In one's dream of city life, certain factors are key: a pleasant, light-filled, quiet, and maybe even spacious apartment; easy parking or access to public transportation; and amenities ranging from convenient goods and services to distinctive features such as parks and playgrounds. Part of this urbane urban fantasy concerns the neighborhood restaurant, whose appeal is not just its convenience. This eatery should also be attractive, comfortable, small enough to feel intimate, and yet large enough so that you don't feel getting a table is an impossibility. The menu should include both familiar comfort foods you'd happily order over and over again, and some surprises that might intrigue you into trying them for the first time. And affordability is key: We're not talking about a special-occasion, high-ticket spot, but one where you know you can get two or three courses, perhaps accompanied by some nice wine, without breaking the bank. It's the kind of place that might entice you out of the house when you're just too tired to cook, or when the memory of the last meal there provides motivation.
Even in Paris, where the restaurant was invented, it's getting increasingly hard to find the kind of neighborhood spot that fits this description, often termed a bistro, defined as a small restaurant serving moderately priced, simple meals in a modest setting. Urban legend has it that the name might come from the Russian "byistra," meaning quick, which the Cossacks who occupied Paris in 1815 would shout when they wanted to be served in restaurants. But San Franciscans are in luck: A small restaurant called L'Ardoise Bistro opened a couple of months ago in the pleasant neighborhood of tree-lined streets called the Duboce Triangle, and it would be right at home on the tree-lined boulevards of Paris.
The last time we were in the long, narrow corner space, with tall windows overlooking both Noe and Henry, it was Los Flamingos, a casual Cuban-Mexican spot that had succeeded a Thai place. The new decor, without being startling or over the top, has been stepped up several notches. A thick brown velvet curtain screens the entrance from drafts, a figured burgundy carpet softens the floors, and the walls are deep shades of nutmeg and cinnamon. Thin bands of mirrors stripe the walls above banquettes in both the front and rear of the restaurant. A narrow bar, set for dining, faces the service window of the kitchen, framed by shelves of aperitifs.
Adding to the casual bistro feeling are the small wooden tables (no white linens here) and a homey old sideboard, stacked with creamy napkins and serving pieces. Color is added by a few artful fresh flower arrangements. The most distinctive design elements are four oversized crackled-glass light fixtures, lending the room a soft glow. The only obvious French touches are a big wicker basket stuffed with baguettes, and the framed slate blackboards that lend their name (ardoises) to the place, chalked with the day's specials and desserts.
The one-page paper menu offers half a dozen appetizers, eight entrées, and four vegetable sides. Gratifyingly, for a new restaurant in 21st-century San Francisco, all of the main courses are under $20, save one: seared Black Angus filet mignon with potato confit and white truffle oil ($27).
The starters range from the familiar — soupe du jour, which one day was the classic onion, another tomato; butter lettuce with mustard vinaigrette and anchovies; charcuterie — to the considerably less so. We've never seen escargots in gueusaille ($11) before. This turns out to be two medium-sized yellow potato halves, steamed rather than fried as our server had told us, partially hollowed and containing three snails each, the whole drenched in a creamy garlic and parsley sauce somewhat less intense than the usual escargot garlic butter. Gueusaille, we learned, was a slang word for beggar; we imagined the purpose of the potato was to fill the stomach of the beggar better than half a dozen snails would. The onion soup ($6), served in a small bowl, bore cubes of bread that sopped up too much of the somewhat overpoweringly thyme-scented beef broth under its cap of melted cheese. The generous charcuterie plate ($9) was adorned with big stemmed caperberries and several kinds of olives, tart foils for the two different sliced, pungent salamis (dry and rose), both excellent, and two good homemade pâtés, one porky, the other somewhat coarser, bearing thick slices of mushrooms. Our favorite appetizer was the tiger prawn ravioli ($10), not minced shellfish but whole bouncy sweet pink shrimp enfolded in tender translucent pasta, enhanced with a sauce vierge that diverged from the classic olive oil, lemon, and chopped tomato sauce by the exciting additions of lots of garlic and butter. A thoughtful touch: When telling us about the nightly specials, such as a foie gras terrine, our server mentioned the price ($16) — good to know when the top price for a starter on the menu is $11.
The traditional coq au vin ($18) was just what we wanted: tender, long-cooked chicken, cloaked in a shiny, winy sauce redolent of onions, thyme, and bay, with a subtle undertone of lardons, crowned with mushrooms and small onions. This was a dish that could draw us back to L'Ardoise again and again. Almost as alluring was the duck leg confit ($17), fatty, chocolaty meat under crisp skin with a garlicky slick of sauce, served with a salad of mixed greens and completely irresistible pommes landaises, potatoes sliced into thick chips, and fried in duck fat. The flavorful, chewy Black Angus hanger steak ($18), in a purplish thin sauce made with Saint-Émilion wine, came with a similar green salad, plus less successful pommes frites that were obviously house-made, but limp and floury rather than crisp. Little dishes of ketchup and aioli were offered, and accepted happily.
The only somewhat disappointing main course was the almond-crusted barramundi ($18), a white-fleshed fish served with a rich lobster reduction. Classically this sauce would be paired with the now-overfished monkfish, nicknamed "the lobster of the poor," whose firm texture would have better served it than the too-soft, rather characterless barramundi. However, we loved its base of thin-sliced king trumpet mushrooms. All six of the different sauces we'd tasted at the restaurant reminded us that sauces are indeed the glory of the French kitchen.
We sampled a couple of successful classic desserts — a spiced fresh pear tarte tatin and an individual flourless chocolate cake, liquid at its heart, in raspberry sauce, adorned with sliced strawberries. One night's special, thin-sliced fresh peaches in Muscat served with a crisp plain cookie, needed something to make it a bit more special. We most enjoyed finishing our meal with a cheese plate, which we weren't offered on our first visit, but noticed on a framed ardoise as we exited. Among the four all-French varieties listed were Brie, Roquefort, and a goat cheese. The same cheeses were chalked there on our return, but our server consulted a little paper and told us we would receive, among others, Camembert and Petit Robert. In the event, on a plate of lettuce strewn with grapes, we got Petit Basque, Pont L'Evêque, an ash-coated pyramide goat cheese, and Époisses, a stinky cheese that is one of our favorites: that night it was within hours of becoming too strong to enjoy.
But enjoy it we did, with the remains of a glass of Burgundy ($11) from the unexpectedly long (two densely printed pages), mostly French, fairly reasonable wine list, which was a little light and pricey on the offerings by the glass. Another glass of wine and we would have kissed chef Thierry Clement for his coq au vin alone.