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New chef steers Rancho Santa Fe’s venerable Mille Fleurs in a fresh direction

Dungeness crab with pink grapefruit sorbet, one of the new dishes on chef de cuisine Sean McCart’s menu at Mille Fleurs restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe.
Chilled dungeness crab with pink grapefruit sorbet, one of the new dishes on chef de cuisine Sean McCart’s menu at Mille Fleurs restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe.
(Courtesy photo by Sam Wells)

Changes at the 33-year-old restaurant were welcomed by many but upset some regulars

Bertrand Hug is proud of the traditions he has maintained as owner of Rancho Santa Fe’s venerable restaurant Mille Fleurs over the past 33 years.

It remains one of the county’s last white-tablecloth fine-dining restaurants; one of his waiters has been serving customers since opening day; and the bar’s singing pianist recently marked his 25th anniversary there. But one long-lasting tradition came to an end last fall, when Hug let German-born chef Martin Woesle go after 33 years at the helm. Upset by the move, Woesle’s wife, Elisabeth quit her job as the restaurant’s longtime pastry chef.

Hug, a native of Southwest France, said the decision was a difficult but long-overdue change he felt his restaurant desperately needed. Despite his efforts to modernize the dining room and bar of the restaurant, Woesle declined to change the menu, serving many heavy, old-fashioned European-style dishes like liver, herring, escargot and wiener schnitzel.

Woesle, for his part, said he didn’t have the staff to execute the ambitious culinary ideas that Hug brought him from his own restaurant travels, Hug said.

“We needed fresh blood. That’s all there was to it,” Hug said. “I just couldn’t take it any longer so I offered Martin severance and said, ‘OK, you’ve got to go.’ ”

Woesle has since been hired as a consulting chef for an international restaurant company and Elisabeth is now pastry chef across the street at the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe.

At most restaurants, a chef change can cause some turbulence. But news of Woesle’s departure hit Mille Fleurs’ regulars — many of whom eat the same food at the same table two to three times a week — like a tidal wave. Some customers stopped coming in protest, and a recent false rumor that Mille Fleurs is closing have combined to reduce overall business by 15 percent to 20 percent.

Fortunately, new chef de cuisine Sean McCart, 36, is a surfer and he’s been gradually riding that wave into smoother waters.

Sean McCart, new chef de cuisine at Mille Fleurs restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe.
Sean McCart, new chef de cuisine at Mille Fleurs restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe.
(Courtesy photo)

McCart was born in Julian, went to culinary school at San Diego’s Art Institute, and honed his craft as executive chef at Oregon’s Bay House. After returning to San Diego several years ago, he was sous chef at Juniper & Ivy before Hug hired him in 2017 to serve as chef de cuisine at Mister A’s, the high-end Bankers Hill restaurant he purchased in 2000.

Hug said McCart impressed him right away with his creativity, his finesse with food, his modern techniques, his communication skills and his openness to new ideas. Hug said he knew if he didn’t offer McCart his own kitchen, he’d lose the chef to a competing restaurant. McCart was eager for the challenge.

“Mille Fleurs was one of the best restaurants in San Diego for 20 years, but a lot more competition has come along in recent years,” McCart said. “We decided we needed to put our heads down, work hard and be true to our beliefs, and if we did, we’d get these people back in to have a new experience.”

McCart describes his menu as lighter, modern American fare with a French and global influence. The menu changes weekly based on what’s at peak season at nearby Chino Farms and coming in from local and international seafood purveyors. He doesn’t overthink the dishes with a dozen ingredients, preferring to let the fresh ingredients speak for themselves. And attractive plating is key.

“Presentation is a big thing of mine. I want the plates to look gorgeous. If people are taking pictures of my food that helps the restaurant,” McCart said. “But preparation is just as, if not more, important. I want that first bite of food to taste even better than it looks.”

Baja seabass with seasonal vegetables, one of the dishes on chef de cuisine Sean McCart’s menu at Mille Fleurs restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe.
Baja seabass with seasonal vegetables, one of the dishes on chef de cuisine Sean McCart's menu at Mille Fleurs restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe.

A few of McCart’s favorite dishes right now are an eye-pleasing chilled dungeness crab plate with a tart grapefruit sorbet and avocado; a white nectarine salad with fried prosciutto and melon gazpacho; Baja seabass with beet root dashi; and a vegan filet “mignon” made with a 24-hour roasted beet in a rich sherry shallot sauce. He’s also partial to the rich and eye-catching desserts of his new pastry chef Samantha Bird.

McCart and Hug said the regulars who have stuck with Mille Fleurs love the new menu and they’re seeing many new, younger customers lately who are attracted to the lighter, modernized and more eye-dazzling dishes. But, in a respectful bow to the 30-year diners who like what they like, McCart brought back two of Woesle’s most-popular dishes, a lobster salad and the wiener schnitzel.

Because Mille Fleurs is in an area not heavily traveled by tourists like Mister A’s, Hug said pleasing the regular customers is critical to its future success. Several nights a week, he’s in the main dining room greeting his guests, listening to their thoughts on the menu and overseeing the final touches of a bar renovation. Honest to a fault, he admits the false rumors of closure have hurt the business, but assures that Mille Fleurs is here to stay.

“We have a core that comes back and they’re very happy with the changes. We get tremendous compliments every day, but we just don’t get enough people,” Hug said. “But this doesn’t mean I’m closing. This is my baby. This is my home. Even if I don’t make any money, I’ll keep this place open to my dying day.”

Mille Fleurs

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 6 p.m. to close Sundays-Fridays. 5:30 p.m. to close Saturdays.

Where: 6009 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe

Phone: (858)756-3085

Online: millefleurs.com