Just for toi
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Chez Maman might not be spreading her arms just for you, but it sure feels that way. You step inside, and you are snuggled. There is no one else in her world but you except, of course, those other inconveniently needy people who are lined up at the long bar and packed into the windowside tables, hungry for a taste of Mom's cooking and competing for her attention, damn them. Mom in this instance is French, a stoveside exponent of la France profonde, a disher-up of various Gallic comfort food, though plainly Mom has been hoofing it around the world lately too, since, to judge by the menu card, she seems to have discovered the quesadilla, among other New World wonders.
Mom's place used to be Just for You, a celebrated daytime, mostly breakfast-and-lunch venue that also served dinner but decamped a few years ago to Dogpatch. Space was presumably an issue in that move; the vacated premises were tight even by the standards of tight premises, and the advent of Chez Maman (an offshoot of Plouf offshoot Chez Papa, at the corner; now there are several Chezs Mamans) did not cause those premises to expand. The restaurant's minimal dimensions seem to be exactly those of yesteryear. We were shown to a window-display table one noontime, and I felt as if I were being stuffed into a coach seat on United Airlines. The chairs were handsome enough some kind of brushed steel or aluminum, very au courant but I would have been happier with less metallic chic and more space in which to draw breath.
Yet the closeness of the quarters is what it is: an inherited condition. And there is something to be said for knee-knocking proximity, at least if you're with somebody you like. If you're not, there's always the long counter (which affords an excellent view of the conversation-piece kitchen) and, in clement weather, the sidewalk tables. It has long been my sense that the concept of clement weather is generously understood in France; the French will sit at outdoor tables in the Place de la Bastille, sipping espressos or Kronenbourgs from tall glasses, even as February snowflakes twirl gently down around them. If they need further warming, they light cigarettes and denounce the government.
No snowflakes on Potrero Hill, of course, at least not of the meteorological sort and not many cigarettes now either but at Chez Maman there are excellent panini, including those classic French versions, croques monsieur et madame. You can't go wrong with these, but how about a panino of merguez ($9.50), the spicy North African lamb sausage, presented (with sautéed onions and Gruyère) on immaculately fresh bread in the form of a boomerang? I never tire of merguez, but I particularly liked Chez Maman's version, which had the coarse, chewy texture of the house-made kind.
The merguez panino plate, like that of the tuna panino plate ($9.50), was prettied up with balsamic-dressed mesclun beautiful and tasty if rather austere. To balance this small touch of abstemious greenery, we sprang for the herbed frites ($5), which arrived in a hefty stack with a ramekin of aioli on the side and lasted beyond the end of the panini despite our enthusiastic plunderings: forkfuls, fingerfuls. The tuna sandwich was good, just not quite as memorable as its merguez sibling: the fish was mashed with aioli into a kind of salad dotted by bits of roasted red pepper and given a gentle edge by some parmesan gratings, though no capers.
If you accept the quesadilla as legitimate in a French (or French-plus) bistro, then you will also welcome, beforehand, guacamole and chips ($7). The guac is nicely chunky and lightly kissed by lime juice, but the fresh-from-the-fryer chips are a revelation almost like pastry. No one can eat just one, and I should know. I could easily have eaten the whole stack, like a bag of Ruffles, without any guacamole at all. Fortunately or unfortunately, I had to share.
The quesadillas are wittier than the run-of-the-mill sort. I was especially taken by a vegetarian version ($10.50) filled with a sauté of red and yellow bell peppers and zucchini, and smears of goat cheese. The quesadilla, duly grilled, was cut into quarters and stacked like a club sandwich, which made it easier to share, sharing being a recurrent motif at Chez Maman, perhaps because of the close quarters or the sense of maternal vigilance.
Across the way, my friend took a deep whiff of his niçoise salad ($13.50), as if he were warming his face over a steamy bowl of soup.
"It smells fishy," he said with satisfaction, "like the real thing." The salad included fresh grilled tuna, naturally, to contribute to this authenticating perfume, but also anchovy fillets, whose aroma is indispensable in certain preparations. I have had niçoise salads, even good niçoise salads, without anchovies, but anchovies are, without doubt, an improvement. (The rest of the salad was satisfyingly standard-issue: quarters of hard-boiled eggs and tomato, green beans, potatoes, and black olives.)
Perhaps the most genuinely French aspect of the Chez Maman experience is the service. As those who've visited France know, the French tend not to fawn over restaurant customers. Service is generally crisp and correct, and servers are pleasant while avoiding the noisome American tic of pretending to be your friend. Chez Maman's service offers a version of this brisk continental experience, which is intensified by the crowding smallness of the place into a blend of efficiency and urgency. Plates clatter, people come and go, and Maman reminds us, gently but firmly, not to talk with our mouths full. *
CHEZ MAMAN POTRERO HILL
Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.11 p.m.; Sat.Sun., 10:30 a.m.11 p.m.
1453 18th St., SF
Beer and wine