlude between charcuterie and main course.

There was a similar lack of punch in the rouille (a red pepper-based mayonnaise) that dressed a classy soupe de poissons , a Mediterranean knock-out brewed from fish, tomatoes and herbs that has a deep, briny taste. The purpose of the rouille is to make the flavor sparkle; fortunately, this soup was so good that it could do without the accent.

A creamy germiny , or sorrel soup, went in quite the opposite direction and included a noticeable jolt of lemon juice. Sorrel, a multipurpose green that can double as an herb (it is exquisite, and is beginning to turn up in supermarket produce sections), has a sourish, lemony flavor of its own, and adding lemon to it seems rather beside the point. Nonetheless, the ploy worked--this was a fine, hearty soup.

Sorrel sauce (basically a condensed version of sorrel soup) makes an excellent accompaniment to most fish, and the French Side offers it as one of three sauces with a beautifully cooked slice of sea bass. The sorrel sauce was tart, the pepper sauce assertive and the beurre blanc mild and soothing. The main attraction, meanwhile, seemed unusually well done; sea bass can be a coarse, unlovable fish, but the kitchen cut the bass more thinly than is common, which made it tender and quite agreeable.

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The entree list runs usually to just eight items, including a grilled trout with fennel and a house special (served for two or more guests) of shark with saffron sauce and fresh noodles. Meat dishes are typical of Burgundy and include a steak in white peppercorn sauce, steak with Roquefort sauce, chicken in a pungent mushroom sauce and a special or two of the day.

The French typically pay great attention to garnishes, as does the French Side, and most plates include the creamy, garlic-seasoned potato casserole called gratin dauphinoise as well as a selection of well-cooked vegetables.

A Knack for Sauces

The steak in Roquefort sauce also included quite a few peppercorns in its seasoning, which made it seem refined and racy at the same moment. Naltet generally knows how to make his sauces, and he also knows how to cook a piece of beef; this was not the finest meat available (at $12.50 for the dinner, how could it be?), but Naltet turned out a tender, juicy product nonetheless.

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The most typically Burgundian dish, boeuf bourguignonne, was the least agreeable of those sampled. A chicken breast chasseur took a much happier turn. The dish is the French version of the Italian cacciatore (both words mean “hunter-style”), but it is far subtler.

The desserts are in the classic French bistro style. The choice runs to chocolate mousse, a decent caramel custard and a pyramid of profiterolles , or ice cream-stuffed cream puffs doused with a good chocolate sauce.

Beltran has put together an extremely brief list of French country wines suitable to the menu, and priced just as modestly.

THE FRENCH SIDE OF THE WEST

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2202 4th Ave.

234-5540

Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.

Credit cards accepted.

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Dinner for two, including a glass of house wine each, tax and tip, about $35.


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