There are some things in life that don't change a lot, and thank God for that. Case in point: Benji's French-Basque Restaurant, among the old guard of Bakersfield's finest restaurants.
The last official column I wrote on the Basque institution on Rosedale Highway was four years ago, but that doesn't mean I haven't been eating there. It's the sort of place a restaurant critic loves to visit on free nights. Founded by the Arduain brothers -- Benji and Rene, who died in 2012 -- the French-Basque restaurant is still a great operation in so many ways.
My favorites include any steak (all under $30 -- a good value nowadays) with a pepper cognac sauce that's never been equaled in all my travels; the roast leg of lamb with the brown mushroom sauce or the rack of lamb with garlic potatoes ($29); the roast duck with either orange sauce or green peppercorn; and the grilled halibut with Basque tomato sauce. And though I don't usually like to directly combine beef and seafood, the steak and shrimp kebab presented over garlic rice (with red peppers and onions as the vegetables) is an amazing treat. No one has better beef ravioli either.
You may note a trend: The sauces are what make the food here stand out among our great Basque restaurants. And that's a tribute to the brothers, who resisted the recent trend of lightening up sauces in the name of health, a move that in my opinion has robbed some concoctions of their charisma. The pepper cognac sauce here is stunning in the balance between the liquor and the too-easily-overwhelming spice, but is not offensively heavy. If ever a sauce had the balance shown in a yin-and-yang symbol, this is it. If you're a fan of that particular sauce on a steak, you must try Benji's version, even if it ruins you for life as so many other kitchens fall short. At lunch, the French dip sandwich and hamburger (of all things) are among the best in town.
On our most recent visit we opted to sample some new choices, so my companion selected the grilled salmon with herbed tarragon sauce ($25) while I ordered the roast tri-tip with brown mushroom sauce ($19). Of course both meals included the typical setup, beginning with sourdough bread and butter, Basque cabbage soup, beans and salsa. The salsa here is heated, which my companion appreciates, preferring the warmth as a topper on her beans over the cold variety found elsewhere. I don't mind the contrast in temperature, but I had no strong feelings either way. The salad has a dressing that can be a bit on the oily side, but it clings nicely to the lettuce, and the pickled tongue features an excellent creamy garlic sauce. We also received the typical if undistinctive green beans and some decent chopped tomatoes in a marinade with purple onion and green peppers. I like the garlicky carrots when they serve them, but they weren't available on this night. The fries are sweet, starchy, dementedly twisty, crisp outside, soft inside.
Both entrees were solid. The long salmon filet (probably three inches wide, seven inches long) was crisp from the grilling, and the sauce just as restrained as the black pepper cognac sauce. Tarragon can be a bully to the taste buds, usually popping up in Bearnaise sauces, but this version is simple enough to overcome that danger. And pairing it with salmon is really a nice creative choice.
My tri-tip was so thinly sliced you could use it in a sandwich and not have an issue; once again, the sauce, heavy with mushrooms, made the tender beef taste like it came out of a first-rate kitchen -- which it did. At under $20, it's another value, and though I had intended to take some home to use in an omelet the next morning, my willpower faded and it was consumed in its entirety.
We never miss the opportunity of ordering one of the four souffles (chocolate, Grand Marnier, lemon, raspberry), which according to long-standing policy must be ordered in pairs ($10 a person). Who wants to share something this great anyway? The chocolate is stunning, but this time we broke old habits and got the wonderfully subtle Grand Marnier version with its hint of orange. Someday, I will make it down to the raspberry, which I've heard is also great. As you may suspect, if you're going to get the souffle, order it with your entrees so the time delay at the end is minimal.
Our young waiter, despite a full dining room, was nearly perfect in his attentiveness and manner. It was almost like being at Mama Tosca's -- so professional, so in tune with the fare coming out of the kitchen.
Benji's French-Basque Restaurant can be recommended for a fine dining experience.