You might think that I'd grow more tolerant with the years, but actually I'm more demanding. Now I want my dining companions to be interesting as well as interested. In addition to a good appetite, I want good value. In the case of a couple of new recruits, Greil and Jenny, friends of friends whom I'd long wanted to get to know better, I asked for more than just companionship, but also suggestions. I was willing to take them anywhere, but "What," I wanted to know, "are your favorite restaurants, the ones you return to again and again?"
Their first pick, the well-reviewed Northern Italian Mangiafuoco, was, alas, not to be revisited by us; it had recently closed, after nearly a decade of operation (almost equivalent to a golden anniversary of marriage in restaurant terms, we hear), not for lack of customers, but due to a rent dispute. So the second choice was Chapeau!, whose exclamation point I found mildly off-putting. (It's explained, on the menu, that chapeau means "hat," but chapeau! translates as "wow!")
And at first I found the snug room, filled with closely fitted tables that leave only a narrow center aisle free leading to the kitchen, a trifle off-putting, too. The space, and the rather minimal décor -- some vines and architectural details painted on the walls -- reminded me of Upper East Side French restaurants in New York, where the real estate is so precious that every inch is used.
But I was cheered immediately when I opened the extensive menu, where I was greeted not only by such erotica as truffles, foie gras, cassoulet, fricassee, sole meunière, beef cheeks, and confits made of duck and the more uncommon tomato, but also the amazing intelligence that one could assemble three prix fixe courses of this classic French cuisine for the sum of $29.75. (There are a few supplements: for the ballotine of foie gras, an additional $1.50; the seared foie gras, $6; for filet mignon or rack of lamb, $2. Otherwise, you can run riot through it all, at a savings of $8 or $10 off the combined a la carte prices.)
The interesting wine list was full of reasonable and enticing bottles, too. I began to get excited.
I continued to be excited throughout our meal, which ranged from the comfortingly familiar (a textbook-perfect onion soup, made with a deeply flavored beef stock and full of long-cooked onions, crusted with good bread and melted cheese) to the interestingly tweaked (a generous, well-dressed mesclun salad, with the uncommon additions of tapenade crostini and the aforementioned tomato confit, a house-made preserve moister and sweeter than the overused, often-overpowering sun-dried tomato) to the just plain delicious (mussels classically steamed with white wine, shallots, and parsley, topped with a hillock of thin, crisp french fries, and sided with a crock of garlicky aioli).
I think I mildly shocked my guests by taking home quite a bit of each of my three courses. I started with the suave ballotine of foie gras, glamorously tricked out with thin rounds of warm toasted brioche and prunes cooked in a spicy red wine syrup. (I wanted to order the seared foie gras with every fiber of my being. An order of it was delivered to the table next to us, a sizable, wonderful-looking slab perched on a potato galette, so close to me that I could have reached over and stolen a bite, but something about the more modest choices of my guests -- soup and salad! -- made me choose the less extravagant, or, in truth, less expensive dish. The lush, firm, but creamy pâté was extravagant enough.)
It was particularly sufficient as a starter before the almost overwhelming classic cassoulet, the meltingly cooked cannellini beans enrobing succulent lamb shoulder, house-made duck confit whose skin was surprisingly crisp, and two different sausages, garlicky and robust.
Still, I rallied and ordered the cheese plate (a $2 supplement), and by this time in my history with Chapeau! I found the array of five cheeses, including such favorites as St. Andre and morbier, typical of the restaurant's style: typically generous (garnished with fresh berries and walnuts) and typically well-thought-out in its assortment of hard, soft, pungent, and mild.
When we left (Jenny and I kissed on both cheeks by the exceedingly Gallic and attentive proprietor), Chapeau! was my new favorite French restaurant, as I confessed in our Best of S.F. issue. And that wasn't just for its value (I could scarcely believe the early bird menu -- three courses with several choices each for $19.50, available Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m.), but also for its quality. I was cheered to hear that the owners had plans to expand into the adjacent space. Then I'd have an excuse to return and enjoy their excellent cooking in comfort.
Yet I was haunted by the memory of that meal; thoughts of it would drift into my mind when I was eating much less good and much more expensive fare. Twice I found myself chewing stolidly, nearby on Clement Street -- once at a considerably more ooh-la-la Frenchy place where the help stabbed us with their accents, another in a wacky small-plates place where we assembled a completely unbalanced meal -- each time wishing I were just a few blocks away, in the warm confines of Chapeau!, which now seemed cozy to me, rather than cramped.
I could stand it no longer, and invited my parents and aunt to dinner. Oddly, on the very day of our reservation I learned that the proprietor, Philippe Gardelle, had temporarily given up on the expansion, due to zoning laws and permit problems. We hesitated over ordering, because although I always say whoever announces what he wants first can have it, truth be told, my father takes precedence, and he had trouble deciding whether he wanted the sweetbreads as either a starter or a main course, leaving the rest of us awaiting his pleasure. Being made aware that all of us were eager to taste them, he went with the larger portion, and started with foie gras. "I see you're not concerned about cholesterol," snorted his older sister, who ordered slightly more sedately: gazpacho and boeuf bourguignon. My mother wanted mussels and roasted duck. I tried the goat cheese pissaladière, and, giving a slightly longing glance at the filet mignon and the rack of lamb, felt obliged to order the odder of the two fish preparations offered. I thought I could taste the roasted king salmon with saffron rice, legumes parisiens (whatever they were), and braised fennel, with a pastis (echoing the licorice flavor of the fennel) and apple cider sauce, in my head, but what to make of the sautéed blue nose bass with spaghetti squash, sweet carrot and ginger purée, English pea cream, cherry tomatoes, and curry oil? It sounded like an avalanche of sweetness perked up with that surprising curry oil. Worth a try.
My father had the best meal -- an extraordinary one, really: perfectly seared liver on onion and apple compote, with an apple cider gastrique, followed by those delicious veal sweetbreads, crusted with porcini, sautéed with chanterelles and trumpet mushrooms, and with a hint of white truffle oil in the sauce. (If it hadn't been a review meal, there would have been several plates of this on the table.) I loved the pale, sweet gazpacho, made with Early Girl tomatoes (though my aunt, a terrific cook, confessed she preferred her own), and the duck breast, served with a creamy gratin dauphinois (sliced potatoes baked in milk), pea sprouts, and a prune sauce. I found the boeuf bourguignon just a trifle dry.
But my fish made me sad. It was overcooked for my taste, and its many ingredients made no more sense to me on the plate than they had on the page. They seemed assembled rather than melded.
"Well," I thought, "I'll make up for it with the cheese plate." But my father, never possessed of a sweet tooth, exercised his droit du seigneur and chose it, so I had to content myself with tastes, enjoying especially the blue, triple cream, and goat cheeses. I treated myself to a glass of muscat, which went particularly well with a soup-plate full of roasted black figs spiked with balsamic vinegar and topped with good vanilla ice cream.
When I reflected that what could be called without cavil our lavish repast (with a nice bottle of Sancerre, the muscat, and a double cappuccino) had cost with tax and tip about $50 each -- less than my meals at the disappointing French place and the silly small-plates one -- I felt not only well-fed but lucky.