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Better Still 

Loretta Keller's revamp of Bizou, COCO 500, is modern, personal, witty, and exciting

Wednesday, Aug 31 2005
A lot of people were surprised when chef/owner Loretta Keller shut down her popular SOMA bistro, Bizou, on very short notice in late March, in order to retool the space. I was among the querulous and curious, being of the "If it's not broke, why fix it?" school. I had two happy memories of Bizou. During a quick weekend trip to S.F. with three friends a few years ago, we had dinner there, and were very happy with the rustic, warm setting, which felt like a cozy neighborhood place in France, although there were lots of Italian-inspired dishes on the menu, too. I remember sharing oysters, a wonderful duck liver terrine, and a flatbread with caramelized onions, and envying the person who had ordered a particularly succulent dish of beef cheeks. We also dined, that trip, at the French Laundry (it was the first visit there for my three companions -- oh, the famed oysters and pearls) and at Zuni, where two of us shared the incomparable roast chicken and bread salad; the Bizou dinner held up well in that august company.

And I was treated to a lunch there by two of SF Weekly's editors, on an even quicker day trip shortly after I was hired at the paper, but before I'd moved here. Having such an excellent restaurant within walking distance of the office, in a changing neighborhood, seemed to augur well for eating in San Francisco. I was a little shocked that nobody ordered dessert -- but of course, they had to return to work! I never managed to dine there again as I chased after new restaurants, many of them not fit to kiss the hem of Bizou's garment. But I often read the menu as I walked by, fantasizing about lunching on cassoulet or grilled lamb chops with pesto or risotto with morels and ramps. Those lunches, alas, were not to be.

I kept tabs on the remodel, which seemed to move quickly indeed, and, though the location at the corner of Brannan and Fourth remained the same, involved a new address, 500 Brannan, incorporated in the new name, COCO 500. (Bizou, which means "little kiss," used 598 Fourth St.; COCO, no less sentimental, is named after a special friend of chef Keller.) Out went the old, literally, and in came the new: Country tables replaced with sleek chic teak, antique chandeliers and school lamps replaced with art glass pendants. The look was now aggressively clean and modern, glimpsed through big uncurtained windows. The new menus posted outside were sparer, and, I thought, self-consciously hip in layout (all lowercase) and nomenclature: Salads were listed under "leaf," vegetable sides under "california dirt."

I lured Darrick there for dinner because he could walk over after work, and we were led to a table across from the Brannan windows, against the partial wall separating one ell of the dining room from the lively bar. Eating at the bar is possible, even encouraged, with such cocktail nibbles as a plate of house-marinated olives or a haystack of green beans fried tempura style among the 10 dishes at the top of the menu labeled "small starts." Or you can dine on a full meal.

Despite the new look of the menu, I recognized familiar dishes, such as those green beans, the beef cheeks, the flatbread with caramelized onions, and several pizzas. The descriptions were minimal -- "local calamari, black rice, stewed garlic" -- yet exciting. I wanted to eat everything. After some discussion, we settled on sharing a couple of the starters, and then splitting a pasta, before main courses chosen from "a la plancha" (on the grill) for Darrick and "wood oven" for me, and a shared vegetable side.

The couple next to us were tucking into a plate of dry-roasted chickpeas, some still in their husks, and a "taco" plate that looked more like hors d'oeuvres right out of Sunset magazine: taco chips topped with beef in mole sauce and a touch of guacamole. We loved our chunky, moist duck liver terrine, served with an acidic assortment of pickles, big caperberries, and pickled onion. I liked the look and taste of the pretty, bright-red piquillo peppers we also ordered, but I'd expected something a little more unusual from their stuffing of confit tuna, which tasted a lot like ordinary tuna salad. Still, the combination was fresh and appealing.

We each got two large ravioli, good supple pasta filled with English peas and pecorino pepato, under a blanket of creamy green sauce made with peas and mint, strewn with a few edible purple flowers: light yet savory.

Darrick couldn't have been happier with his chunk of grilled local wild king salmon, on a salady bed of greens, crisp Mediterranean cucumbers, and radishes, and dabbed with a chunky dill-and-pine-nut pesto. My duck confit, a leg and thigh, had melting, chocolaty flesh under skin crisped, even a touch burnt, from the wood oven, sided with chopped pistachios strewn over a little frisée, and a juicy roasted half-peach. Our lucky neighbors appeared to be friends of the house: The chef herself visited a couple of times, and sent out the calamari, which smelled amazing, and a whole fish, also from the wood oven, as well as cipollini onions and bacon in a cream sauce dusted with bread crumbs. I'd considered ordering the onions, and indeed, I'd lingered over all the vegetable sides: braised rapini with bagna cauda, caraway-glazed baby carrots, German butterball potatoes with butter, dill, and parsley. Vegetarians would be happy here (hold the bacon, add a plate of sliced heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with Davera Dry Creek Estate olive oil, and a mushroom pizza with Gorgonzola, onion, and rosemary).

But nothing could have been better than our creamed corn with marjoram and smoky paprika, the sweet kernels still crisp: I wonder now why I didn't order a second plate for dessert. Not that I didn't like my berry summer pudding, its bread casing stained a stunning dusky purple from the lightly stewed raspberries and blackberries within, but that creamed corn was spectacular. Darrick's mascarpone cheesecake, adorned with marble-sized fresh blueberries, managed to be rich and light at the same time. It was a perfect meal for a late-summer night. I ate with rising excitement, recognizing the confidence of a chef who knows what she likes to cook and how she likes to cook it. This was the kind of meal that I tell my friends about, that recurs in the memory for days.

I returned for lunch a couple of weeks later with Tommy and Matt. They sat us at a sunny window table, and I recklessly ordered a special cocktail, a French 75, champagne and cognac, served over crushed ice in a tumbler. It was not the martinilike drink I'd expected, and was a trifle watery, alas, to wash down slices of our two pizzas, which had crisp-edged tender crusts, barely capable of supporting their burdens from plate to mouth. I was feeling celebratory, with good reason. The margherita had milky young mozzarella, stewed garlic, fresh basil, and slices of yellow and orange heirloom tomato: lovely. But the fig pizza was even better, the ripe fruit in brilliant combination with sharp, creamy Gorgonzola, improved with roasted onion and rosemary.

Tommy's plate of soft, soft house-made spaghetti, in a sweet sauce aptly called salsa rosa, with fragile, barely-holding-together meatballs made of ground lamb and ricotta, was like an elegant plate of baby food: delicate, subtle, easy to eat. Matt's COCOburger was its opposite, a massive construction, a big fat juicy patty on a big fat glossy bun; you can have grilled onions or Gruyère added, for a dollar extra each, and Matt wisely had both. "I've been yearning for a terrific cheeseburger," I said, "and this is it." The potato chips alongside were freshly made.

I tucked into another massive construction: a long toasted slice of baguette, slicked with garlicky aioli, covered with a generous layer of long-stewed pork cheeks and caramelized onions, and thatched with an entire field of lightly oiled watercress, which looked like too much but worked extremely well as a grassy foil for the rich, almost overpowering meat.

I could only consume about half of it, but I still couldn't resist a plate of fresh peach and blackberry shortcake; the split baking-powder biscuit was a little austere, even touched as it was with chantilly and stained with blackberry sauce. Tommy was happy with his crème brûlée scented with lemongrass and served with a rolled tuile cookie, also citrusy. The meal had induced in me a kind of Candide-like happiness (at least, Candide in his less cynical moments): Everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds. The boys were fatigued from the relentless August fog, and not entirely willing to follow me down this primrose path. They were, however, willing to agree that we'd just had a swell meal, and that the sun was, just now, shining.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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