"Yes, clatter is good," I agreed, feeling reassured by the sound of plates in motion. On a cold night at the gloomiest time of the year, Le Charm offers a refuge of warm intimacy and the balm of happy noise -- or clatter. It doesn't look like a French bistro ("They haven't wasted their money on decorating, they've spent it on the food," one of my friends said tactfully), but it feels like one.
We walked in a few minutes late, our pre-dinner conversation -- about seasonal affective disorder and the merits of introducing Prozac into the city's water supply, like fluoride (strong teeth and good moods!) -- having run on a bit. The holiday season may leave many people feeling blue, but so does the popping of that last champagne bubble. The new year opens with gray weather, work, and various anxieties.
Antidepressants might be one answer, but another is the ancient ritual of going out to dinner -- to a place like Le Charm, with its bustling informality, the soothing buzz of a dozen conversations at surrounding tables, the authentic French comfort food. It's a kind of secular communion, a laying on of hands with the past.
Apart from the industrial look of the decoration (which has become a little too common for my taste; a fireplace would be lovely), the restaurant could easily be in one of the more remote quartiers of Paris. The small menu features mainly French bistro cooking. You can order à la carte, with first courses mostly around $5, main dishes from $8.50 to $12, and desserts about $5. But by far the better choice is to order the fixed-price dinner; for $18 you choose a first and main course, then dessert.
I herded my dining companions toward the prix fixe like a shepherd with his lambs. I like the certainty of it, the simplicity and the guarantee of completeness. It's like seeing ears of summer corn on sale at the market. If they're five for a dollar, you don't buy two or three. It makes the math too difficult. Le Charm aims for simplicity; the menu isn't an obstacle course.
First courses varied in appeal. The charcuterie plate was decent but undistinguished. It featured a fat slice of pate, properly pinkish in the middle but a little rubbery and lacking the richness of its French counterpart. Little slices of salamilike sausage were tasty but quite oily; the bed of lightly dressed greens to the side offered a bit of tangy relief.
The oxtail croustillant -- a piece of phyllolike dough wrapped around stewed oxtail and pigs' feet and then pan fried -- was better. But the first course that commanded the most interest among us was the mushroom and celery-root lasagna -- an ample square bathed in a cream sauce that tasted intensely of mushroom. The celery root was there, too, its slightly sharp earthiness demure but unmistakable beneath a canopy of pasta.
While we waited for the main courses we nibbled from a basket of fresh bread (served with a ramekin of lightly salted butter -- vastly preferable to sweet) and split a bottle of the house white, a French table wine that cost $10. It wasn't Cakebread chardonnay, but it was bright, dry, and just a little steely -- an undemanding wine, lovely for nibbles and a dinner conversation. It's a pity that so few restaurants in the city offer cheap, quality house wines, but then most places are busy trying to cash in on the American obsession with varietals -- too much of which is, in the end, ignorance masquerading as snobbery. When in doubt, order chardonnay, or cab. Don't let them know you can't tell the difference between a zin and a merlot!
One of our main courses, the duck-leg confit, came from the list of daily specials. The confit method (slow cooking of the meat in its own fat) results in moist duck. It did so here, though I thought the rich, gamy taste was less buoyant than in other confits I've had recently. The plate was also garnished with a baked, sliced half-tomato and a handful of potato puffs -- bits of whipped potato, shaped into balls and popped into hot oil until brown. It was like eating crispy clouds.
The coq au vin reached the table in a handsome earthenware pot that held several pieces of dark meat on the bone and a red-wine sauce dotted with chunks of mushroom. My tablemates found the sauce too winy, but I thought it was just right -- a good taste of wine that didn't overwhelm. It didn't need any salt, either.
The pave steak arrived medium rare, as ordered (after a spirited negotiation between the two people who'd agreed to share it). The Roquefort-mushroom sauce had the silky punch of blue cheese, but the real star of the plate was the pile of pommes frites to one side. The potatoes looked like a little stack of chubby hay stalks, and they were still hot and crisp from the oil. McDonald's fries, at their best (cooked in beef tallow), were never this good. These were perfect.
Desserts were less than perfect. The profiteroles in chocolate sauce were little pastries stuffed with ice cream; the pastry was a bit tough, but the dish as a whole offered good contrasts and textures. The tarte tatin, on the other hand, was pretty bad. The caramel sauce had good flavor but a mealy texture, as if someone had sifted cornmeal into it. The apples were overcooked to mushiness, while the crust was spongy -- more like brioche than pastry. I like brioche well enough, but a tarte tatin crust ought to be flaky and a little crisp.
Le Charm has a lot going for it; it's already captured the basic genius of the French bistro: well-executed, straightforward food at a good price, with attentive, professional service. The prix fixe is such an attractive option that the desserts ought to be better. And an American flourish here and there (a drop or two of Tabasco in the coq au vin, say) wouldn't hurt, either; a lot of all-American cooking has French roots, even if we no longer recognize them. Le Charm is the sort of place that could explore those common roots without betraying its basic identity.
Le Charm, 315 Fifth St., S.F., 546-6128. Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Tues-Sat 6-10 p.m.