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Les Clos: Traditional French Bistro Doesn't Reinvent Anything — And Doesn't Need To 

Tuesday, Dec 2 2014
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I suppose it was inevitable: After a decade or more of renouncing the oldfangled French bistro in favor of newer, more exciting cuisines, San Francisco is bringing it back. First the city was subject to the modernist stylings of Monsieur Benjamin, an updated brasserie from Michelin-starred chef Corey Lee that opened in Hayes Valley over the summer. Now comes another. This one's a hybrid wine bar/wine shop/bistro in SOMA near the ballpark from Mark Bright, Saison's much-decorated sommelier and co-owner, and Cara Patricia, Saison's former cellar-master. Named after single-vineyard sites in France, Les Clos doesn't break much new ground or significantly challenge the palate. But it's classy and cozy in equal measure, and I found it was easy to succumb to its charms.

The barrier to entry at Saison is high, with its $248-a-person tasting menu (not even counting wine pairings). Les Clos is downright proletarian in comparison. The small cafe is open all day, serving pastries, coffee, and a short breakfast menu in the mornings, a more robust sandwich menu at lunch, and a combination of small plates, entrees, and cheese and charcuterie platters in the evenings. As such, it's well-suited for a whole range of needs for the evolving neighborhood, including meetings, laptop workdays, happy hour, and dinners, both alone at the long wine bar or with a friend or two at a cafe table. At the back of the room, wine is for sale on racks surrounding a loungey area with leather couches.

Les Clos' kitchen is helmed by another Saison alum, former pastry chef Shawn Gawle, who is putting his significant talents to bear on a well-edited bistro menu. It's hard to stay in a bad mood when confronted with the "Parisian gnocchi," a dish of small, ethereal potato dumplings wedded together with comte cheese, creamy bechamel sauce, and a generous allotment of bacon, all browned on top. The dish was comfortingly cheesy, though probably richer than you want to tackle on your own.

That near-overwhelming richness, often a symptom of French cuisine, came through strongly in a few other dishes. One of the biggest deviations from tradition was the kitchen's take on the croque monsieur, which was set on a croissant instead of light white bread, and was closed-faced instead of open. It was delicious — how could that elementally soothing combination of ham, cheese, and bechamel be anything else in hands as capable as these? — but the buttery croissant pushed it even further into indulgence territory. I was sharing it with a friend; I couldn't imagine eating the whole thing.

Maybe it wouldn't be so hard if you cut through all the richness with one of the wines. Forty are available by the taste, glass, or carafe, and befitting the formidable palates and access of Bright and Patricia, there is a deep library of by-the-bottle selections. The staff is supremely helpful with recommendations, and those looking for an education as much as a drink can avail themselves of the flights, which focus on different wine-growing regions and styles.

The restaurant has no liquor license but gets around it with lovely wine cocktails, like a simple mix of Lillet and rose wine that's light enough to drink during lunch without sacrificing an afternoon of productivity.

Overall there were very few disappointments on the menu. I loved the crisp skin, moist meat, and savory flavors of the Basque roast chicken served at dinner. Green salads were well-dressed with a citrusy vinaigrette; the frisee salad with poached eggs and bacon lardons was a classic example of the form. Canoes of bone marrow were as caveman-like and satisfying as ever. At lunch, pan bagnat — that classic Nicoise salad with tuna, anchovies, and vegetables — was like a French muffaletta, while duck confit was flinty and well-rounded, and sliced cornichons kept it from being too one-note rich.

The bread on the duck confit sandwich was a little too hard and crusty to be really effective, but that is a nitpick, and the other complaints were small too: The pâté de campagne wasn't as flavorful as it could have been, more a kind of bland slab of protein, and the egg en meurette, which came in a small ramekin with braised shortrib, maitake mushroom, and red wine reduction sauce, needed salt to give it any flavor at all.

With many of its menu items in the $8-$12 range, Les Clos is surprisingly, refreshingly affordable. That doesn't mean that the well-heeled Saison clientele isn't well taken care of. In addition to carafes of wine that stretch into the triple digits, there is also caviar service ($85-$140), and a $150 cup of vintage pu'er tea. Lord knows that two years at Saison have taught Bright, Patricia, and Gawle that there are plenty in the neighborhood willing to pay for such things. But thankfully, with Les Clos they're interested in serving simple, well-made French food to the rest of us, too.

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About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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