By David Nelson
SDUN Restaurant Critic
A diamond is forever, but one of Olivier Bioteau’s stellar steak-frites sure sparkles on a quiet Wednesday night. An endlessly popular staple of café menus in France, this way of presenting America’s favorite combo of steak and french fries (and remember, the French did it first) is simple but irresistible. Virtually always quite rare in France, no matter how you order it – and begging doesn’t help – the smallish steak is topped with a slab of tasty maitre d’hotel butter, which as it slowly melts and mingles with the meat juices creates a succulent sauce. Bioteau sends out a slightly chewy, absolutely appealing hunk of steak in just this way (he does cook it to order, but rare is best), sided with a cup of skinny, sizzling-from-the-fryer fries and a little dish of ketchup that sensible diners will dispatch directly back to the kitchen. The pleasure doesn’t end when the plate is bare, since the meal lingers pleasantly in the memory ($21).
Bioteau and his wife, Rochelle, who by day is an attorney but at night manages the dining room, literally have all their ducks in a row at Farm House Café. A row of carved duck statuettes waddles behind a room-spanning banquette – it isn’t a big room to span – as participants in a rustic-chic décor that extends to the clothespins used to secure napkins and a wooden pig hanging from a bracket.
The bar is big in relation to the small space, and all the places are set for dinner, welcoming solo guests who find dishes like the house-made fettuccine in a one-of-a-kind, Moroccan-spiced lamb Bolognese sauce ($16) the perfect foil to one of the big reds featured on the expertly chosen wine card.
Rochelle Bioteau is the one to consult when the issue arises of which white-by-the-glass will pair perfectly with the choice Mano de Leon (“lion’s paw”) scallops that her husband pan-sears in sizzling butter and embellishes with a wondrous garnish of fresh artichokes, sautéed mushrooms, mashed Yukon Golds and saffron-flavored aioli ($22).
It’s expected that wine lists will give the provenance of all vintages on offer, but Farm House Café also records food sources on the menu. As one of the growing cadre of San Diego chefs who rejects any but the highest quality ingredients, the oh-so-French Bioteau makes note that his breads are baked by Bread & Cie, and that meats are from the respected San Diego Meat Company. This partly explains the $15 price tag attached to the plush Farm House Café hamburger, an eight-ounce patty of Meyer Ranch beef lavished with sauce remoulade, Cheddar cheese and pickled vegetables, and sided by plenty of Bioteau’s better-than-good frites.
The honor roll of suppliers continues with the names of La Milpa Organica and Suzie’s Farm, which deliver veggies and greens, artisanal cured meats from San Diego’s currently hot-as-a-pistol Knight Salumi, and seafood from Better Half Shell and Catalina offshore. The quality blooms in every dish.
The menu is decidedly brief, a fact remedied by daily specials. The soup changes regularly ($8), and was recently a very fine purée of roasted tomatoes simmered in vegetable stock with garlic and mirepoix (the French combo of sautéed diced root vegetables), and flavored last-minute with a spritz of basil oil.
Vegetable stock also lightens a most unusual risotto ($10) that Rochelle Bioteau calls her husband’s specialty. Studded with escargot – yes, snails – and flavored with young green garlic and a splash of Pernod, it’s a little triumph, not least because of the parsley butter that dyes the rice a vivid green. This is a substantial starter, perhaps too large to preface an entrée like the flat iron steak with potato gnocchi, sautéed spinach and green peppercorn sauce ($21), in which case the spring vegetable salad with extra virgin olive oil and pungent tapenade ($9) makes an excellent opener.
On occasion, Bioteau offers sautéed Hudson Valley foie gras (day’s price) as a deluxe appetizer, a dish claimed by a guest who remarked, “You don’t order foie gras if you don’t like it,” by which he probably meant “You don’t pass up foie gras when it’s there for the asking.” At Farm House, the duck liver is sublime, sautéed to a buttery texture and paired with tart sautéed fruit and slices of an exceedingly cute mini-loaf of brioche.
The menu makes much of great beginnings, including a complicated and highly enjoyable salad of burrata cheese, Savoy spinach, citrus segments, asparagus and spring radishes ($12), homemade spinach and goat cheese ravioli with morel mushrooms and a Parmesan cream sauce ($10), and Bioteau’s always delicious, wonderfully creamy chicken liver mousse ($10). Otherwise, a seafood entrée of the day and perhaps a meat special pretty much round out the menu, supplemented by a vegetarian entrée that is available “on request” ($15), and a serving of Washington State steelhead salmon ($20).
Plan on dessert, since Olivier Bioteau is a certified chocolatier as well as a chef. In this role he confects the most beautiful chocolates (available as a tasting, served with a cup of coffee; $10), as well as tiny cookies, fine ice creams and other sweets. Strawberry macaroons and strawberry sorbet dress up an old-fashioned vanilla tapioca ($8), and a chocolate Florentine cookie and caramel sauce do equally well by almond panna cotta ($8). For all this, the butterscotch pot de crème ($7), baked in a small cream jug like the kind milkmen left by back doors in a vanished era, is utterly charming on the tongue.
Farm House Café
2121 Adams Ave.
Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, Sunday brunch, closed Mondays