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Wednesday, Jun 9 1999
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Chapeau!
1408 Clement (at 15th Avenue), 750-9787. Open Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations recommended. Parking: difficult. Muni: 2 Clement. Noise level: can be loud.

Those of us who follow these things were intrigued early this year to learn that Richard Reddington had left his job cooking at illustrious, acclaimed Jardiniere for a leadership role at the humbler Chapeau. (Forgive me if I don't use the restaurant's official name -- "Chapeau!" -- in running text, but it's difficult to write a sober review if one is forced to end each sentence with a bang.) The questions on everyone's hungry lips were, "Will he use the innovative techniques of Jardiniere to revamp Chapeau's trad-French menu? Will the pillar of California cuisine triumph, or will the king of bistros remain classical?" Well, the review is mixed. (If you're in a hurry, you can move on to the next article now.)

Chapeau is a tiny French bistro in the Richmond that's always full of locals. If it were more centrally located, it'd be full of all kinds of people. The prices are very reasonable for what you get. The menu is large and the wine list excellent, and there's even a vegetarian prix-fixe option for the meat-dodger. And Philippe, the dynamic host and brilliant sommelier, makes you feel like an old friend even if you're not. The decor is '80s-swanky, with numerous hats (get it?) on the walls, wrought brass ornamentation, mirrors, etc. At the end of the meal the check arrives in a hat.

Reddington's menu innovations are not drastic, but they are apparent. There's no more coq au vin or duck breast a l'orange. Instead, we find some somewhat updated dishes: fresh Malpeque oysters, smoked trout salad, and "sirloin of beef with caramelized shallot potato puree." There are a few commonalities between the old menu and the new, including the most classic dishes: onion soup gratinee, mussels mariniere, and cassoulet, for example. As before, there are three prix-fixe menus, one vegetarian, ranging from $24 to $32 and including two or three courses and dessert.

The onion soup ($7) is intense, salty and beefy, just as the god of such things intended, and is capped with piquant cheese. A young greens salad ($6.50) is accompanied by croutons, each spread thickly with a luxurious goat-cheese cream. The salad is standard and good, but the dish would benefit from having the same amount of cheese distributed among a few more croutons; as it is, this simple salad is one of the richest appetizers. Another appetizer, a horseradish-dressed salad with smoked trout and beets ($9), is delicious except for the smoked trout, which is brutally salty. Other entrees include a familiar salad of endive, roquefort, pears, and walnuts ($7.50), and a fishy brandade served with garlic croutons ($9).

The appetizers all tend to be fairly conservative interpretations, and as such they more or less work. The main courses, on the other hand, lose a lot of their strength when they stray from the classical.

One of the distinctive characteristics of the California cuisine at restaurants like Jardiniere -- Reddington's previous home -- is the way individual ingredients are made to stand out and speak for themselves. This works beautifully when the ingredients are top-notch and the dish is perfectly composed to showcase them, but the approach also has its pitfalls. One of these pitfalls becomes apparent at Chapeau: Sometimes the dishes' ingredients are so distinct and discrete that the dish as a whole is disunified.

The first course of the vegetarian prix-fixe menu, asparagus salad topped with tapenade, is one of the restaurant's most unfortunately disharmonious dishes: A bundle of vinegary wilted asparagus is served cold with gobs of rich salty black tapenade on top. It's difficult to even get it into your mouth correctly. If you cut off a length of asparagus and then try to dip it in the tapenade, no tapenade adheres to the moist spears. If you select a length of asparagus that's already covered in the dryish tapenade, you invariably get too much tapenade in your mouthful.

Some entrees suffer from this problem as well, for example the sauteed halibut with potatoes and wild mushrooms ($17). The halibut is flaky yet dense, the potatoes are creamy-textured and oily, and the mushrooms are hearty and meaty, but the separate ingredients don't offer a convincing reason for being together on the plate.

The situation is the same with the duck breast, which is served with peas, carrots, and spring onions ($17). The duck is perfectly cooked, chewy and not gamy, and the vegetables are fresh and tender with a hint of smokiness. Perhaps a third element -- something with a milder flavor that could bridge the gap -- might tie the whole together. As it stands, the duck and the vegetables do not have a lot to say to each other.

The dishes that do not suffer from this problem include the wonderfully synergistic cassoulet ($16), which is garlicky and caramelly, containing lamb, duck, two kinds of sausage, and succulent white beans. A roasted chicken special ($19), whose light but hearty brioche-based stuffing contained mushrooms, was also very successful. And the vegetarian entrees, such as an exhilaratingly vernal plate of delicate fried gnocchi with favas, peas, and mushrooms, in a darkly buttery mushroom jus, also tend to be more balanced.

Desserts are classic and extremely solid. They include a superb creme brulee, perfectly set, ungreasy, and huge; a banana napoleon with caramelized pecans; the epitome of profiteroles; an imperfect sorbet trio (same problem!); and a very nice cheese plate, which on a recent visit included an unmissable tangy téte de moine, lovingly served with the assistance of a specialized appareil de racler.

Having been to Chapeau a number of times, I am in a position to recommend some very good wines from the restaurant's reasonable and well-researched list. But to do so would be to take away a portion of the pleasure of a meal at Chapeau -- discussing the choices with the knowledgeable Philippe, succumbing to his insistence on a certain bottle, and enjoying a glass of a delicious obscure wine as he looks on proudly. Suffice it to say that the list rarely disappoints.

The quality of Chapeau's service can vary. The staff, while dutiful, can become harried and preoccupied in the somewhat cramped space. (By pointing out the tightness of the quarters, by the way, I do not mean to recommend that Chapeau follow in the footsteps of Laghi and abandon the Richmond. No sir.)

Though Chapeau has a couple of kinks to iron out in its new incarnation -- namely, the unity problems mentioned above -- it's still a bistro highly worth recommending.

About The Author

Paul Adams

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