As the hostess was taking my coat at La Folie last week, I exchanged warm smiles with a handsome, familiar face at the table nearest the door. It was Jacques Pepin, whom I know only from cookbook covers and television, enjoying a leisurely feast with his staff from the KQED fund-raiser/cookathon. Then sommelier Georges Passot (brother of, and co-owner of the restaurant with, chef Roland Passot) greeted me with a Gallic two-cheek air kiss.
I confess that I can't eat anonymously at La Folie -- before I quit my day job, I was a regular customer, starting soon after the restaurant's 1988 opening. Since then, the brothers Passot have won numerous honors from French food and wine societies. A local accolade may be even more telling: In the last two editions of the Zagat Guide, San Franciscans have rated La Folie's food the best in the city.
Once seated, we agonized over the menu, lusting for every dish. Although you can order a la carte, the four-course "Discovery Menu" for $65 is actually something of a bargain, allowing you to choose a soup, appetizer, entree, and dessert -- even if some items (including all but two of the entrees) carry a $5, $10 or $20 surcharge. There's also a set-menu vegetarian feast for $50.
As we pondered, our server arrived at our table with a straw basket heaped with dark lumps -- not coal for my Christmas stocking, but about three thousand dollars' worth of fresh black truffles from France. Unlike Italy's assertive white truffles, black truffles have an aroma that's merely a faint, elusive earthiness. Their flavor is subtle, but when they're combined with other foods (typically, meat, poultry, or eggs), the whole dish mysteriously begins to vibrate with some indefinable intensity. For as long as the truffles last, La Folie will sell you an ounce, sliced into the appropriate courses of your dinner, for $50 or a half portion for $25. Since truffles come but once a year, I succumbed to the half-portion temptation.
A wine list of awesome length and depth also dangles devilish lures: Full bottles start at $29, with a median price of about $45, and rise to $810 for a precious 1952 Lafite Rothschild. If your finances require self-control, there are excellent choices by the glass (e.g., 1995 Mersault Ropiteau at $10.50, Boisset's 1995 Rully Bourgogne for $9.50), a respectable group of half-bottles, and virgin apple cider from Normandy ($4). Georges (a University of Bordeaux enology grad) ambles around the dining room, happy to help you choose the right quaff for your meal and price range.
After managing to settle on an order, we took a look at the changes that fame has wrought since the days when La Folie was just a neighborhood bistro with astonishing food. Patrons once showed up in clean jeans, but now they wear little black dresses and business suits, and the decor, redone 18 months ago, is also dressier, with old-gold walls dramatically displaying antique French puppets. A luxurious amount of fabric (rugs, curtains, double tablecloths, red velvet banquettes, and parti-colored plastic streamers veiling the open kitchen) keeps the noise level comfortable in the small room. But the visual signature of Passot's "folly" remains -- the ceiling is still an insouciant sky blue adrift with puffy white clouds.
Every meal begins with a gratis amuse bouche -- this time it was a refreshing shell of cucumber filled with minced tuna tartare topped with flying fish roe. The soup course starts with the traditional mystery, a sturdy white bowl with a small porcelain dome in the center -- no peeking! The server, bearing tureens, lifts each dome to reveal the garnishes and solids of the soup you've ordered, then pours in the liquid. An intoxicating aroma arose from the clear golden broth of the duck pot au feu ($12.50), which featured tiny rectangles of foie gras amid black truffle slices and diced vegetables surrounding a little cone of butternut squash flan with an almost meaty flavor. The chestnut and celery root soup ($10.50) was even better -- thick, earthy, and slightly sweet, decorated with a small sweet roast chestnut and a bit of roast squab redolent of star anise and salt, in dramatic contrast to the luxurious liquid. The food is sparingly salted here; on the squab, salt was a flavor, not a crutch. Another choice I can vouch for is the exquisite parsley-garlic soup with snail ragout, one of a few constants on the ever-changing menu.
Appetizers ($10.50-21 a la carte, not counting the $50 Ossetra caviar blini) are so generously sized, they could be main courses for light eaters. (As you may guess from this, main courses are ample enough to provide leftovers for a light supper the next day.) Perfectly cooked Hudson Valley foie gras ($21) was meltingly marvelous in a dark, tangy sauce of wild huckleberries, aged balsamic vinegar, and a touch of Szechuan pepper. A special was yet more riveting: A shell of crisp, translucent house-made pastry, the size and shape of a small pumpkin, contained perfect bay scallops mixed with an ethereal, bready forcemeat, along with creamy spinach and tart little cubes of artichoke hearts. Around the plate was a lemony reduced lobster-stock sauce, garnished with the tip meat of a lobster claw.
These starters hardly resemble the minimal revisions of Caesar salad and crab cakes to which we've become accustomed. But in the traditional French chef-training system, tuition is paid not in mere money but in sheer misery, and survivors learn how to take educated risks. Roland Passot began his apprenticeship at age 14 in a two-star restaurant in his native Lyons and spent the next 10 years living in various unheated sheds, doing every possible restaurant task, getting yelled at a lot and even having his slightly-overcooked souffle smashed into his face by Chicago's great French chef, Jean Banchet (of Le Francais Restaurant in Wheeling). "If you weren't perfect," Passot recalls with a shudder, "you had to do it over and over again. But Banchet was my greatest influence. He inspired me to try for perfection." I'd guess that few local chefs set their sights quite that high. Eating at a restaurant of this caliber can spoil your palate -- in contrast, all those cookie-cutter menus and half-baked "fusion" fancies can become hard to stomach.
The black truffles came into their own in my main course of roasted lamb loin ($34.50). Thin slices of lamb, rosy-rare as ordered, were arranged in a mandala over a half-dome of couscous emphatically flavored with fresh mint. Surrounding this architecture was a confit of eggplant and tomato, spiked by the earthy sweetness of whole garlic cloves and the zing of dried cranberries. Well-salted slices of black truffle topped the meat. Those truffles are sneaky -- the lamb dish would have been sublime without them, but with their addition the whole produced in me an inexplicable sense of serene well-being.
My companion's entree ($38.50) was a plate half-painted with a veridian parsley coulis, cloud-puffs of potato puree contrasting with the green. These surrounded an erect cylinder wrought from a thin sheet of fried potato, stuffed with a "blanquette" of sweetbreads, Maine lobster, and assorted vegetables and wild mushrooms, including several morels. We toppled this topless tower to discover a filling of bite-size pieces of luscious sweetbread, bound in a light, creamy sauce containing lobster chunks the teeniest bit overcooked. Could this be a flaw in the meal? A misstep of a minute's timing? What would Jean Banchet do to Roland with that lobster?
The waiter brought martini glasses half-filled with a strange icy substance colored a glowing green: a scintillating palate-cleanser of lightly sweetened, very minty granita. Then desserts began in earnest. One had poached pear and tart quince slices on páte sablee (a sort of heavy cookie crust) with a gingery red-wine caramel sauce. Alongside was a tangy-sweet scoop of creme fra”che ice cream sculpted as a halved pear. With this interesting, tatinlike combination we'd have preferred a thinner crust -- better yet, a true tarte tatin, which Roland can make so perfectly. We loved the mandarine parfait, a fresh tangerine ice cream with a millimeter of candied crust and a surprise center of cranberry confit.
At the end of each evening, as the last diners are sighing over dessert, Roland emerges from the kitchen, plump and rosy. He wends his way through the tables, stopping to chat with everyone, sharing a fresh bottle of wine or having an extra dessert delivered in his wake. At this restaurant, every patron is a star. The lagniappe he recommended was the best of our desserts -- Roland rightly insisted we abandon all others for the exquisitely light-textured chestnut mousse, wrapped in thin sheets of bittersweet chocolate. It tasted like the sweetest memory of somebody else's happy childhood.
La Folie has maintained its warm, civilized hospitality over the years. Roland's skill has continually developed and deepened, even if his flavor combinations now seem a bit more mainstream than they were when the restaurant first opened. His food is still beyond merely delicious: Grounded in classical French tradition and technique, modernized by the substitution of intense-flavored, deeply reduced sauces for the old butter and cream, it's distinguished by graceful, unexpected flavors that lesser chefs might never imagine.
A great dinner at La Folie -- one that's worth the cost of, say, a low-end cashmere sweater -- offers risk without recklessness, leaving you not merely fed, but exalted. This is cooking as a high -- if transient --art, giving you masterworks to admire, enjoy, destroy, and forever remember.