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The French Connection 

Wednesday, Apr 15 1998
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Bistro Clovis
1596 Market (at Franklin), 864-0231. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m. Reservations advised. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: very difficult at lunch; in the evening, try the nearby paid lots on Franklin. Muni via the F Market, all Van Ness and Haight lines, and the Muni Metro (Van Ness station).

TJ was pestering me about French. "In the year you've been on this job, we haven't been to any regular French restaurants," he noodged. "We've eaten French-California, French-California-Pacific Rim, Mediterranean Rim-French-influenced -- but we haven't eaten anything that French people eat every day," he said. "And 50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong," I conceded. Meanwhile, a magazine editor acquaintance divulged that she's married to one of those infallible Frenchmen. "Christian's grandfather owned a one-star restaurant in Dijon," Denny said. "We once went to dinner with both his grandmothers. I thought the food was fine, but they just tore everything completely apart." I immediately invited Denny and Christian out to dinner.

Now all we needed was the right restaurant. Soon after, the mailman opportunely brought a flier announcing that Bistro Clovis had just reopened after months of renovations, with Patrick Garnier (from the respected Baker Street Bistro) as its new chef. I don't remember what 10-year-old Clovis looked like before the face lift; in fact, I barely remember what it looks like now -- it's a cozy, clean, comfortable bistro, not some shrine of decor. As we sat down (Denny and I on a banquette, the guys on facing chairs), soft Brazilian jazz played on the sound system, followed by a series of presumably witty Gallic songsters. (My oxidized French can only decipher the tone of wit, not the wit itself.)

Choosing a dinner wine was a pleasure with even a moderately plump wallet. (The restaurant offers a monthly wine tasting, too.) The list's strength lies in lesser-known, worthwhile French bottlings at decent prices ($35-45). Confined to the nether realms, we found a velvety Wheeler merlot ($19), cleverly blending 85 percent lush Pays d'Oc merlot with a 15 percent backbone of California-grown cabernet franc.

We began with the old warhorse gratineed onion soup ($5.50), a good litmus test because those "little French places" of old came up with so many evil shortcuts. (Some soup sins we have suffered include worn-out onions, industrial meat stock, cornstarch thickener, inappropriate bread, surplus cheese, and Campbell's). But Clovis' onion soup was just lovely, all elements flavorful and proportionate, with a patina of mild cheese moistly melted over slim slices of coarse-grained country bread, slowly dissolving into a bright, clean broth. Digging in, we discovered a tangle of firm-tender onion slivers, evidently added near the end of cooking. On the other hand, the páte maison ($5.90), a dense "country-style" duck liver páte studded with black olives, tasted flat and undersalted despite the garnish of tangy caramelized-onion "marmalade."

Trout cake ($7.25) was a cute variation on the current au courant crab cakes, in a sprightly red bell pepper coulis sharply tarted up with lime juice. Escargots en robe de champ ($6.75) had half a buttery baked potato filled with a pestolike herbed garlic butter, robing chopped pancetta and slightly chewy snail-meats, overcooked by mere seconds -- but that's snail for you. (Hey, better a tad chewy on a hot potato than raw on my home-grown arugula.) Mousseline de dourade ($6.50), aka red snapper mousse, had ethereal nubbins of fish manna on a bed of rich, pinkish seafood-stock-based sauce with a woody undertone, hinting of Maine lobster shells grilled or roasted at high heat before hitting the soup pot. The delicate snapper picked up the lobster flavor in a snap. "What is this great sauce?" asked Denny. In fact, it was a variant of sauce Nantua, the traditional lobster-based cream sauce served, typically, with quenelles de brochet (fish-mousse sausages). Shamelessly sybaritic, this lyonnaise classic has vanished from the California-French lexicon. It's been replaced by immeasurable riffs on grilled fish with tropical-fruit vinaigrette, the culinary equivalent of an endless chorus line of aerobics instructors stair-stepping in Day-Glo spandex tights.

"My grandfather ran his restaurant in Dijon with an iron fist," Christian said. "He would teach his sous-chefs how to be good managers, good accountants, and they all went on to open their own restaurants, but they didn't have his cooking skills. He wouldn't teach them that."

When Christian mentioned that his grandfather's place had a one-star Michelin rating, TJ interrupted. "What's 'Michelin'?" he asked.

"The Michelin Guides are a series of thick little red guidebooks to restaurants and hotels all over France, put out by the Michelin Tire Company," Christian explained. "It's based on assessments by hundreds of critics, who travel around eating anonymously. After several meals at a restaurant they award from zero to four stars. Even getting listed in Michelin is really important, but getting that first star is the hardest, a breakthrough. For the second star you have to expand the menu, expand the staff, redecorate, get famous people to come there. My grandfather didn't want to spend the money or bother -- good food was enough for him. 'The first star is the star for food -- all the rest is fluff,' he'd say."

Christian seemed silently saddened to sacrifice some of his filet de canard au poivre vert ($13.50) to the general public (you, dear reader, via me). And who could blame him? Fork-tender thin slices of rose-pink duck breast came with a piquant but subtle green peppercorn sauce that quietly complemented the duck, rather than duking it out for dominance. The evening's universal veggie-mix, on the side, had flageolets (skinny string beans) and slim batons of zucchini and carrots. Denny ventured the ris de veau en cocotte aux crevettes ($14), a dainty little casserole of sweetbreads and prawns. She loved the tender pale sweetbread nuggets, but the rest of us (having grown accustomed to grilled, fried, or otherwise crisp-crusted nonce renditions) found them bland. The pairing with prawns was clever, though, and the sauce, we all agreed, was a delight. Coral-colored, sweetish, and rich, with a little bite from red pepper or cayenne, it was a great match with shrimp and it carried the sweetbreads. "They'd be dead meat without it," said TJ.

He tried the navarin d'agneau ($12.50), traditional lamb stew with tender meat in a light pleasant gravy with "gorgeous" steamed potato halves on the side. My special of petrale sole and scallops ($13.50) proved to be another seafood mousse, this time in two neat rounds, on a bed of another delicious Nantua-type sauce, with a circlet of rice to smoosh it onto. I wasn't really sorry to encounter the sauce (by any name) twice in one meal after a 10-year drought, but I might have ordered differently had the waiter mentioned it.

Cheese plates, now returning to vogue, should be fixtures of wine-oriented restaurants -- they help you kill the last of your red -- and Clovis serves a fine one at a bargain price ($8.50), offering the classic contrasts of a bleu (with an insert of roast pear), a mild goat, a fierce Tete de Moines (prettily sliced in scallops resembling a chanterelle mushroom), and a triple creme, this last a generous hunk of extravagant Explorateur at a mellowed-but-mild stage (rather than the fetid delirious ooziness at which it's often served in France).

If you want Tarte tatin ($7.50), a caramelized apple tart cooked upside down in an iron skillet, you have to order it 20 minutes ahead. It's surprisingly difficult to make -- I've never turned out a good one, myself, and have had dead-perfect renditions locally only at Chez Panisse and La Folie. Since we dallied over our cheese, it was our own fault that our tatin was a tad overcooked. Although accompanied by creme fra”che (rather than the more modern ice cream on the side), in some subtle way, it wasn't quite the traditional version -- "more like Apple Betty," Denny said of its denseness. We also tried something called "chocolat surprise" ($6.50). It was a big dark chocolate mousse-puff topped with brandied cherries; when we cut it open, the surprise proved to be a white, creamy mousse filling. "Oh, gosh," I said, "it's a Kantian noumenal Ding Dong!" "A Platonic-ideal Ding Dong!" said Denny. We were both happily turning into ding-dongs ourselves. We hadn't had that much wine, it must have been a Nantua high -- we'd hit the sauce pretty hard and had gotten creamed.

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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