Arguments have two sides, hexagons have six, and if you divide six by two, you arrive at three. If you want to dine on three excellent choices at the new Hexagone in Bankers Hill, they are, in order: 1. Onion soup gratinée 2.Beef bourguignon 3.Crêpes Suzette
The menu offers more opportunities to compose fine appetizer-entrée-dessert trios than a hexagon has sides, such as frog legs Provençale followed by coq au vin and buttery tarte tatin, or a dinner of mussels marinieres, swordfish and lobster in tangerine sauce, with the crowning touch provided by blueberries cassis, a simple, light, endlessly appealing sweet of vanilla ice cream crowned with blueberries simmered in black-currant liqueur and brandy.
This is the kind of bistro cooking for which many San Diegans salivate when planning trips to France, and it’s a pleasure to discover it prepared so competently and so affordably at a chic little eatery on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Laurel Street. It’s an unusually savory intersection: Laurel faces Hexagone from the east side of Fifth Avenue, and Bertrand at Mister A’s floats high above Laurel Street to the north.
Gemelli formerly occupied the space, taken several months ago by Paris-born Patrick Halcewicz, who has spent most of his career in La Jolla and Rancho Bernardo (as manager of La Valencia from 1976 to early 1995, and then as proprietor of the well-respected French Market Grille since September 1995). He retained the flowing draperies, handsome wood-edged windows and comfortable tables, while exchanging Italian-theme artworks for Art Nouveau posters advertising Lillet and other French comestibles from the early 20th century.
A second Halcewicz patrols the premises. Patrick’s nephew Benjamin, a jovial martial arts expert from a Paris suburb, assists with day-to-day management. Either man will tell you that because of its shape, France is known throughout Europe as The Hexagon. Patrick Halcewicz says he will offer special menus from the six corners of France, including the regions around Lille and the Jura mountains. Has he noticed, one wonders, that his L-shaped room has six sides?
Chef Daniel Durfort is a Frenchman whose experience includes 10 years at the very traditional La Parisienne in Los Angeles, and it seems unlikely the word “fusion” ever sullied his ears. He generally performs a graceful job with a menu that rarely veers from the classics, though there was a disappointing, soggy croque monsieur (a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich; $11.50) at lunch one day, and one evening’s seafood paella ($24) was just plain gooey. Why does this Spanish specialty disturb the French tranquility of the menu?
When the cooking proceeds with panache, it sings. If you like the most famous of beef stews, Hexagone offers a tasty, seductive bourguignon of well-browned meat slowly braised in bubbling red wine scented with herbs, small onions and bacon. Like other entrées, this is decoratively garnished with assorted finely cooked vegetables, and unlike others, with a mound of buttered homemade fettuccine. If pasta seems out of place, fettuccine is precisely what joined the boeuf bourguignon at a high-line restaurant when this writer visited Dijon the other year.
Always inquire about the day’s soup ($5.50), and give it fair consideration if the kitchen is offering palejade asparagus cream, or an even better blend of white beans and tomatoes memorably dosed with garlic and herbs. The French onion soup ($6.75), baked in a crock in a full-dress version thickly blanketed with molten Gruyère, is exceptionally dark and murky—— as if a Gallic Freudian analyst had brewed it during hours of dispensing therapy. The onions tantalize as they melt on the tongue. The appetizer list encompasses classics like escargots à la bourguignonne ($8.50), scallops in a lightly creamed mushroom sauce ($9.50) and frogs legs Provençale ($8.95). Fragrant with garlic, this old-fashioned, rarely found luxury pleased an ingénue who judged the encounter “a very delightful first experience.”
It’s never easy to tell if San Diegans really like charcuterie, the cold cuts (primarily pork) that the French do so exceptionally, but restaurateurs keep trying. Hexagone offers a mostly impressive assiette de char cuterie ($8.50), a sizable plate of sophisticated rosette de Lyon salami, papery slices of delicate cured ham, slabs of a homemade country pâté that was surprisingly dry (almost sawdusty in texture, it returned to the kitchen barely touched) and just plain gorgeous rilettes, a “hash” of shredded pork simmered in lard with seasonings. It’s amazingly good, but don’t tell your cardiologist.
Classic entrées include perfectly executed coq au vin ($17.50), the chicken exceptionally succulent and the sauce perfectly balanced in flavors; a toothsome, marinated flatiron steak with fine, cooked-to-order French fries and suave sauce bearnaise (a steal at $17); and superbly succulent calf liver with onions ($18.50) in an intense balsamic-vinegar sauce seasoned rather too enthusiastically with salt. The menu extends to “Pacific” bouillabaisse with local seafood ($24.50), mustard- crusted rack of lamb in rosemary sauce ($26.50) and a fun dish of roasted scallops finished with almonds and orange ($21.50).
Don’t skip dessert——have chocolate terrine, or Grand Marnier–flavored strawberries Romanoff, or especially those crêpes Suzette. They’re as good as it gets. (All desserts cost $6.50, even the baked-to-order chocolate and orange soufflés.)
Hexagone serves lunch Monday through Friday and dinner nightly at 495 Laurel Street in San Diego. To reserve a table, call 619-236- 0467.