Photos by Kate and Michael Auda
San Diego's culinary prospects puffed like a soufflé in late spring when two unrelated French restaurants opened almost simultaneously in Bankers Hill and North Park . Gallic eateries long defined stylish dining in American cities, and then didn't. Locally, Parc Bistro-Brasserie, in the former Croce's Park West location on Fifth Avenue, and Et Voilà! French Bistro on Adams Avenue near 30th Street have reversed the situation about as fast as hungry patrons can say steak-frites.
*Parlez-vous français? If not, a quick clarification - S'il vous plaît means "If you please" in French. It's the "SVP" in "RSVP" and the basis for the double-entendre (that's French, too) "plate" pun, which seems a whole lot less fun after all this explanation, huh? Zut alors!
This speedy success contains several surprises for Parc owner Garo Minassian, and Et Voilà! general manager/partner Ludo Mifsud and chef/partner Vincent Viale. All three are delighted by unexpected wine sales that indicate the recession is over for fans of deluxe vintages.
"We're selling way more French wine than American, which really surprises me," says Mifsud. "The Bordeaux goes fast, but we sold just one bottle of Lyeth merlot in three weeks."
Minassian reports a similar phenomenon at Parc. Orders for what he calls "normal price bottles" (which, to him, means bottles costing around $100) are rivaled by selections from a costlier Reserve List of what he calls "Wine Spectator-quality wines." This, despite his intention for Parc be "all about casual, neighborhood dining, a home away from home for locals."
In 1971, representatives of the Soviet Union's Montreal consulate caused a 13-year-old Minassian and his family to jump on a jet to Paris and live with a cousin for three months.
"We defected from Armenia when I was 12, and then Soviet agents knocked on our door to take me back so I could do military service when I came of age," he says. "When I came back from Paris, the Canadian government protected me."
He returned to Paris upon graduating high school.
"I worked at Chez Oskian, a small restaurant owned by an Armenian," he says, having later moved to Florence to study at a famed hotel school. Opportunity brought him to San Diego, where, in 1987, he and business partner Ara Shamlyan opened Scalini in Del Mar. The upscale Italian house boomed for 20 years, enabling Minassian to retire.
"I [had] other things to do," he says. "I'm a partner in a winery in Chile, for example." So, why open Parc on Fifth Avenue?
"I missed the restaurant business," he says. "I've been in it all my life, and once it's in your blood... So here I am."
"Here" is a gracious restaurant with 140 seats, white tablecloths ("I can't do without linens," Minassian says) and a comprehensive French menu that includes such nightly specials as Tuesday's roasted whole chicken for two, which he claims rivals the birds at his favorite Paris bistro.
As Frenchmen, Mifsud and Viale (respectively from Fréjus and Montélimar, both in the sunny south) came to the biz through education, not intimidation. They met while working at Tapenade, the La Jolla landmark that last year adopted a new address and the name Bistro du Marché.
Et Voilà! means "Look at this!" and it seems North Park likes what it sees.
"Everybody enjoys the food, the service and the ambience," says Viale, a 38-year-old with the nose-to-the-grindstone attitude shared by many French chefs. His menu is familiar in its offerings of coq au vin and duck confit, but brings Paris to the table with steak tartare and snails baked with parsley butter and a splash of anise liqueur.
"We have more formal training," says Mifsud, explaining how both men's understanding of hospitality makes them different from American restaurateurs. "And we have challenges. The biggest is to make people see the difference between what we do - how we cook the dishes, how we serve them - and what everyone else does."
2760 Fifth Ave., Ste. 100, Bankers Hill
ET VOILÀ! FRENCH BISTRO
3015 Adams Ave., Ste. 103, North Park