I have never dined at a restaurant suffering from more of an identity crisis than the year-old Christophe’s in downtown Upland. Far, far away from that In-N-Out-laden and Tropical Lei’d stretch of Foothill Boulevard that 5C students know as Upland, there is such a place as downtown, which strangely resembles a Harley biker gang’s version of the Claremont Village. Here, French chef Christophe Jardillier anchors the stoves of his eponymous restaurant, one that cannot decide if it is a French bistro, an Italian trattoria, or an American steakhouse. Somehow, fine French dining becomes a Cheesecake Factory-type smorgasboard, set in an elegant room that befits truffles and foie gras more than Hawaiian burgers.
So what is Christophe’s? Or rather, what does Christophe’s want to be?
To begin, the restaurant is designed like an elegant French belle époque salon, with rich black leather banquettes lining a mirrored wall with octopus-shaped, slithering chandeliers above. The lounge in the room next door is no less sumptuous. Beautiful architecturally, the atmosphere sets diners and drinkers up for a night of near opulence, not a paper napkin-worthy meal of the sausage pesto pastas or salmon burgers characteristic of Christophe’s. Its service is similarly lax: the waiters offer almost no help with wines or dishes, and entrées arrive before appetizers are even finished.
The experience feels icy and even stuffy. Diners keep looking around, wondering if they’re really in the right place, asking themselves if they should speak loudly and have a grand ol’ time or dine politely and quietly.
Most problematic of all, the food can’t figure out what it wants to be. Chef Christophe’s style is truly French, an increasingly rare breed in the U.S. with the departure of the joyous days of cream and fat and the onslaught of the Alice Waters-type, organic, sustainable, and local produce revival. It’s hard nowadays to find a restaurant where nearly every sauce is based on butter or cream. If you’re hankering for either, Christophe’s is your place. The menu can best be described as “continental,” a nondescript term from the 60s and 70s which often describes the unexciting, decadent food that trailblazers like Waters and Wolfgang Puck set out to eliminate in the 1980s.
I take any opportunity I can get to enjoy escargot, a dish that is tricky even for Parisian bistros to perfect. Christophe’s does a traditional preparation, bathing the somewhat rubbery snails in individual slots of melted butter that really needed a punch of garlic.
Smoked salmon bruschetta is interpreted as a dressed up bagel with lox; the razor-thin fish is placed atop goat cheese and topped with the pleasantly bitter mix of shallots, lemon, and capers. The traditional bruschetta, however, unfortunately resembles pizza bread. These traditional appetizers share space with crab and lobster egg rolls, foie gras terrine, guacamole, calamari flambéed in vodka, and meatballs in a pesto marinara sauce (pesto and marinara in one sauce?). If you can figure out any real common theme here, help me out.
Salads are a strong point, especially the lunch-only salade nioise—American chefs are usually too timid to use anchovies, but Cristophe fearlessly piles them on. Yet burgers weirdly anchor a significant part of the menu. These eight-ounce beasts come plain, “French” (with goat cheese, gruyere, and bacon), as a blackened salmon burger, or even as a Hawaiian burger (a grilled chicken patty topped with pineapple and a very sweet curry sauce).
Christophe seems to have a general fondness of sweetness, which continues with a blackened salmon that is drowned in a cotton candy-sweet chili tomato sauce. Unsurprisingly, the most haute dish Christophe prepares includes truffles, which accompany the sea bass entrée.
His scallops are perfectly cooked, caramelized top and bottom and perfectly tender inside, a rare trick for even the best of chefs to accomplish. Traditional French classics are the strongpoint of Christophe’s cooking, whether it’s chicken cordon bleu stuff with prosciutto, gruyere, and alfredo sauce, or duck breast over a red wine demi glace. Steak frites and the hearty stew boeuf bourguignon make an appearance, as do a few savory crpes, including a vegetarian one with broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, and not two, not three, but four different types of cheeses.
All entrees come with the riveting selection of potato gratin, rice pilaf that is as lifeless as every other version of the most dull dish known to man, and a limited selection of vegetables. Giving diners a choice of rice pilaf or sautéed vegetables seems out of place in this elegant setting and with this rich, traditional French cooking.
In the Italian corner of the menu, pastas are hit-or-miss. The fettucine Riviera is outstanding, full of seafood in an intriguing and not-too-creamy lobster sauce. The dish includes crab cakes, which serve as a sort of crispy crouton. The sausage pesto pasta, however, needs far more pesto to give it life. The sauce was really just an oily alfredo.
I’ve never been a fan of dessert lists being recited by waiters, so I can’t even remember the sweets menu aside from a lemon cheesecake. The wine list is comprehensive, with reasonably priced bottles from all over the globe. Just make sure not to order the very sweet German Peter Brum Riesling with the blackened salmon!
The scallops, the Fettucine Riviera, and the excellent, classic French preparations show that Christophe certainly has the skill and technique to run an elegant French restaurant. Yet the menu spreads itself too thin, and the service is too informal for the setting. A shorter, more focused menu that gets rid of the stale, stuffy dishes would make Christophe’s that exciting neighborhood bistro the area so dearly needs.