A new chef team makes an old favorite even Frenchier.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Julia Child’s description of her first encounter with French cuisine went something like this: “After one taste of French food… I was hooked. I’d never eaten like that before; I didn’t know such food existed. The wonderful attention paid to each detail of the meal was incredible to me.”
After dining at Fifi’s, a perennial contender for our readers’ Best French Restaurant in Monterey County, I can see why the Western European fare swept Child off her feet.
Recent chef changes – namely, the addition of Le Cordon Bleu Institute-trained consulting chef Janet Melac (of the now-defunct Melac’s Restaurant and Cépages Wine Lounge and Deli) and Chef de Cuisine Fernando Rodriguez (trained at his mother’s restaurant, Paris Bistro in Montevideo, Uruguay, and formally chef at Goomba’s and Domenico’s) – have only amplified Fifi’s excellence. The dynamic duo has yielded a reinvented menu loaded with traditional French comfort food that owner Michele Wilkes says is “more French than ever.”
Every experience at the longtime Pacific Grove eatery begins with ambiance: Deep colors of burgundy and merlot under soft lighting paint a cozy and inviting vibe like the mise-en-scène of a French New Wave film; Tom Waits plays faintly in the background, the walls are crowded with poster art, and wine bottles clutter every open space. You’re no longer in Butterfly Town USA; you’re swept away to a romantic café on L’Avenue des Champs Elysées in Paris.
A good bottle of wine is also central to the French experience, and Fifi’s offers around 100 – also available for take home purchase – including reasonably priced selections like Domaine La Moutonnière Muscadet sur Lie 2008 ($28) and La Roquette Châteauneuf du Pape 2004 ($45).
After scanning the extensive list for a few minutes, I order a bottle of Graff Vineyards Viognier 2007 ($26), which proves a nice counterpoint to the rich French cookery.
For an appetizer, I start off with Fifi’s “famous” French onion soup ($8.95). My favorite thing about the soup is that it’s not like the Americanized, gluttonous and overly cheesy portions you’d typically find at a TGI Friday’s. The cheese and crouton play a small role in this soup’s performance; it’s all about the steaming hot broth bursting with a sweet flavor that’s both aromatic and fresh.
Choosing a main course at Fifi’s is an arduous task. I finally decide on the duck a l’orange ($23.95) for my main entrée. The Pekin duck is salt-roasted and served with a Grand Marnier sauce. I can’t compliment the skin’s crispiness enough, and underneath that initial and exceptionally crunchy layer lies succulent meat that’s wonderfully tender. There are also savory options for vegetarians like the butternut squash ravioli ($15.25) with tomatoes and leeks in sage-fennel butter.
After my first meal, I was already looking forward to another go. My return visit begins with a Fifi’s must: Foie gras torchon ($12.95), which Michele describes, in her adorable French accent, as “sinful.” The wickedly delicious duck liver is traditionally prepared and served with toasted baguettes. One serving of these rich nuggets of PETA controversy is plenty for two.
I am still left smitten with all the enticing options when deciding on an entrée. My first inclination is to go with the steak frites (19.95), a charbroiled six-ounce flatiron steak with green peppercorn brandy sauce, served with French fries (cooked in duck fat) and aioli. But I end up choosing pork over beef. I must say – not to take away from the steak frites – the brined prime pork chop ($17.95) was a good choice. The pan-seared chop is served with braised red cabbage, au gratin potatoes and brought together with a whole-grain Dijon cream sauce. All the elements work together to create a symphony of cozy and sweet, bitter and buttery notes.
My friend, who’s partial to seafood, goes with the moules frites ($19.25). The bountiful bowl of about two dozen mussels are steamed with leeks, shallots, garlic and tomatoes in a white wine marsala broth. Again, the simple and aromatic broth is key in this dish. On the side, comes a bowl of the duck fat-cooked fries with aioli. I should note that the house aioli sauce – a garlic mayonnaise mixture – has superstar qualities.
Another nice feature of Fifi’s is the daily specials menu. Some past standouts have included a sautéed pork belly and Big Sur chanterelle appetizer ($8.95) and an East Coast striped bass seared with a mussel saffron broth ($23.95). The specials menu includes an additional prix fixe option for $25 Sunday through Thursday. There’s also a Sunday brunch featuring French-inspired morning faves like chicken liver mousse pâté ($10.50) and eggs Florentine ($11.95).
Both Melac and Rodriguez cultivate a love for French food and its preparation that parallels the sentiments of Julia Child, who, later in her life, recalled that first encounter with the cuisine as if it was something comparable to losing one’s virginity. “Thinking back on it now, it reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite,” she said, “toujours bon appétit!”
FIFI’S BISTRO CAFÉ 1188 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove • 11:30am-3pm Mon-Sat; 5-9pm Sun-Thu; 5-9:30pm Fri-Sat; 10am-3pm Sun • 372-5325.