If clothes make the man, then does the bistro make the neighborhood, or the other way around? This is a trick question, because the answer is: both. Part of the magic of any bistro is its neighborhood, which becomes part of the experience. And the obverse in a city of neighborhoods like ours, no neighborhood is quite complete without a bistro.
For neighborhood atmospherics, it's hard to match the cloud village that floats on the back-country streets behind Grace Cathedral. A cable-car line, a shop or two, a run of handsome townhomes with a certain Parisian feel and a twinkling cityscape in the background and, at the edge of things, a bistro, a quite convincing one, Rue Saint Jacques.
Don't bother looking for a street named Saint Jacques, because you won't find one although you will find an authentic-looking Paris street sign in the restaurant's front window. Don't bother looking, either, for the strangely enchanting Uzbek restaurant called On Jackson, which until about four years ago could be found on Jackson, at Taylor. It's in that snug corner spot that we find Eric Lanvert's Rue Saint Jacques, with an appealing paint treatment (like butter washed with cognac), a distinct upgrade in furniture quality from Uzbek days (including rather Arts-and-Craftsy-looking chairs), and, of course, some first-rate French cooking.
By "French cooking" I don't mean the haughty, haute kind with all the rich, intricate sauces, but the earthy kind, the bistro kind. Rue Saint Jacques' menu is mostly an exercise in this sort of heartiness, carried off with considerable style. The dishes rely on a timeless appeal and are very much the ones you'd find in countless neighborhood bistros in Paris. They also rely on high-quality (often organic ingredients) and thoughtful, though not fancy, preparation.
For those of us who love the prix-fixe, Rue Saint Jacques is as good as it gets. A flat fee of $35 buys you three courses: any starter, any main dish, and any dessert. Some of the more luxe possibilities, such as lobster risotto and the very formidable cassoulet, do carry a surcharge, but these are the exceptions. The sans surcharge appetizers are not exactly shabby anyway; a gently beefy beef tartare is made from freshly ground Niman Ranch filet mignon and subtly spiced up with a bit of mustard, while charcuterie is presented as a duo of rich, housemade pâté slices, one of duck, another (and coarser, country-style) of pork. Meaty, chewy snails are served Catalan-style, in a chunky sauce of sausage, bacon, and melted cherry tomatoes in an earthenware crock.
The French onion soup is the color of espresso: a sign that the onions have been patiently and repeatedly caramelized for maximum intensity of flavor before being sealed under a cap of melted cheese. A pistou-style soup of winter vegetables, including cabbage, carrots, turnips, and white beans, is paler pleasantly pale, really, though roasting the roots might have added some depth and weight. I did wonder about the addition of the out-of-season basil, which lacked its midsummer pepperiness.
The main courses, like their opening acts, are mostly familiar. Skirt steak (from Niman Ranch) is pan-roasted, sliced, slathered with a sauce of caramelized shallots, and plated with a stack of wonderfully slender, crisp herbed frites. Breast of local duck is roasted (to medium and perhaps then some), sliced, fanned over a bed of wild rice, and sauced with an ambrosial blend of cognac and green peppercorns.
The cassoulet is so heavy-duty that it reaches the table in a cast-iron skillet, complete with handle that must be oriented in an acceptable direction so as not to catch a passing thigh and send the whole thing flying.