Jeune et Jolie, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Maybe it’s how the door of the 2-month-old nouvelle French restaurant in Carlsbad always swings open with a warm welcome from staff every time a customer approaches. Perhaps it’s executive chef Andrew Bachelier’s exquisite Coquille in vin jaune sauce, which is the best scallops dish I’ve tasted in years. Or it might be the design of the charming, art deco-inspired 90-seat bistro with a full open kitchen smack in the heart of the room.
But I think its secret is the excited buzz that permeates the room every night. The cooks line up to watch Bachelier with eager anticipation as he puts the finishing touches on every plate. The well-trained wait staff know every ingredient of every dish and where it was sourced, including the nightly “carte blanche” tasting menu. And the clearly pleased diners know they’re in for something special at what is certain to become one of San Diego County’s most successful new restaurant launches of the year.
Jeune et Jolie — French for “young and beautiful” — is the second collaboration between owner John Resnick and chef Bachelier, who first teamed up in late 2016 to open Campfire, an open-flame cookery restaurant a block south on State Street.
Where Campfire is rustic, playful and family-friendly, Jeune et Jolie is an elegant and intimate date-night destination. Bachelier spent nearly five years in the kitchen at Addison, the county’s only five-star restaurant, and his refined techniques and plating finesse turn every plate into a culinary work of art.
But that doesn’t mean Jeune et Jolie is pretentious. It’s lively and colorful and fun. An old-fashioned reel-to-reel-style stereo pumps out ear-pleasing, not-too-loud modern music and brightly hued French art fills the walls. The bar and kitchen are surrounded on virtually all sides by diner tables, so everyone is a part of the action. With the cooks so close to the diners, it’s like pulling up a seat in grand-mère’s kitchen, where diners eat off simple pottery dishes that are stacked up in open cupboards beside the gargantuan Hestan stove/oven.
On a couple of recent visits, I tasted my way through most of Jeune et Jolie’s dinner menu, which has yet to be posted online, since it’s still undergoing minor tweaks.
Bachelier’s menu takes classic French dishes and gives them a Southern California twist, substituting native regional produce, lightening the heavy sauces and adding a touch of whimsy to the plating.
The delicious frog legs are playfully presented as miniature chicken drumettes spiked with the fermented chili sauce inspired by France’s former colonies in Southeast Asia. The Lapin appetizer wraps housemade rabbit sausage in hollowed-out cooked carrot “casings.”
Standout dishes besides the scallops include the Agneau, a hearty and perfectly cooked pair of lamb chops served in a rich savory sauce; the eye-catching Aubergine, an eggplant and risotto dish with green curry sauce that resembles veggie sushi; and the time-consumingly prepared Poussin, a tender young chicken, de-boned and served roulade-style inside its crispy skin.
The menu is divided into four sections: Un (one), small bites priced from $8 to $12; Deux, appetizers priced from $13 to $19; Trois, entrees priced from $25 to $34; and Quatre, desserts priced from $8 to $12. Diners can also order a $85 tasting menu with five to six courses of off-menu items.
The bread and pastry program is overseen by Campfire alumnus So Young Kim. She’s making mini-baguettes, pâte à choux (puffed pastry for cream puffs or gougers), brioche in the style of Japanese milk bread and, for weekend brunch, beignets.
Bar manager Leigh Lacap has created eight cocktails inspired by France and some of its former colonies, like Vietnam and Martinique. The centerpiece of the cocktail program is a custom-built, four-spout ice-water fountain for cocktails made with a dozen varieties of absinthe and pastis. The absinthe cocktails are available in traditional and frappé style.
There’s also a 70-bottle program of mostly French wines with a strong emphasis on “low-intervention” wines made with fewer additives. Bottles range in price from $35 to $120, and wines by the glass are $10 to $18.
Most everything I’ve tried at Jeune et Jolie is magnifique. But the well-founded complaint I’ve heard most often is the restaurant’s bread pricing, which at $9 for a small baguette and single brioche roll may be the most expensive bread service in San Diego. A month after opening, the price was pared down a dollar from $10, but it still needs rethinking.
For the most part, the Trois-level entrees are robustly portioned. But some of the Un and Deux level dishes are small and overpriced, like the single madeleine cookie with a dab of citrus creme and caviar, for $7. The technique and quality ingredients in each dish is impressive, but right-sizing some of the portions would quell most complaints.
The desserts range from a traditional and decadent chocolate mousse to delicate pastries. Depending on the number of dishes ordered, you may not have room. A good rule of thumb would be to order three dishes per person, and splurge on the bread, which is fresh-baked daily and served with ultra-creamy butter from Normandy, France.
Since I first spent a summer in France at age 15, I’ve traveled to the country many times. I feel that Jeune et Jolie captures both the nation’s classic flavors as well as the its joie de vivre. But the French could take a few lessons from the Carlsbad restaurant’s staff in its old-fashioned American-style warmth and hospitality.
Jeune et Jolie
Hours: Dinner service from 5 p.m. (last seating at 10 p.m.) nightly. Raw bar and bar, 4 p.m. to close. Brunch service, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Where: 2659 State St., Carlsbad
Phone: (760) 637-5266
email@example.com. Twitter: @pamkragen