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A French Revolution 

Le Petit Robert

Wednesday, Dec 5 2001
When you think of the various ethnic strains that have contributed to San Francisco's multicultural melting pot, you don't think right off the bat of the French. The Chinese, certainly; the Italians, absolutely; the Hispanics, you betcha. The French influence, on the other hand, is at best underpublicized. The French didn't build the transcontinental railroad, bring espresso to the sidewalks of Columbus Avenue, plant missions up and down the coast, or carve out a sphere of particularly Gallic dominance. As a result, the French have no district to call their own.

Nevertheless, there are random precincts of Napoleonic dominion where the questing Francophile can feel perfectly chez soi. One such area is the northeastern reaches of Union Square, where you can purchase a creuset (at Sur La Table); visit a bistro (Anjou), a tabac (Cafe Claude), and a brasserie (Le Central); then leaf through a copy of Le Monde (at Cafe de la Presse) all within a couple of blocks. An even more concentrated area of French hegemony has blossomed at the northeast corner of Polk and Green, where you'll find, lined up one beside the other like so many Seine storefronts, La Folie, Boulange de Polk, and the recently opened Le Petit Robert.

La Folie serves some of the best French food in the country, but its two neighbors have no reason to feel intimidated. Boulange de Polk overflows with sidewalk tables, old-country bonhomie, and extra-buttery tartes, brioches, and croissants. Le Petit Robert is a friendly bistro-type restaurant with a substantial wine list and a menu of uncommonly good snacks, platters, and desserts. It and Boulange are the brainchildren of Pascal Rigo, a Bordeaux-born restaurateur who also operates two Upper Fillmore eateries -- Galette, a Brittany-style creperie, and Chez Nous, a Provençal tapas joint -- as well as the recently opened Boulange de Cole Valley. Each enterprise is further enhanced by the delicacies created at Rigo's Bay Bread bakery on Pine Street.

One of the best things about Le Petit Robert, in fact, is that as soon as you sit down at one of the plain wooden tables you're served a basket of yeasty, olive-studded sourdough bread and a crock of sweet butter. Together with the bowl of chilled radishes and the dish of sea salt that adorn each table, the bread and butter make up a delicious repast on their own. Such deceptive simplicity is Le Petit Robert's dominant culinary theme. Salads, cheeses, seafood, and vegetables are served with an aesthetic clarity matched only by the dishes' thoughtful balance of flavors, colors, and textures. The décor is equally unaffected: a whitewashed, high-ceilinged barn of a place with a six-seat wine bar along one wall and a modest array of art -- vintage photographs, original still lifes, and the occasional ceramic rooster. The mood is casual, the setting especially good for a glass of wine and a quick snack before or after a nearby movie.

In that spirit the bill of fare is made up mostly of small plates. Seasonal flavors of pumpkin, persimmon, walnut, squash, and wild mushroom predominate, creating a warm and homey gustatory ambience. The French onion soup uses veal stock instead of the usual beef, resulting in a lighter, more subtle broth, but the soup has all the earthy sweetness of slowly cooked onion as well as the creamy pungency of Gruyère. A slab of that wonderful sourdough soaks up the bowl's essence. The roasted pumpkin/wild mushroom soup is less successful: It's silky-smooth, but the advertised flavors are mostly absent. At first the roasted beets seem equally unsatisfactory, but once you combine them with the accompanying (and unfortunately segregated) goat cheese and hazelnuts, the dish works wonderfully. Even better are the sautéed artichokes, in which the entire thistle is mandoline-sliced into shavings, cooked until tender, and seasoned with sherry vinegar.

The more substantial "snacks" are uniformly impressive. The steamed mussels are sweet and plump, but the best part of the dish is dunking butter-slathered country bread into the remaining broth -- a briny elixir of drippings, saffron, and braised onions. The wild mushroom tartines may be the best tapas in the city: three ovals of toasted sourdough piled high with meaty, warm-from-the-skillet fungi and puckery dollops of melted goat cheese. The seared foie gras, while not up to Hawthorne Lane's standard, is nevertheless as rich as you'd expect, and is especially tasty on its bed of sweetly caramelized, ginger-scented endive. The steak tartare -- that's puréed beef sashimi to you -- is another decadent classic, presented here in all its cool, caper-sprinkled glory. Try it with a side of the skinny, crunchy house frites.

The restaurant's menu presents five big-platter offerings as well. The pan-roasted cod is a dream: crisp and pleasantly salty outside, moist and steamy within, served on a bed of satiny mashed potatoes (excuse me, potato mousseline) with a medley of sautéed root veggies. The roasted chicken is the exemplar of bistro food, arriving tender, quartered, and served over leaves of tangy sautéed escarole. The beef daube is equally simple but less satisfactory; although the stewed meat is intense and succulent, it's also stringy and overly salty, resulting in a heavy dish. Your best bet is the roasted duck breast, half a dozen smoky, fork-tender fillets complemented with spicy braised red cabbage.

There are several options for ending your meal on a sweet note. The tarte Tatin is yet more deceptive simplicity, comprised of slices of soft baked apple layered atop a buttery crust and served with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. The cannelle is like a sweet popover cooked in a tubular mold, caramelized on the outside, and served with marinated cherries -- an interesting concept, if ultimately unexciting. The chocolate pot de crème, served in a glass jar, is dense and sublime, particularly when spread thickly over the palmiers (puff pastries) that come with it. But the best dessert is the goat cheese tarte, in which barely sweetened, rosemary-scented cheese is baked in a crisp short crust and served with a compote of liquor-soaked figs, the individual elements coming together to make a bold yet harmonic statement.

Le Petit Robert is a friendly (i.e., loud) rendezvous spot, and wine is an important part of the equation. The cellar's 45 selections (available in tastes, glasses, carafes, and bottles) are about two-thirds French, one-third from Northern California wine country; the Perrin 1999 Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a particularly fine choice. In such a setting, though, a glass of the bubbly is the pièce de résistance, especially if it's Veuve Clicquot's heady, bone-dry Yellow Label, an authentic taste of that other, older country not so distinct from the corner of Polk and Green.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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