Chef Fabrice Marcon presides over the 13 tables at this Russian Hill restaurant, sometimes wearing a baseball cap as he breezes in and out of the flapping cafe doors of the tiny kitchen in the back. He's everywhere, not in an in-your-face way, but more as if it's his own dining room and you're a friend. He greets and seats diners, helps with wine selections, and jokes with the many regulars. Some come for the well-priced Neighbor's Dinner, an entree and wine of Marcon's choice for $13 (not served on weekends). The prix fixe dinner, a three-course menu for $22, is usually taken from the existing menu and specials.
Marcon serves traditional, satisfying French fare at his bistro, where service is affable, dishes are of good quality and well executed, and the prices are affordable. The menu is small and reflects both regional French cuisine (such as snails and a lyonnaise salad with poached egg) and more mainstream American foods done in French style. Unaware of American squeamishness, Marcon was expecting to serve sweetbreads, kidneys, and oxtail when he first arrived here from France, he explained to a nearby diner the night we were there. (He had been working with the famous chef Paul Bocuse in Lyon.) Undeterred, he "tries to have fun with the food, even if the customers want salmon and rack of lamb." After stints as executive chef at Meadowood Resort in St. Helena and the St. Francis Hotel, he and wife Betty Marcon opened the Hyde Street Bistro this past February.
A complimentary appetizer appeared on the table immediately after we sat down: toasted bread with a topping of mixed goat cheese and creme fraiche, simple but delicious. The unusual wine list focuses on French varietals from regions such as the Rhone Valley and Alsace and Bordeaux, and includes a few Californian wines. Prices are reasonable, ranging from $19 to $59, with a few bottles at $90. While Marcon helped a nearby diner with wine selections, our server suggested a glass of Vouvray Monmousseau Loire 1997 ($4.75), far too sweet for our meal. We also ordered a glass of a lovely, deep Merlot Verdillac ($4.75), a favorite that brought back memories of long evenings at Paris cafes.
Appetizers included a composed salad with sweet roasted beets ($5.95), perfectly tossed with honey mustard dressing. Potato-Roquefort cake ($6.50) arrived as a hot little round cake, surrounded by pear slices and drizzled with hazelnut vinaigrette. It tasted like mashed potatoes. We hardly noticed the Roquefort. A sweet onion soup ($5.50), made from beef stock with caramelized onions, arrived in an oversized cup with a thick, crunchy, browned cheese crust. Unlike imitators elsewhere, it was neither stringy nor acidic, but smooth and satisfying.
A specialty, honey-glazed duck confit ($13.95) was paired with a dollop of tasty but room temperature pureed delicata squash. The confit was perfectly roasted and crisped on the outside, with a light basting of honey and lavender. It was not the slightest bit greasy or fatty. Saffron bouillabaisse with fish and shellfish ($15.95) arrived in a shallow pool of thick sauce that was flavorful but overly salted. The seafood was exceptionally tender and perfectly cooked. A tasty hanger (skirt) steak ($14.50) came drowned in a tart vinegar-wine sauce with shallots. The side of sliced, baked potatoes was not hot, but the spinach side was tasty and redolent with garlic.
Desserts were classic: a rich bittersweet chocolate cake arrived warm, looking like a fallen souffle ($5); and a smooth apple tart Tatin ($4.50) that came perched on a soft caramel sauce. When we left, we got the impression that Marcon would welcome us again as neighborhood regulars.
Hyde Street Bistro
1521 Hyde (at Jackson), 292-4415. Open for dinner only, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. daily. Reservations: recommended on weekends for prime time, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Parking: free validated parking at the Deluxe paint store on Pacific between Polk and Larkin. The restaurant's about a three-block walk, but it's far better for your blood pressure than circling the street. Muni: 27 on Jackson, 47 or 49 on Van Ness. Or take the Powell-Hyde cable car. Sound level: comfortable.