The up-and-coming yet refreshingly off-the-radar neighborhood of Kensington is home to a restaurant it may be trying desperately to keep secret, but can’t help to show off and share. Bleu Bohème is a local haven for classic and comforting French fare; it has also become the destination to experience fine dining of a bygone era, when one could appreciate the splendor in waning wax candles and make a celebration of something as mundane as a Monday. As Owner and Executive Chef Ken Irvine says, “It’s a crazy day in paradise, but paradise nonetheless.
Bleu Bohème has been a neighborhood fixture for a few years, but was transformed into a community cornerstone for authentic fine dining two years ago when Irvine bought the restaurant and began paying homage to classic Parisian and Southern French cuisine by composing a concise menu of his tried-and-true favorites along with a number of thoughtful variations. Chef Irvine also recognizes the cultures and cuisines that influence the French palate, artfully incorporating many Spanish and Portuguese elements into his cuisine. Creating dishes he enjoys in an environment he is comfortable in, Irvine invites all to settle into an intimate table-for-two, cozy up to the bar, or mingle with company around a large spread and feel at home.
Bleu Bohème may not in fact be like any home you’ve ever lived in, but it makes for a fine respite indeed. Located on the corner of Adams Ave. and Kensington Dr., the restaurant wraps around the corner at a right angle. The awning-covered street side patio lines the entire length of the restaurant and certainly fills quickly with leisurely brunch diners on the weekends. The entrance, bar, intimate lounge, and café dining area reside at the tip of the corner and look out upon the street through large, unadorned windows that line both outer walls. The exposed stone-walled dining room lies at the end to the right and is commonly reserved for private parties. Two wood-framed windows provide ample natural light for this intimate space that easily accommodates parties of up to 20 guests, while the simple and unassuming wood tables and chairs used throughout lend a comforting sense of rusticity to the space. The large main dining room at the other end of the restaurant is bathed in warm cream and earth tones. Bouquets of wildflowers and herbs sit in bloom in all three rooms and entice guests with the wafting aroma of lavender and sweet peas. Massive exposed beams support the entire structure, framing the petit yet well-stocked bar that fills quickly during the restaurant’s nightly happy hour. The front bar and café area of Bleu Bohème is painted a deep grey-blue with a white-wash affect that creates an interesting depth to the paint, as though it’s been painted over by generations of residents. Similarly, the large candelabras that hang on the wall in the lounge and sit on the bar counter have been shaped into art pieces with time—melted candle wax hangs from all sides of the fixtures, forming intricate stalactites of romantic evenings past. Sitting in this delicately fragranced, softly lit space with the nostalgic tunes of Ol’ Paris playing in the background, it is almost impossible to not feel as though one has been carried off to someplace special.
The opulent rusticity of the Bleu Bohème décor only begins to set the stage for a true Parisian dining experience; the food and drink do the rest. Brunch is served on the weekends, featuring a balanced menu of both sweet and savory specialties. An entire portion of the Brunch Menu is dedicated to Eggs Benedict variations, in which guests may have a tricky time choosing between dishes like the lobster and mascarpone Homard Benedict and the duck confit Canard Benedict. A sweet tooth deserves a midday treat in the Gauffre Crème Brulee: a banana and vanilla custard-topped crisp waffle with a brown sugar crust. A number of omelets and crêpes are also present on this menu, along with a generous list of salads, soups, and sandwiches. Bleu Bohème’s prized selection of Les Moules Frites (Mussels and French Fries) is also served during brunch.
Visit Bleu Bohème any day of the week for lunch and enjoy many of the same dishes you’d savor by candlelight with the addition of the restaurant’s popular sandwiches. The Croque Madame sandwich is a simple and satisfying compilation of Parisian style toasted ham, cheese, Dijon Mustard, Mornay sauce, and a fried egg on brioche. For a sampling of savory treats, enjoy any of the “Les Planches” or Boards; La Cochonaille features pate di maison, dried mountain ham, garlic sausage, rosette de Lyon, terrine de Campagne, pickled vegetables, and olives. Guests are also welcome to order from a limited selection of dinner entrees like the Coq au Vin and Quiche Maison. And, of course, all eight of the “Les Moules Frites” favorites are offered as well.
The daily dinner menu is not only a work of art for eager foodies, but actually serves as a focal point in the restaurant’s décor. One entire wall of the café area is a chalk board, where Chef Irvine writes out his nightly menu. The “La Tradition” section displays the restaurant’s most popular consistently offered dishes, while the “La Saison” (seasonal) and “Le Menu Du Jour” (daily specials) lists are always evolving. Maintaining an ever-changing selection of seasonal and daily specials gives the Chef the opportunity to keep his menu fresh and focused. The dinner menu itself is refined, confined to one page of prized “real estate” as Chef Irvine puts it. A comparably long list of appetizers and “Les Petits Plats” encourage guests to order a number of dishes to share. Small plates like the Coquilles St. Jacques (sea scallops with wild mushrooms, chervil, and a white wine sauce) and the Calamars Frites (wild caught calamari with capers, vegetable misto, Provencal aioli, and tartar sauce) stand on their own as showcase dishes. In addition to the eight Moules Frites adaptations and Les Salades/Soupes, the Bleu Bohème dinner menu hosts an inspired list of “Les Grands Plats” or Entrees. Many of these generously portioned dishes are rustic French classics that patrons search out to savor, while others meld traditional techniques with the Chef’s own unique vision. For example, the Steak Frites is an iconic French dish that Irvine serves and improves upon by using hanger steak, a “lesser” cut of meat that packs much greater flavor when prepared skillfully.
In addition to these staple menus, Bleu Bohème also hosts nightly happy hour in conjunction with a prix fixe “Bohemian Menu.” Indeed, this happy hour is just that: for one hour each evening, guests indulge on many of the “Les Petits Plats” offerings at an impressive discount, with most adult beverages served half-price. Available nightly for one hour and all night on Tuesdays, the “Bohemian Menu” gives guests the chance to indulge in true aristocratic fashion with none of the bourgeois guilt. For only $24.95, diners enjoy a three-course meal of Bleu Bohème’s most popular dishes. It may be only one happy hour, but how happy it is!
Ken Irvine wears many hats, juggling the responsibilities as owner with the heat of being executive chef, but he is a host above all. From our first introduction to our last bite of dessert, Chef Irvine guides my dining partner and me through a leisurely evening of fine company, cuisine, and drink.
Speaking of drink, the Chef is especially proud of his house wines, and for good reason. Once we are settled at an intimate café table across from the bar, he inquires about our choice of wine. Differing in our preferences of white over red, Chef Irvine says he has just the thing: we’ll sample the white and red wine of his choosing and discuss them later. Fully intrigued by the joyful, slightly mischievous glean in his eye, we both gladly accept our host’s offer. A short time later, we sip the two wines and note their unique qualities. The white wine is crisp and slightly dry, with delightful hints of citrus and wood. The red wine is full-bodied with dominant berry notes. And while the red wine consumes the palate with every sip, it is surprisingly clean and doesn’t corrupt the taste of the many dishes we taste throughout the evening. The surprise behind these two wines’ identity is that they aren’t poured from a bottle, but from a tap. That’s right; Bleu Bohème is the only restaurant in Southern California to keep its House Chardonnay and Merlot on tap. Chef Irvine doesn’t reveal the name of his supplier, but he does explain they are a winery based in Sonoma County. The wines come by the keg and are kept fresh with a nitrogen system. Guests may order these two must-try varietals by the carafe and half-carafe, along with any selection from the dominantly French wine list. A small selection of each varietal is offered by the glass—it is also worth noting that the Bleu Bohème wine list includes a limited selection of aperitifs, French and Belgian beers, and even absinthe.
Chef Irvine gives us the freedom to order anything we like from the menu, so I gladly peruse through my options and commit to a number of his more unique and signature dishes. The Escargots a la Portugaise appetizer combines the allure of sampling a French classic like escargot with the appeal of experiencing it in a dish emblematic of Irvine’s roots. Having lived in the South of Spain for 10 years, Irvine naturally integrates many Spanish and Portuguese ingredients and techniques into his dishes. In this case, the escargot is prepared without the shell in a rich red wine and tomato sauce, with chick peas and linguica sausage alongside a bleu cheese and potato croquette. Plump and meaty, the escargot complements the rich tomato sauce as a hearty mushroom would, and maintains its own subtle yet distinct flavor. The linguica sausage is firm, slightly salty, and smoky, offsetting the natural sweet quality of the tomato. The sprinkling of chick peas throughout the sauce is delightful, as they offer a bit of crunchy texture and nutty flavor to the dish. Nothing short of a hearty stew, the escargot is paired brilliantly with the bleu cheese and potato croquette, which is fried crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside. This appetizer opens one’s eyes to the breadth and complexity of the Bleu Bohème menu, while remaining altogether familiar and comforting.
The Crêpe au Homard is a more delicate and light appetizer that engages the senses fully. A paper-thin crêpe is wrapped around a lobster and mascarpone filling, and topped with vibrant asparagus spears in a white truffle-carrot sauce. Lush and smooth in texture, the lobster and mascarpone filling exudes the rich and aromatic essence of the shell fish without overpowering the more subtle components of the dish. The crêpe itself is so thin and light that it is barely noticeable, serving well as a vehicle for such flavorful bites. The asparagus spears not only offer a crisp bite that contrasts the delicate creaminess of the crêpe, but they also provide a brilliant splash of color to the dish. Drizzled over the top of everything is the white truffle-carrot sauce, which lends a deliciously pronounced aroma to the plate, and accents each bite with an earthy note.
One may wonder why Bleu Bohème has all eight of its “Moules Frites” dishes featured on every menu. The truth is that the restaurant’s mussels and fries have garnered quite the following. Chef Irvine explains surprisingly nonchalantly that his restaurant sells the most mussels in the entire region, going through about 7,000lb of the prized mollusks each week. His variety of choice is the Carlsbad Black Mediterranean Mussel, which he prepares in a number of ways and serves with his Bleu Bohème Fries. Even his string-cut fries have earned a reputation for their uniqueness, as they are tossed with crushed lavender, rosemary, thyme, and sea salt.
We sample the Moules Frites Provençales, which arrive to the table in a large pot with handles. The mussels are steamed and served in a sauce of garlic, tomatoes, shallots, and mushrooms with fennel and basil. The aroma that rises with the dish’s steam is unmistakably herbal, earthy, and briny. The meat in the shells in plump, tender, and subtly seasoned by the rich broth. The accompanying fries are cut thin and fried until slightly crisp, remaining soft in the center. At first bite they are only a little salty and mild overall. It isn’t until one swallows that the full complexity of their flavor is revealed: the crushed, fresh lavender, rosemary, and thyme approach the senses as an invigorating floral aroma that is both surprising and perfectly timed. The fresh scent and salt of the fries lighten the more pronounced components of the mussels, constructing a well-orchestrated flavor profile.
The Bleu Bohème menu changes quarterly, reflecting the seasons through Chef Irvine’s choice of produce and flavor combinations. During the fall and winter months, the menu is comprised of heartier, more comfort food classics that incorporate accompaniments like root vegetables and carbohydrates. The Boeuf Bourguignon is the Chef’s “go-to dish for French soul food”—he simmers a select cut of Thunder Ridge beef short ribs in red wine with mushrooms, country smoked bacon, carrots, baby potatoes, and caramelized pearl onions. Unlike many Boeuf Bourguignon recipes that result in a thick gravy beef stew, Chef Irvine’s specialty is served in a thin sauce. The fork tender beef retains all its juices, exuding a flavor impossible to extract from lesser cuts of meat. Whole stewed carrots, onions, and potatoes rest alongside the large serving of meat and absorb the savory juice as well. Only lightly seasoned and richly flavored, the Boeuf Bourguignon really is the French cure for any and all winter woes.
The Poulet Montrachet is a poultry dish that may not stand out on the menu like the Coq au Vin, which many diners associate synonymously with French cuisine, but it fully encapsulates the simple yet refined core of rustic Continental cooking. This chicken entrée is roasted with Chevre goat cheese under the skin and prosciutto, and served with mustard greens and gnocchi in a tarragon-mushroom sauce. Cutting into the golden crisp chicken reveals its succulent meat that is kept moist within the gently seasoned, crunchy skin. The presence of the goat cheese is understated, providing a thin creamy layer between bites of skin and meat. Chef Irvine makes his gnocchi with flour in place of potato to keep them light and fluffy; the bite-size flour dumplings rest in the thin broth and retain the intricate flavor of the herbs and chicken. A distinctly earthy and slightly bitter note is lent to the otherwise delicate broth by the mustard greens, making this both a hearty and well-balanced delight.
It is typically at this point of the meal that the prospect of having dessert is a daunting task; however, we are nothing short of ecstatic to learn that Chef Irvine has prepared a sampling of three desserts for us to enjoy. The first of which is a year-round favorite: the Pain d’ Épice is a slice of warm gingerbread served beside a generous scoop of caramel ice cream and strawberry confiture. While this treat can be ordered any time of year, it tastes and smells of the holiday season. The gingerbread is moist and only slightly sweet, pairing brilliantly with the rich flavor of the cool caramel ice cream. Spread on top of the bread and scooped up with the ice cream, the strawberry confiture is sweet and tart and just the thing to clean the palate.
Simple, moist, and decadent, the Gateau au Chocolat is a dense flourless chocolate cake topped with Kirsch Chantilly cream. Decidedly richer than the gingerbread, the cake boasts an intense dark chocolate flavor that is both sweet and slightly bitter. The light and fluffy Chantilly cream is only faintly sweet on its own and complements the cake by countering the bitterness of the chocolate. Each bite of this almost fudge-like pastry is just as enjoyable as the first—the creaminess of the Chantilly topping cuts through the thickness of the cake, while the bitter edge to the chocolate keeps the dessert from becoming overpoweringly sweet.
The Crêpe au Crème Brulée is a stunning play of textures, marrying the crunchy with the creamy and stirring the palate with hints of caramel, sugar, and cream. A delicate crêpe conceals a decadent custard that offers hints of vanilla. A thin crust of burnt sugar tops the whole thing and breaks into irresistible shards of caramel candy under the spoon. A little smoky, the sweet crust contrasts nicely with the neutral flavored and thin pancake. The custard alone could be served on its own and be perfectly delightful, but really sings with the caramel undertone. One bite, two bites, three bites, more please!
As our visit to Bleu Bohème comes to an end, we look around and find that the restaurant filled at some point during our meal. Café tables are occupied by couples softly whispering into each other’s ears, the bar is lined by chatty singles, and the dining room is hosting more than one large gathering complete with gifts. The house is full and the family is together. “It’s a crazy day in paradise, but paradise nonetheless."
Street parking is limited in this bustling part of town, but Bleu Bohème does share a small parking lot in the rear with a neighboring business. Keep your eyes out for all the seasonal delights that Chef Irvine serves up—his menus have been known to change up to eight times a year, and that doesn’t even count his holiday-specific menus.