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The French love their chalk, and no wonder. Chalk makes possible some of France's most prized wines, from the sparkling cuvées of Champagne to the wonderful, minerally whites of the Loire Valley. It's also useful for writing on chalkboards, which tend to be ubiquitous in French restaurants and on sidewalk sandwich boards outside of same. One of the great pleasures of Paris is scanning these boards while strolling the city, pondering the plats du jour and formules as mealtime approaches.
The French word for "chalkboard" actually, "the chalkboard" is l'ardoise, and, in a slight slap of irony, there is no sandwich-style chalkboard on the sidewalk in front of L'Ardoise, which opened late in the winter in the old Los Flamingos space in Duboce Triangle. There are no sandwiches on the menu either, for that matter, which isn't surprising since the restaurant only serves dinner. There is, however, a sizable chalkboard inside, hanging on a wall not quite opposite the bar. The board lists the day's specials, and if it's too awkward to crane your neck so you can read it, you can count on your server to report its offerings with efficiency.
The cheerful starkness of Los Flamingos has given way to the look of a fin de siècle literary salon. The floors are covered in claret-and-gold floral carpeting; the walls are a throbbing red, and the furnishings emphasize dark wood. It would not be difficult to imagine Proust in the next room, scribbling away. Of course, there is no next room. There's just the kitchen, presided over by Thierry Clement, whose pedigree includes a recent stint at the enduringly fine Fringale. If his first menus at L'Ardoise are more neighborhoody than Fringale's which is, after all, a city-center restaurant with a broad and venerable reputation they do as ably answer the urge to eat.
L'Ardoise, then, is the comfy local bistro this arboreal part of town has been waiting for. Its obvious near relations are Le Zinc (in Noe Valley), Le P'tit Laurent (in Glen Park), and Zazie (in Cole Valley), and it certainly matches up well against any of them. It helps that bistro cooking is a well-established culinary genre, and Clement knows the drill. But I did wonder why there was no pot of Dijon mustard to accompany the otherwise appealing, if mainstream, charcuterie plate ($9): an array of two squares of pâté (one made with liver), a shower of oily, garlicky saucisson coins, and a jumble of green and black olives, cornichons, and caperberries. The lack of mustard wasn't fatal, but it was noticeable.
Better was a shallow bowl of tiger-prawn ravioli ($10) in an herbed cream sauce. Cream can be a silent killer, like being smothered by soft white pillows, but here the prawns were big, sweet, and juicy enough to assert themselves through both the butterfat and the free-form drapings of pasta.
Seafood gratin ($19) was very much like a seafood stew or even a bouillabaise, only less moist. The oblong serving crock swelled with sea scallops, prawns, halibut cubes, and diced potatoes, all of them toe-deep in a broth of white wine and herbs enlivened by a broad anise hint of Pernod (or some other kind of pastis). A sprinkling of bread crumbs had been baked on top for the gratin effect. What gave pause wasn't the dryness but the undersalting; Chief Many Phones had to apply several jolts from the table shaker to revive the patient.
Steak frites is a bistro standard, but Clement's kitchen isn't above having some fun with it. The steak here turned out to be a chunk of seared Black Angus filet mignon ($27), plated with a heap of confit potatoes (basically homemade chips), a woodpile of steamed green beans (too broad to be proper haricots verts, so Blue Lake, perhaps), and some nicely dressed mésclun. Despite the reassuring nomenclature, I had doubts about the beef before it arrived; "filet mignon" is a grand name but often dry and tasteless in fact. Not this time.
Our side order of sautéed spinach ($5) reached the table in a miniature Le Creuset crock, red enamel on cast iron, complete with top: a nifty flourish in the manner of Fleur de Lys, and the spinach was well-seasoned, although whenever you're eating low-fat spinach you can't help but think wistfully about the times you've eaten creamed spinach.
Pears: as much as I like them fresh (at least if they're crisp), I am left disappointed by most pear desserts. Pears poached in red wine? Pass. I would rather have a glass of Poire William (the pear eau de vie), or, better, armagnac. But L'Ardoise's kitchen has come up with a splendid use for the pear: It's the star of a tarte tatin ($7), a disk about the size one of those single-serve cheesecakes, with the pear slices caramelized to a voluptuous amber. They're neatly arranged atop (or, originally, underneath, since tartes tatins are baked pastry side up, then inverted for serving) a layer of pastry we found to be undistinguished even beyond its thinness. Pastry should be flaky, not tough. But at least there wasn't much of it, and the pears were absolutely winning.
L'Ardoise doesn't seem to have suffered from the lack of sidewalk sandwich boards. The place is already jammed in the evenings, with well-dressed groups of thirty- and fortysomethings waiting just inside the door for tables. The door has an annoying way of flopping open, so if you're averse to drafts, ask for a table well inside. It's nice and toasty under the chalkboard.
Dinner: Tues.Sun., 5:3010 p.m.
151 Noe, SF
Beer and wine