The Lower Haight gets first French bistro, featuring well-executed classics
Few neighborhoods in Paris are more full of cultural flavor than the Faubourg St.-Germain, the Right Bank district whose main thoroughfare, the Boulevard St. Germain, is the home of the Café Flore (the original!) and the Deux Magots. Picture Sartre thoughtfully smoking a clove cigarette, with a demitasse emptied of espresso sitting on the table in front of him.
Although the Faubourg St.-Germain is very near the Sorbonne, its bohemian life is mostly a relic. These days the area is expensively residential, and its shops and restaurants reflect this affluence. So when our own bistro impresario, Laurent Legendre, recently opened his latest venture on lower Haight Street under the name Bistro St. Germain, was he looking backward or forward, toward nostalgia or aspiration?
If the lower Haight can't quite claim anyone of Sartre's stature as part of its boho past, it can claim that it has kept something of a boho present. The neighborhood retains elements of true grit and is full of young people, and its restaurants still tend toward the cheap. But the area's socioeconomic furniture has been rearranged in recent years, and since the opening of nearby RNM in 2002, the upmarket trend has been palpable. Last year saw the arrival, in the next block, of Uva, a sleek enoteca, and now there is a proper bistro.
Legendre isn't the only propagator of neighborhood bistros in San Francisco nearby L'Ardoise, for instance, was launched by Thierry Clement but he is a force majeure. His previous undertaking, Le P'tit Laurent in Glen Park, is unusually authentic. Before that, he was a longtime principal in Clémentine (in the old Alain Rondelli space) and Bistro Clémentine, both in the inner Richmond.
I do find myself wondering how many traditional French bistros we need in this city, which, as it happens, is not Paris, home of the traditional French bistro. Are others wondering the same thing? The evidence, at least at Bistro St. Germain, suggests not. The place has the boxy spaciousness of a swimming pool or a pool hall, yet it fills up quickly with people and noise. (Sartre: "Hell is other people.") Are the crowds drawn by the tasty location, the huge wall mural (a silhouette of the Paris skyline, including such familiar spectacles as the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, and Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre), or the crisply executed, fairly priced food? The answer to this sort of trick question, or trick rhetorical question, is almost always, all of the above.
The food does not disappoint, certainly. From the arrival of the first basket of bread at the table, it's clear that care is being taken in the kitchen. The bread is a simple sweet baguette, still warm from the oven, sliced and presented with a pat of softened butter. The addictive properties of warm bread have, I believe, been under-investigated. Your bread basket will be endlessly, cheerfully replenished, but try to save some slices for mop-up duty in the event you have mussels and you should have mussels. At $9 for a sizable platter, they aren't expensive and can be had in a number of sauces, among them a basquaise of white wine, tomato, and peppers. Hugely soppable. And don't forget some frites ($3.50) sublimely crisp for some additional counterpoint.
The menu ranges gracefully across the French classics. There are snails ($6.25 for six), served on a dimpled earthenware plate and redolent of raw garlic. There is a roast poussin ($14), beautifully bronzed yet with moist white meat a quiet miracle and served with a large stack of frites. Duck confit ($16) is nicely done, with a crisp crust still faintly sizzling; it is set on a broad bed of lentils that are the proper gray-green color but are too big to be the traditional Puy variety. As lentil-cookers will likely agree, a large virtue of Puy lentils is their determined resistance to overcooking. They don't easily turn to mush. The bigger sorts have to be handled more carefully, but Bistro St. Germain's kitchen passes this test.
I found a bourride ($17) a seafood stew, complete with aioli-smeared rounds of toasted bread to be defined by the presence of what I took to be some form of cheeks, perhaps halibut cheeks. The rest of the players, including shrimp, mussels, and chunks of salmon, I could easily identify by shape, texture, and flavor. The suspected cheeks, however rectangular tabs of flesh, thumb-sized offered a strong, almost cheese-like flavor. Can fish be gamey? I offered tastes around the table as a cross-check, and the reactions returned were mild. Nonetheless, I hesitated for a bit before finishing the last piece.
Vegetarians can find French cooking a tough go, but Bistro St. Germain is accommodating. The meatless choices are explicitly identified and aren't shabby a shallow bowl of ravioli ($15), say, stuffed with squash purée and bathed in a mushroom cream sauce. Not quite legendary, perhaps, but pretty good.
BISTRO ST. GERMAIN
Dinner: Tues.Thurs. and Sun., 5:309:30 p.m.;
Fri.Sat., 5:3010:30 p.m.
Brunch: Sun., 10 a.m.2 p.m.
518 Haight, SF
Beer and wine
Very noisy if busy