"Your neighborhood bistro serving affordable, freshly prepared meals," reads the legend on the menu. Bistro Aix (various staffers pronounce it "ex," "aches," or "eeks") is right across the street from Ace Wasabi's Rock 'n' Roll Sushi; their proximity is visible evidence that the Marina really is a neighborhood, as well as an entertainment center. For decades, the northern edge of the city from Van Ness to the Presidio has attracted residents willing to pay a premium to live near good shopping and varied nightlife.
Chestnut Street, the bright, brisk neighborhood hub, abounds with eateries, bars, cinemas, and boutiques featuring cool clothes, tchotchkes, natural foods, and fit, upwardly mobile potential mates. Though the '89 earthquake revealed that the scene was literally built on sand -- or more precisely, fill, including rubble from the quake of '06 -- and though buildings tumbled and blocks burned, with remarkable speed the Marina was rebuilt and reoccupied, its high spirits restored.
People who work long hours to afford expensive housing, gyms, and cute shoes require affordable restaurants serving real food, not just sushi and "wrapps." Responding to that need in 1996, chef/owner Jonathan Beard opened Bistro Aix. The long, plain dining room is dominated by a bar made of light-colored wood slats. On our first visit, the tiny adjoining open kitchen emitted howls of agony-rock, replaced blessedly soon by softer Latin pop. The next time, the dining soundtrack was modern jazz. (Chef Beard wasn't in evidence either night.) You can sit indoors on uncushioned (but oddly comfortable) wooden banquettes, or in passable weather choose a table on the canvas-tarped heated back patio, dominated by a mural that transplants Van Gogh's Starry Night to downtown San Francisco.
On each table are glasses and "bottled water" -- a claret bottle refilled with tap water. Another bottle holds fruity green California olive oil, into which the puffy house-baked baguettes are meant to be dipped. The most crowded weeknight hours are Sundays through Thursdays, 6 to 8, when a $12 prix fixe menu offers the night's soup or mesclun salad along with a choice of steak, roast chicken, or clam linguine (each $12 a la carte).
Our soup was a light asparagus puree containing a few succulent chunks of the spears. The zesty salad featured well-assorted greens and fresh herbs in a full-bodied tarragon vinaigrette, based on the same rich oil as the bread dip, while the steak was Paris' ubiquitous "le steak-frites," grilled top sirloin with fresh-herbed (maitre d'hotel) butter alongside a heap of fries. Ours arrived ultrarare as ordered, sliced horizontally into three pieces. With savory butter melting into tender, full-flavored meat, the steak was more deeply satisfying than those on my recent steakhouse tour, and the fries were just perfect.
Roast chicken is another bistro fixture, and Aix's version, half a small pullet (a poulet de reine in French chicken-sizing), was workmanlike, its skin none too crisp but gaining flavor from the same butter as the sirloin. An accompanying hillock of mashed potatoes was good and peppery, with just a hint of garlic. Both entrees included decent ratatouille, dominated by Asian eggplant and red bell pepper.
Appetizers comprise an assortment of composed salads and light seafood. Apparently, a momentous change is occurring in the local diet: Cured salmon is rapidly becoming the fried calamari of the millennium. You read it here first. (For you mossbacks, Aix offers fried calamari, too.) Aix's house-cured salmon ($7) was a soft, salty slice of translucent fish, welded by a layer of dilled creme fra”che to a crisp galette of matchstick potatoes. A baby spinach salad, dressed with a sweetish fig vinaigrette ($5.50), needed better tossing. It wasn't until we got to the bottom of the dish that we uncovered the huddled mass of braised dried figs, too sweet to enjoy without the contrasting flavors of the long-gone goat cheese and pecans.
A quartet of cracker-crust pizzas ($8-11.50) range from a simple tomato/three-cheese topping on up to asparagus and prosciutto with truffle oil. We chose the wild mushroom and truffle oil variation ($10.50). The chewy, ultrathin crust wore a proportionately svelte, scrumptious coat of cheeses, sauteed shiitakes, and basil shreds. The white truffle oil was drizzled on unevenly, lending welcome bite-by-bite variety.
An entree of dayboat scallops ($16) was another treat. The scallops were seared fast and hot, sealing their juice and flavor inside a light crust. They arrived with a helping of the mashed potatoes, surrounded by a wild mushroom medley (including, I'm sure, at least one chanterelle) moistened by a quantity of white truffle oil that was two drops short of overbearing. A neighboring table's top sirloin-burger with shoestring fries ($8) sent out an alluring aroma like that of the great Aix steak. We couldn't resist. Ordered medium rare but delivered medium well, our burger proved a disappointment: a mean, too-lean hunk of parched ground cow on a slab of naked focaccia. Even the ramekin of Heinz ketchup couldn't moisten it.
The daily specials represent the kitchen's most ambitious fare, often involving premium fish and fowl. A stuffed quail appetizer ($9.50) really was special, and ample enough for an entree. Nesting in red cabbage with port wine sauce, adorned with diced pears, the bird was crisp-skinned and moist-fleshed, spilling a nutty-tasting black stuffing of wild rice and slivered wild mushrooms. In classic French fashion, an entree of sturgeon ($17) treated the fish's firm, meaty flesh to hearty accompaniments -- a powerful red wine sauce, sauteed Swiss chard, and semitough fingerling potatoes. Unfortunately, our seared fillet emerged too dry and pale-flavored to face down the bullying of its platemates.
The wine list is a single-spaced page of reasonably priced choices from France, Italy, and California, with some especially attractive Rhones, including Mont Redon Chateauneuf ($42) and our choice, a reliable Guigal C™tes du Rhone ($23). About eight (including the Guigal) are available by the glass, and a few (at the higher end) come in half-bottles. Brew-lovers can enjoy an international array of four on tap and a half-dozen bottles.
Desserts (all $5.50) include house-made sorbets and pastries. We ventured, curious, on an angel food cake boasting just one gram of fat. Soaked in Meyer lemon juice, it bore a dollop of terribly sweet huckleberry compote. Given the quantity of sugar standing in for fat, we decided that, as with SnackWell's, the calorie count outweighed the pleasure amount. Lighter-textured but wicked through and through was a luscious "napoleon" of tangerines and white chocolate. Bearing no resemblance to the traditional creme patissiere concoction, a thin piece of moist fudge cake in a splash of caramel sauce supported fruit-dotted white chocolate mousse as buoyant as whipped cream, topped with a grid of bittersweet chocolate -- and more mousse and another grid. Slices of semiripe strawberry simpered on the side. The confection resembled a glorified high-rise tiramisu -- or, given the brown, white, and strawberry color scheme, perhaps a "Neapolitan."
Aix serves simple, satisfying, yet sophisticated fare for everyday eating (and fancier dishes for splurge nights) to folks who don't always have time (or skill) to cook at home. Instead of hovering over a hot stove, its neighbors can put in an hour of gym time or overtime while the cooks at Aix faithfully tend their chickens.