There I was, thinking the Power Lunch had been conquered by the Power Breakfast, and pining for the days of roast alligator washed down with Vittel at the Four Seasons in New York. Then I got a press release announcing that "The Ultimate Power Lunch"--the " 'Tray Chic' Executive Lunch"--is alive and well and waiting to be consumed in the City of Industry.
Wait, there's more. Not only can you get a "U.P.L." at Frere Jacques, you can order it by the Ultimate Power Communications Device, FAX. And if you select the $9.95 three-course lunch (a la carte is available too), you get to play . . . bingo. Or hardball too, I'm sure.
Frere Jacques turned out to be a French-Continental restaurant in a comfortable old converted roadhouse, but I resolutely stayed in the bar and ordered my Power Food to go. Here's how it works: The appetizers are lettered, the entrees are numbered, and you mix and match. I put my money on "C10," the peppery, moist, pistachio-studded terrine de pate Frere Jacques and the smoked Nova Scotia salmon sandwich with creamy salmon, sweet light pumpernickel and a shower of onions and capers.
Seafood crepes, quiche and two chicken dishes are the hot lunch meals. Except for an order of split pea soup with ham, which was rich, smoky and dense, I stayed with the cold offerings. Other than "C10," I regret to say, everything I sampled was less than executive material.
Duckling liver mousse au Porto was one strong, grainy, livery note. Conversely, the "fresh tarragon dressing" on the plain green Salad Maison was milky and weak. Monte Carlo Salad was a hodgepodge of lettuce, green and red peppers, visible but flavorless squid and a strong vinegar tang. "La Salade Laurie," a generous mixture of chicken, crisp walnuts and diced apples was all mucked up with too much dressing, too many unannounced onions and none of the advertised string beans.
Dessert was the saving grace. There was a moist cheesecake with an intelligent raspberry-Cognac sauce and a delightful homemade pear and custard tarte.
The press release said that "selected choices" from the regular dinner menu could be ordered for take-out "simply by calling in advance." While it turned out to be an unusual request--most of their take-out orders are at lunch--Jacques himself guided me through the menu, noting the entrees he thought would travel well. But there was no way to pack the bouillabaisse, he said. What if I bring my own bowl? Then fine. (When, whoops, I forgot the bowl, he graciously had it packed in several soup containers.)
On the plus side, portions are very generous, ingredients fresh and prices reasonable. Roasted duckling, which did travel well, was moist, not at all fatty, and crowned with gently sauteed apples. A tender slab of calamari steak came with a light, robustly flavored garlic, black olive and basil sauce. The garlic toasts that accompanied a salty fish soup were absolutely swell.
But one of my dining companions hit the nail on the head when he innocently asked "Is this supposed to be French?" No. You'd never mistake this soulless assemblage of pork chop, chicken, good fennel sausage and white beans in an excessively sweet sauce (I thought of Boston beans), for a passionate, stock-infused cassoulet. And though the bouillabaisse contained big lovely pieces of salmon and a profusion of tender crab claws, the broth, thin and terribly salty, made Marseilles seem very far away.
There is something compelling about an old road house turned French-Continental restaurant, set as it is in this industrial no-man's land. The low lights are cozy, the staff is warm. There's even a signed picture of Gina Lollobrigida on the wall. It's a perfect period movie-set place.
The atmosphere is great. But unfortunately, when you order take-out you don't get to take the atmosphere with you. Come to think of it, when you order take-out a power lunch pretty much loses its point.
Frere Jacques, 15200 E . Valley Blvd . , City of Industry; (818) 330-8119; FAX (818) 330-8075 . Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday - Friday , dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday. Orders must be phoned or FAXed in before 10 a.m. for lunch pick-up. All major credit cards. Parking lot. Dinner for two , food only , $40-$50; Executive Lunch for one, $9.95.