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Small, Good Things 

Chez Nous

Wednesday, Jun 7 2000
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A funny thing happens when you begin studying other languages: You realize the inadequacies of your own. For example, while studying French in college, I often complained to my roommate (who was studying Japanese) about the English language's lack of a distinct pronoun for the second person plural. Sure, I would tell him, we have "you," which, when applied to a group of people, might refer to everyone ("you") or just one person (also "you"). A native Texan, my roommate suggested "y'all," which I adopted and still use on occasion, despite the fact that some of y'all might think it a bit hayseedish.

Not that the French do much better -- vous ("y'all") is identical to vous ("you," formally). Of course, they make up for this with the magnificent word chez, loosely translatable as "to/at/in (someone's) home," but far more elegant and versatile. In French, one can go chez moi ("to my house"), but also chez le docteur ("to the doctor's office"). One can say that chez Rimbaud ("in the poems of Rimbaud") death is sometimes beautiful, or that chez les Americains ("in America") eating horses is taboo, or, even better, when addressing a belligerent superior: Te faire voir chez les Grecs! (the opposite of "I'll get right to it!").

In fact, back in college, I was convinced the entire English-speaking world would adopt this wonderfully pliant preposition, if only people knew. But then, I was a dreamer, and also quite capable of imagining scenarios such as this:

While passing through a small town in Northern California, I meet two very intelligent and wholesome young females. We chat, and, after realizing we share a collective vision of utopia, join hands and make our way to a park. One thing leads to another, and we kiss -- all three of us -- tender, sweet, innocent kisses born equally of caring and desire. Then, at sunset, with the blood-red death of another day lingering in the heavens, comes the moment I've been waiting for all my life: I take those young visionaries into my arms and ask, ³So, shall we continue ... chez y'all?²

Anyway, that was college, when my hair was long (an early '90s thing) and I was quite the optimist. Now I realize I'd need at least a fifth of vodka to pull off the scenario detailed above, and what's more, my hair is short -- but always growing, which is how I met my hairstylist, Christine. The great thing about Christine is that, in addition to drinking only 100 percent pure blue agave tequila, preferably El Tesoro, she eats out a lot, and was raving about Fillmore Street's Chez Nous from what seemed like the day it opened. Of course, Christine isn't the only person talking about Chez Nous -- when she and I and Ellie met there at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, the wait for a table stood at 20 minutes and growing.

The reason for this is the tapa, which, in the case of Chez Nous, draws on Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, and Middle Eastern cuisines with an understated effortlessness. A bright, airy space plays dark hardwood floors and tables against white, light-splashed walls, creating a lively atmosphere where, as the name implies, hospitality runs through every meal, like a theme. Chez Nous gets crowded, but the service doesn't suffer, and remains friendly in a casual, welcoming sort of way -- nous ("we") seems to also refer to customers, so everyone can feel right at home.

The 20 minutes passed quickly and we took our seats and got things started with strawberry sangria ($4.50 per glass). This sounded way too sweet going in, but proved a sign of good things to come, since the only sugars came from fresh, crisp strawberries, yielding a delightfully fruity, hot summer afternoon kind of drink. Likewise, the food at Chez Nous tends to let ingredients speak for themselves, with results ranging from good to spectacular, and while portions are small, at least for three people, nothing costs more than $10, allowing us to craft a miniature, 12-course banquet in which we tasted a decadent feast's worth of dishes without the unsightly bulge.

Though tapas often arrive in entirely random fashion, here we moved very deliberately from cold dishes to hot and thence to meats. We began with a marvelously invigorating Greek tsatziki ($3.50) -- a creamy scoop of yogurt laced with cucumber, tangy dill, and icy mint -- and a selection of artisan cheeses ($8.50). The chef himself stopped by to explain these: We had a Cheddary, Portuguese-style cheese from Santa Rosa, a milder French white cheese, and some of the most rottingly pungent (a good thing) Irish blue cheese any of us had ever tried. Here, as with many dishes, simplicity was the key -- strong cheeses on soft, thin-sliced walnut baguette, served with a fan-sliced apple arranged so that each piece clung to the next by force of natural sugars. Our final cold dish, Greek tarama (carp roe pate, $4) felt a bit too subtle -- though it exuded a nice, salty tang when eaten alone, the tarama seemed bland when paired with the oregano croutons that accompanied it.

But then, we had no such problems with the baked chevre with oven-roasted tomatoes and olives ($6.50), also served with oregano croutons. Often described as airy when served cold, chevre, we soon learned, takes on a steaming, almost cloudlike silkiness when touched with heat, while sweet tomatoes, bitter olives, and crisp, toasted bread offered a perfect foil.

In fact, out of the dozen dishes we tried, the Mediterranean fish soup ($7.50) was the only real disappointment. We expected something along the line of bouillabaisse, but got a fine purée, and couldn't tell what kind of fish we were actually eating. Meanwhile, the tortilla espanola ($5.50) -- a chunky potato and onion pie -- was good, but paled in comparison to our other potato dish, miraculous "true" gnocchi with sautéed morel mushrooms and fava beans ($8).

You probably have to eat a false gnocchi (a thick, starchy, flour-based pretender) to appreciate the texture of a true one (all potato), and since I've had false gnocchi, these were a revelation -- soft, pillowy, with just a hint of chewiness, yet so tender they surrendered almost before our teeth could sink in. In fact, they didn't need to be chewed at all, but could be pressed flat with the tongue against the roof of the mouth. A mild Alfredo sauce added just enough savoriness (rendered all the more pleasurable by the tongue pressing mentioned above), although really, the gnocchi themselves were so divine they could probably be served a hundred different ways and still come out perfect.

Unfortunately, the borek ($6.50) -- three phyllo turnovers filled with cheese, leeks, and spinach -- arrived too hot, burned my tongue, and so shall be ignored with prejudice (OK, they were average). But crisp, grilled asparagus ($5.50) with preserved Meyer lemon soothed the pain -- the lemon, very understated, provided a wince of tanginess, while grilled spring onions added the simple contrast that marks the best of what Chez Nous has to offer.

Tender, succulent steamed mussels with garlic and parsley ($7) signaled the end of vegetables and seafood, and were followed by a small plate of prosciutto with radicchio and white truffle oil ($7.50), which made a nice transition to the climax of our meal, grilled herbes de provence lamb chops with lavender sea salt ($9 for two, additional chops $4.50 each). The faintly bitter lavender, combined with a pinch of sea salt and thick, juicy lamb chops, turned what had been a subtle seduction into the culinary equivalent of ramming it in to the hilt. In a single, bright flash, three flavors fused into an intense, almost unbearably savory sensation -- perhaps the soul of our young friend, the lamb, doing a final tango on our palates before making its way to heaven. When it was over, I asked Christine and Ellie, "Did y'all feel that?"

Indeed, they had.

Desserts (all $5) proved simple and eminently worthwhile. Those seeking a gentle landing might opt for the canneles de Bordeaux -- a light sponge cake with a dark, chewy outer layer, served with crème anglaise and caramel -- or, for a more decadent treat, a satiny-rich chocolate pot de crème. Either makes a lovely finish to a lovely meal.

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Greg Hugunin

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