The little prince
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Although for years I have believed and maintained that you could never get good cassoulet in a restaurant, I find that I must now recant. You can get good cassoulet in at least one restaurant in this town, and that restaurant is Le P'tit Laurent, which opened a few months ago at the corner of Chenery and Diamond, in the heart of Glen Park's utterly transformed commercial village.
The restaurant bears the name of its owner, Laurent Legendre, who was one of the partners in Clémentine, a late-'90s presence in the Inner Richmond. I never quite warmed to Clémentine, whose rather formal and correct French cooking seemed a little crimped after the exuberant whimsy of Alain Rondelli, previous holder of the Clement Street space. But no such ghost haunts Le P'tit Laurent, whose predecessor was a blues club named Red Rock. The new bistro already feels as if it's been there since time out of mind; it has that nicely worn-in Parisian look, from the clutter of liquor bottles (and a miniature Eiffel Tower) behind the mirrored bar to the little, distinctively French signs posted all over the place, including one for cave at the mouth of the wine closet. There is also a pressed-tin ceiling and a service ethic that is French in the best sense: friendly, yes, but knowledgeable and crisp first.
Best of all is the street scene that continuously unfolds beyond the many windows. One of the drawbacks of the French bistro in America is that America isn't France, and our street scenes don't look French. Glen Park would never be mistaken for the Marais, even at night, but one evening, amid early darkness and the descending scent of winter, I thought I caught a whiff of the 11th arrondissement: blurred streetlamps, a metro station at the corner, pedestrians hurrying home from work up quiet side streets, though not carrying baguettes under their arms.
Of course, I was eating an excellent cassoulet at the time, and this might have affected my perception. The only flaw in Le P'tit Laurent's cassoulet ($19) is that it can't be ordered as part of the three-course, $19.95 prix fixe menu (available Monday to Thursday, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.). Otherwise, the dish is flawless: an earthenware crock of white beans in a sauce thickened by a long, slow simmer with duck-leg confit, chunks of pork, and oblong coins of Toulouse sausage.
The cassoulet is a meal in itself and then some, so our first course steamed mussels in a creamy white-wine sauce ($9), with pale gold frites ($2.50 extra) was overkill in the form of an overture. (Prekill?) The broth was excellent if conventional, and it seemed to gather a bit of extra magic when sopped up with the fries or (when they ran out, because of course they did) chunks of baguette. And it probably made more sense as a prelude to a lighter main course, such as sautéed sea bass ($16) in a Grenobloise sauce a rather forceful concoction of melted butter spiked with herbs and capers (and possibly a dab of mustard, I thought).
One of the kitchen's themes, in fact, seems to involve giving hearty treatments to seafood. On an earlier visit we found several chunks of monkfish ($17.95) sprawled on a bed of shredded cabbage and bacon (a combination reminiscent of the Alsatian dish choucroute). On that same visit we liked suprême de poulet ($14.95), a roasted leg and thigh of chicken on a bed of couscous and garlic confit, with a cheery sauce of citrus reduction and ginger, but were less enthusiastic about the vegetarian plate ($14.95), a pair of large, free-form ravioli stuffed with red beet slices and bathed in too much of a decent but unremarkable mushroom sauce. If you needed proof that the traditional French gastronomic ethic is unenthusiastic about vegetarianism, I give you exhibit A.
If we felt we'd drifted into an unstated conflict, we were soon mollified by dessert: to wit, profiteroles ($5.95), in fact the best profiteroles in recent memory. There was nothing too out of the ordinary about the flavors; the pastry balls were stuffed with vanilla ice cream and sauced with chocolate and caramel. But the pastry! Sublimely flaky. Profiteroles are too often tough and rubbery, like old racquetballs, but Le P'tit Laurent's were yieldingly delicate, bits of buttery finery that surrendered themselves and were soon gone but not forgotten. They were so not forgotten, in fact, that we ordered them a second time a few evenings later, and while I was tempted to cap things off with a snifter of Armagnac, I felt no need in the end. (To paraphrase the endlessly paraphrasable Homer Simpson: my gastronomic rapacity did know satiety.)
As for Glen Park well, these days I hardly know ye. When Chenery Park opened just a few doors up in 2000, it was a lonely outpost of upscaleness in a Sleepy Hollow sort of urban enclave that seemed little changed since the 1950s. But these first years of the new millennium have brought all sorts of newness, from the cool pizza place across the street (Gialina) to the gorgeous Canyon Market (viewable through Le P'tit Laurent's windows as part of the faux11th arrondissement display) to, finally, a retro-chic Parisian bistro that serves quite good food at reasonable prices and is, accordingly, packing them in. The case for cassoulet has been made.
LE P'TIT LAURENT
Brunch: Sat.Sun., 9 a.m.2 p.m. Dinner: daily, 5:3010:30 p.m.
699 Chenery, SF