It seemed sort of funny, dipping my spoon into Bistro Central Parc's beef bourguignon ($18), to think about the halo of sophistication classic French bistro dishes used to emanate. I mean, the stew was good — chunks of beef, saturated in red wine, that collapsed into tender shreds with the tap of a spoon. They rose out of a pool of purplish-brown sauce contained by a ring of potato-parsnip purée so creamy it formed meringuelike peaks when I drew a spoon through it. Julia Child may have called beef bourguignon "one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man," but in 2011, it seemed more a humble stew, perfect for a rainy spring night.
French cuisine, both haute and homestyle, has been absorbed into California cuisine so thoroughly that it's sometimes hard to remember what seemed so exotic and magical about it 30 or 40 years ago. We've followed dozens of other tangents since the days when Ernie's and La Petite Auberge were at the top of the Bay Area's dining scene. Spain is a major source of inspiration; Japan and Rome, too. Those skinny haricots verts and complex reduction sauces that used to cause a stir? They've been replaced on more fashionable plates with padrón peppers and toasted-quinoa soils.
The effect of the halo-dimming, as I discovered over my two meals at Bistro Central Parc, is kind of wonderful: It lets a French bistro be a French bistro again, a neighborhood spot for straightforward cooking and a glass of decent, moderately priced red wine. The restaurant isn't quite the raucous bistro Patricia Wells describes so lovingly in Bistro Cooking, with sawdust-covered floors and serve-yourself pork terrines, but over the 16 months it has been open, Bistro Central Parc has settled into a sleepy stretch north of the Panhandle with the ease of a cat colonizing the windowsill. Owner Jacques Manuera (who founded Baker Street Bistro a couple of decades ago) and his chef de cuisine, Nicolas Jardin, have a healthy appreciation for foie gras, a proper respect for steak frites and good service, and occasional bouts of Gallic fussiness on the plate.
I must have driven past the olive-green building dozens of times before I made it in for dinner, reminding myself each time to find out more about the place. The cycle — What's that? Oh, the cute place I keep forgetting to check out — might have repeated itself ad infinitum if two sets of friends hadn't talked up their meals there within the space of a few weeks.
Which is why, several weeks ago, I found myself scooping forkfuls of mixed greens ($7.50) onto my plate, feeling vaguely guilty that I was eating my salad before the main course. It was early enough that the room was still three-quarters empty and the evening light was gilding the butter-colored walls and wood-topped tables. The staffers, dressed in jeans and everyday shirts, were clustered around the metal-clad bar, kibitzing about sports in French (French waiters, French owner, French chef — if you're looking for measures of authenticity here, you'll find them). A spark of anise flickered about the first bite of greens. I inspected the red oak and mizuna, and found fresh tarragon leaves and snipped chives clinging to them, and the leaves were shiny with a vivid, shallot-flecked Champagne vinaigrette. Hey, nice salad.
Same with the bouillabaisse ($18.50), which I'd ordered after the waiter mentioned that Jardin came from Marseilles. The seafood stew had been cleaned up for San Francisco — no bony rascasse, no conger or monkfish — but the murky broth was the right color of burnished gold, with a few droplets of unemulsified olive oil ringing the bowl and a delicately piscine flavor tinged with just the right amount of saffron and fennel. The scallops were barely more firm than shaving foam, the mussels and clams were fat and sweet, and the obligatory rouille-smeared croustade was good enough that I contemplated asking for a few more.
BCP's menu covers classics familiar to Americans, abstracted from their regional origins: escargots bourguignons (Burgundy style), mussels marinières from the northeast, a southern rack of lamb with ratatouille (the ratatouille, incidentally, is a very good one, and can be ordered as a vegetable side for $5). The waiters seemed to have found a good blend of French and American styles of service — they refilled the water bottles on the table as promptly as they noticed our finished plates, and assumed the meal was going to linger until we'd exhausted our conversation and asked for the check.
The crowd that filled in as the evening passed was grayer-haired than the ones at Bar Agricole or Nopa; they're the generation who came to adulthood cooking out of Elizabeth David books and memorizing appellations on Burgundy's Côte d'Or. They haven't lost their taste for a proper trout with almonds ($18), a filet showered in slivered almonds and a thick butter sauce, then topped with sautéed green beans and three perfectly shaped, boiled potatoes. Or steak frites ($19.50), a 6-inch swath of hanger steak napped in a simple butter-and-wine pan sauce and served with a mountain of double-fried potatoes.
On my second visit, the solid technique behind Bistro Central Parc's simplest dishes wavered as the dishes grew more elaborate. We were promised medium-rare and served a medium-well duck breast served with a strawberry reduction sauce that was at odds with the asparagus beneath. Partial redemption: a jiggly, custardlike medallion of seared foie gras melting onto the duck, which was all the sauce it really needed.
Jardin's flourishes can come off as cooking school — the precisely placed sprig of parsley, a 4-inch antenna of something crispy sticking out of the beef bourguignon, which I suspected of transmitting data back to the kitchen. The distance between presentation and execution was greatest when it came to dessert. A precise coil of spun sugar perched on the lip of our crème brûlée was impressive, but I'd have been more impressed if the custard underneath wasn't overcooked. A tuille cookie filled with whipped cream and gossamer loops of chocolate piped around our tarte tatin couldn't disguise the fact that both pastry and apples were mushy and not particularly caramelized.
Once I dispatched a fussy pitcher of veal-stock reduction sauce, drizzling it over an appetizer of sweetbreads ($10), the dish underneath was exquisite — creamy slices of pan-fried sweetbreads, each the texture of a marshmallow, napped in sautéed oyster mushrooms. There was none of the livery taint of overcooked offal, just the subtler earthiness of the fungi. I'd been missing sweetbreads since they retreated from California-cuisine menus a decade ago. Thanks to the French, who haven't abandoned sweetbreads, they tasted exotic and magical all over again.