If there’s a restaurant you can count on for a consistently great lunch and dinner, it’s Benji’s French Basque Restaurant on Rosedale Highway.
Yes, it can be so crowded on a weekend night that finding a parking space seems dicey at best, and you can’t help but admire all the great trucks and SUVs you see here, late models and so polished that you may fear what you’ll face for a tab. But what struck me on two recent visits was how reasonable the prices were considering the quality of the food. Though the restaurant officially lists the dress expected as casual, and I did see customers in shorts, flip-flops and T-shirts, I always feel better dressed up eating at Benji’s as the food seems to warrant it. Maybe it’s a French thing, I’m not sure.
We visited once for lunch and once for dinner recently, having not written a full column about this wonderful place in four years, and the overwhelming impression for both of us at dinner was the quality of the sauces, a legacy of current owner Benji Arduain’s late brother, Rene, a former partner in the restaurant who trained the staff well. It’s to the point that we check the sauce available with an entrée first before ordering and it has a strong influence over what we choose. That led my companion to select the orange roughy filet with lemon butter sauce ($28) and while I was tempted by a social media post about the steak and lobster, the $68 price gave me pause and I went for the more wallet-friendly New York steak ($29) which came with a choice of two sauces: mushroom garlic or pepper cognac. I’ve had both. They’re superb. But that pepper cognac fosters dreams of envy that I could make that in my own kitchen.
When ordering dinner, it is absolutely necessary to order a soufflé for dessert so it will be ready at the appropriate time. There are four — lemon, chocolate, Grand Marnier and raspberry — and it’s $15 for two people, and it’s worth it. A friend who used to live here and now sweats it out in Santa Barbara (maybe sweat isn’t the right word) said it’s hard to find any place there that makes these, and none as good as Benji’s, so she has to order one every time she visits. Here, they serve it in individual ramekins and puncture the top and pour in not a standard crème anglaise but the base sauce containing the flavor you selected. You can’t ever go wrong with chocolate, but the raspberry we enjoyed on this visit had its distinct charms.
The simplicity of our entrees was a strength. The orange roughy had been sautéed after a light egg bath, giving it the thinnest batter, and the lemon butter sauce added a worthy richness. My steak looked to be about 12 ounces and was a value at this price, much better than expected, flavorful and tender and the sauce, well, both of us were grabbing sourdough bread, french fries, anything absorbent to make sure not a bit of it was wasted.
The setup was OK, the fries a tad wimpy and not as fierce and perfect as what we enjoy routinely at Wool Growers, but the soup was familiar and comforting and we loved that the salsa to toss in with the beans was warm, so as not to cool it down. The green beans were canned with a tomato sauce, but that’s pretty typical of Basque restaurants.
I went back at lunch with lifelong Drillers Chad and Ron. Chad wisely ordered the roast leg of lamb with brown mushroom sauce ($17) and Ron, also choosing wisely, the pickled tongue sandwich ($13) while I had to order the cheeseburger ($13) with fond memories of sampling it while chasing down the best cheeseburger in town years ago. They let you customize it at Benji’s, with grilled onions, the customary vegetables, a juicy beef patty and a bakery bun that’s toasted. Served with fries that were crisper and firmer than the version we received at dinner.
Ron loved his sandwich, observing correctly that the pickled tongue is not quite as strong with oil and garlic as it is served elsewhere, presented on sourdough toast with lettuce, onion and red tomato. Chad’s plate full of lamb had a dark brown mushroom sauce that was as good as the peppercorn version on my steak on the dinner visit. Our waitress raved about it when he ordered it, knowing exactly what was headed his way. For some reason he wouldn’t use the bread or fries to sop up that amazingly silky and flavorful sauce, so he used a spoon.
Another thing I appreciate about Benji’s is that they move tables through the dining process without giving you the feeling they’re rushing you. And even though the parking lot was full they can hold a lot of people in those backrooms. In any case, reservations are highly recommended.
Benji’s French Basque can be recommended for a fine dining experience.