If you Googled "French food" and got one of those Wikipedia stubs listing the Twenty Classic French Dishes, it would look something like the menu at Cafe des Amis. Everything from some Reader's Digest version of the Larousse Gastronomique is present and accounted for: foie gras, salad Niçoise, beef tartare, steak frites, frog's legs, pot au feu, profiteroles, tarte tatin. Everything tastes the way it's supposed to. No particular province or style of cooking is given preferential treatment. This is all-encompassing French food, generic division, served across a zinc-topped bar or at a sidewalk table with plenty of bonhomie.
Cafe des Amis is one of half a dozen eateries in Tim Stannard's Bacchus Restaurant Group. Starting with the Village Pub in Woodside and continuing with Spruce in Presidio Heights, Mayfield Bakery and Cafe, and four Pizza Anticas (one in far-flung Santa Monica), he has created neighborhood-specific hangouts with their own unique look, bill of fare, and manufactured vibes. A few overarching concepts link the restaurants at the gustatory level. Wide-ranging menus allow diners to snack and sip, or opt for a full-on meal. Coffee for each venue is provided by ROASTCO, Bacchus' own roasting company, and freshly baked bread is delivered from the Mayfield twice a day.
The company's newest place is in Cow Hollow, a land of lazy afternoons and alcohol-fueled nights and strolling bourgeoisie in full plumage, so Cafe des Amis was conceptualized to take advantage of this quasi-Euro ambience. An all-day menu lets the locals fuel up as late as 1 a.m. Marble-topped sidewalk tables encourage some of the city's most fashionable people-watching. The restaurant itself has been impressively renovated and refurbished into a full-blown brasserie with towering French doors and a handcrafted solid-zinc bar top. Past the gleaming woodwork, Carrara marble, and red velvet drapes of the boisterous main dining room is another, cozier venue with its own limestone fireplace, crystal chandelier, and walls paneled in scarlet mohair. The mood is fun, lively, and just this side of elegant, and the warm yet professional service makes you feel well taken care of. But there's something full-blown and manufactured about the place that occasionally seeps into the tasty but not always entirely satisfying food.
Over the course of three meals (snatched between Giants playoff games) we checked out several dishes, beginning at Saturday brunch. The Boulanger's Basket ($14) was nothing special — a light and flaky but not particularly buttery croissant; a large, dense, undistinguished scone; an equally dense pumpkin muffin studded with raisins; and a cinnamon roll that could've used more cinnamon plus a pecan or two. The house bloody Mary ($11), on the other hand, was nice and spicy, and came with a plump jumbo prawn emerging from its celery salt-rimmed glass. The duck confit hash ($14)was a winner: a timbale layered in sweet red and orange peppers; chunks of potato made creamy by melting duck fat and shards of rich, chewy meat; two poached eggs; and a sprinkle of parsley on top.
Among the starters is onion soup ($9), one of the cuisine's standard specialties, but despite an attempt to raise the standard with both oxtail and beef-shank broth, the result was the same old chewy-Gruyère–topped bowl: perfectly serviceable but nothing special. The octopus salad ($13) was a better bet. Although the meat was chewier than it had to be, its flavor was almost buttery, and it was briskly accented with the unexpected taste of preserved lemon and pickled chanterelles. Our favorite appetizer was tête de cochon ($12), a far cry from the aspic-y headcheese of yesteryear. A deep wide platter of silky, supple shredded pig's head not unlike lean bacon was touched with just enough fresh horseradish to give it a gentle kick. It was complemented with a light broth studded with pearl onions, beets, carrots, and fried pig's ears, as rich and crunchy as a good onion ring.
The more traditional entrées weren't as successful. Bouillabaisse ($28) lacked the zap one associates with the French Mediterranean's garlicky signature dish. It encompassed half a dozen mussels, three thick filets of perfectly cooked yet unexciting rock cod, two enormous prawns avec antennae, two crawfish heads sans meat, creamy-funky-squishy sea urchin (an acquired taste), and the best part, a chewy spear of sourdough rubbed with a yummy rouille. Beef bourguignon, usually a hearty stew of beef, broth, bacon, garlic, onion, and plenty of Burgundy, morphed into a bowl of butter noodles and chewy chunks of unexciting meat with no broth or sauce or any discernible flavor of wine whatsoever. But a reconceived postmodern brandade ($19) combined the lush, pungent puréed salt cod and cubed potatoes of yore into a timbale with a base of sweet peppers and a runny fried egg on top to excellently messy effect.
The best dessert on the menu was a kitchen original, 24-layer crêpe cake ($8): two dozen (we counted) sweet, delicate pancakes interspersed with thin layers of whipped cream, whose ingredients coalesced into a supple, luscious, surprisingly light meal-closer. A retreat into tradition, the chocolate marquise ($8), was its polar opposite. It wasn't rich enough, just dense, like chocolate frosting out of a can, and with no endorphic pizazz to speak of. The profiteroles ($8) were a better chocolate option. Unlike most of the soggy, chewy renditions out there, these were light and crisp despite their filling of rich vanilla ice cream, and the warm, buttery fudge sauce on top was lovely. Like the reimagined brandade, the chèvre cheese tart ($8) was a delight, a rectangle of creamy sweetened goat cheese dotted with autumn figs and served in a buttery pecan crust.
The wine list is impressive: 500 bottles organized by region, almost all of them French with a few dozen locals tucked in. Burgundies predominate, but of course, along with Rhones and Bordeaux, and options range from a $24 Val de Loire sauvignon blanc to Henri Jayer's '01 Cros Parantoux at $5,000. Twenty-four are available by the glass and the half bottle. There are also 20 beers, mostly seldom-encountered French and Belgian brews, almost all of them worth investigating. And the bar shakes up several vintage cocktails with care and affection, including a potent Vieux Carré fragrant of rye, cognac, and bitters ($12) and an honest-to-God Picon Punch ($10), rich, bittersweet and warming on the tongue.
Cafe des Amis is at its best when it takes tried-and-true classics and reinvents them into something exciting enough to capture the imagination of the modern palate. The rest of the time it's just a reasonable facsimile of a rich, soul-satisfying cuisine seldom encountered in all its glory outside its homeland, and never in Cow Hollow.