Bienvenu, valenciennes! Hearty specialities of the French countryside served in a choice location
DINE When Garçon! succeeded Alma about four years ago, I thought: well, there goes the neighborhood. Alma had been a rather special place, a temple of nuevo Latino cooking, and it had a witty name that meant "soul" in Spanish while slyly referring to the owner-chef, Johnny Alamilla. "Garçon," by contrast, is a word of near-abuse that gets shouted at servers in French restaurants in dumb movies — or, occasionally, in real life, at real servers by dumb people.
The word "garçon" should probably have an exclamation point appended to it as a matter of routine, and — huzzah! (or voilà?) — the signage at Garçon! includes the exclamation point! In the restaurant's early days, the signage was dismal, a sharp falling-off from Alma's, and I took this to be a bad sign: just cheap-looking banners rippling in the breeze, as if they were having a Labor Day clearance sale on washers and dryers.
The improved signage suggests that Garçon! has settled into its rather choice location. There is a certain amount of history to live up to. In addition to (and before) Alma, the nicely windowed corner space at the corner of 22nd and Valencia streets was home to the Rooster, which was interesting in a slightly odd way.
Garçon! isn't odd, but it is a good, solid French restaurant in a neighborhood that has just about every other kind of restaurant other than. So maybe it's a little eccentric after all, or maybe just unexpected. Certainly it's good-looking; the Iberian-grotto look of Alma has been swept away in favor of metropolitan polish; Garçon! might be one of the most Parisian-looking restaurants in the city, with its vintage Dubonnet posters and individual lamps on each table (each fitted with a CFL, for greeniac cred). Their glow warms the dark wood of the tables.
Chef Arthur Wall's food is of the hearty school. This is not a restaurant you will leave hungry. If you have any doubts about getting your fair share, you might be interested in the prix-fixe, $32 for three courses, which is a little high to provide true economy of scale but does ensure that you get three courses. It brought me, one evening, a substantial coq au vin, a dish I don't see offered that much any more although, like its close relation boeuf bourguignon, is one of the staples of French country cooking. At Garçon! the coq turned out to be a whole leg (thigh plus drumstick) braised in red wine with bacon, carrots, and pearl onions — a fairly wintry dish to be offering in mild springtime, I thought, but the meat was tender and juicy, and a wonderfully thick sauce had gathered at the bottom of the earthenware crock.
The pork chop ($23) didn't appear on the prix-fixe menu — maybe because it wouldn't fit. It was a massive fist of meat, nicely cooked to a hint of rareness and laid atop a bed of symmetrically diced potatoes. A bit less overwhelming in scale, and more stylish, was duck-leg confit ($19 — not a bad price), stylishly presented with a potato mousseline, braised baby leeks, and sections of mandarin orange. Only the duck fiend would have had this after having had duck-liver paté ($9), a creamy, mild square like a thick slice of white cheese, along with toast points, arugula, apple slices, and a red wine syrup that could have passed for some kind of berry coulis.
As a Francophile, it does slightly grieve me to say that French handling of the hamburger can sometimes leave something to be desired. At Garçon! you can have your burger ($12) decorated with a slice of cheese ($2) of your choice — brie, say, to go with the brioche bun for what I thought of as the Frenchburger. The meat turned out to be okay if overcooked (I asked for medium-rare, got well-done), and the bun was fine if a bit puffy. But the cheese! Mon dieu! Brie does not belong on a cheeseburger; it resists melting and acquires an unappealing mustiness from the heat. The fries were decent but could have been more crisp and golden. If you need a rinse aid, you might be interested in the burger and beer ($15).
The dessert menu includes a glimpse of the sublime: a chocolate ganache tart ($9) accompanied by sour cherries, mint, and a puff of whipped cream that one time was made with goat cheese and another with plain sweet cream. The accompaniments are nice, but the tart, with its flaky-crisp pastry crust and voluptuous chocolate filling — like a cross between pudding and fudge — can stand on its own. I'm tempted to add an exclamation point but won't.
Dinner: Tues.–Thurs., Sun. 5–10:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.
1101 Valencia, SF