When J and I lived in Venice, we made a tradition of meeting my dad (Levi Mike) and his girlfriend Christie (collectively known as D&C) in Borrego Springs over President’s Day weekend. They make the trek each January to escape the frigid winter temperatures of Boise for two or three months. A 3-hour drive from Venice, Borrego Springs was an easy place to meet them, and a welcome respite from the workaday stress of Southern California life.

Last weekend, J and I resumed the tradition. We drove down from Santa Monica on Friday afternoon, made good time, and commenced with the desert relaxation involving golf, wine, home-cooked dinners and lunch on the town. Saturday’s lunch took us to the most unlikely spot: a quaint French bistro called The French Corner.

For years, Christie raved about this little spot, and everything was she described: a cozy, well-spaced dining room/gift shop with tables topped with Provence-style linens, walls lined with decorative signs (for sale) and shelves filled with antique enameled French coffee pots. The owners, two Belgian fellows who spend summers in Provence (what a life!), charm with their dry wit and wry sense of humor.

The food? Delicious. D&C had crab quiche, with flaky, buttery crust and generous crab filling. J opted for a steaming bucket of plump Basque mussels with a sop-up-able tomato and olive sauce. (When J commented on the deliciousness of the mussels, owner Yves quipped, “From the Salton Sea!”). I am always tempted by croque monsieur, but I prefer the ham-and-cheese sandwich topped with a sunny-side-up egg. When I asked if I could make mine a croque madame, Yves, with a half smile, ribbed me about the request, but complied. The result was melty, yolk-y perfection.

French Corner: What an unexpected surprise in a tiny desert town. Tres bien. Que romantique!

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Alberta’s Sushi Hana

February 13, 2011

The wind howled on Saturday, and we had slogged through it for two hours in the name of exercise and exploring. So, after a shower and nap, we were so ready for something casual and satisfying. Our first choice was a burger at Mash Tun — always delicious and easy — but we thought we’d give Sushi Hana a look before making any snap decisions. A quick scan at the menu and the welcoming-enough sushi bar, we decided to give it a go.

The verdict: Eh. It was all right.

Nigiri had fresh flavors (we tried yellowtail, salmon and mackerel) and the egg rolls and gyoza were piping hot. Of the long list of elaborate rolls, we landed on the Flaming Dragon Roll with tempura shrimp inside and spicy tuna on top. The biggest setbacks for me were the toro sashimi (semi frozen and grainy) the vegetable tempura. J liked the tempura, I was not a fan. The batter was too thin to make an impact, but the flavor and texture of the veggies were fine. Choosing well is the key, and next time I’ll likely stick to rolls. May even venture into the udon section of the menu.

Overall, Sushi Hana was slightly disappointing, but not a disaster. Certainly nothing a late-night cocktail and a couple of tacos at Cruzroom didn’t fix.

Aviary

Sitting at the communal dining bar at Aviary.

Friday night, after worrying over a dozen performance review write-ups, I was ready to relax. Resisting the temptation to succumb to the comforts of Couch and the siren call of Bandini’s pizza, J and I left the house and headed to Alberta and to the newly opened Aviary. Having only a few days of business under its belt made it a risky proposition: On one hand, the chance it would be packed with eager locals who had read the recent press. On the other hand, the opening week of any restaurant has its ups and downs. New waitstaff, new menu … lots of unknowns for any just-opened spot.

Oh, pffft. Why did we worry? With restaurants like Aquavit, Jean Georges and Ducasse, on their resumes, clearly these people know what they’re doing. At 8pm, the dining room was at about 50 percent capacity, so we had no trouble sitting down. And the staff, though perhaps not completely comfortable yet, were more than welcoming and attentive. And the menu? Oh yeah.

Choosing was the biggest hurdle. Ten small plates were so tempting, we found it a challenge to get past that. In the end, we settled on kushi oysters on the half shell with only a skiff of tomato granite and horseradish to complement; crispy, bite sized ox tail croquettes; and tempura pumpkin with mild red curry and bright Thai basil. I was less sure about the pumpkin dish, imagining heavy flavors and textures. Of course, I was wrong, and sorry I doubted.

Entrees consisted of seared snapper with crispy skin over greens and bacon for J, and fork-tender, braised beef cheeks with a creamy celery-root puree and blood orange segments for sweet acidity for me.

Aviary: We know we just met you, but we can’t help it. We think we love you.