I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I have a thing for bistrots. However, since my longtime favorite Cafe Claude's fall from grace, there's been a gaping hole waiting to be filled. I still like Le Zinc, and our one trip to Le Petit Robert was promising, but inside I've been moping and lamenting the state of bistrot affairs.
Last night, we met up a group of people at Thirsty Bear to celebrate the return of our friend Steve from six years' exile in Arizona. (Thirsty Bear is another establishment whose culinary star has faded; we were just there for the drinks. But when they first opened, oh my. I still salivate at the very thought of the fish cheeks. Mmm ... fish cheeks.) After a couple glasses of albariño (typical contrarian me -- drinking wine at a microbrewery), DPaul and I wanted to grab a bite with our friends Jim and Matthew. After parsing through our options of places we could hope to drop in on at 8:30 pm on a Friday, we decided to head up to Potrero Hill, figuring that between Chez Papa, Chez Maman, Baraka and, as a perfectly acceptable last resort, Goat Hill Pizza, we were bound to find something.
The restaurant gods smiled upon us. Jim popped into Chez Papa first, asking about the likelihood of being seated (even as people were queued up outside the door). Luckily, a reservation for five was already ten minutes overdue, and if they did not show within the next five minutes, their table would be ours. We waited, shivering in the foggy evening wind, salivating over the plates that were being whisked out to diners seated in the enclosed outdoor area. Something more like 15 minutes later, they seated us at a table against the wall.
Now, it's embarassing that DPaul and I had never eaten at Chez Papa before. We've been to Chez Maman both in Potrero and Bernal before, and like it for what it is, but somehow Papa eluded our radar.
Initially, our server was a bit brusque and impatient, and when I asked for assistance on a wine selection, he left us in a more vague spot than we were before. Based half on his quasi-suggestions and my admittedly weak knowledge of French wines generally, I chose a Savigny-les-Beaune, figuring that a pinot would be a fair match with anything we ordered. It was a fantastic wine, light and faintly acidic, with a nice floral bouquet that reminded me of summer pastures.
We started with a couple of appies for the table: Towers of beets, Montrachet cheese and pistou; and crab-stuffed squash blossom beignets with tomato-saffron coulis. The beignets were ethereal -- crispy, fluffy, rich and not the least bit greasy. The beets were very balanced -- strong basil aroma offsetting the richness and tang of the cheese, all on a canvas of mildly sweet beets. OK, we're off to a good start.
Jim and I both had the lamb daube in a rosemary-red wine sauce. When we first walked in the restaurant the air was perfumed with rosemary, and I knew right away I wanted whatever was making that heavenly aroma. The meat was beautifully braised, tender and falling apart, swimming in a rich, dark sauce. We shared a side of broad beans which were slightly undercooked for my tastes -- a tad chalky -- but the bacon and truffle oil overpowered any objections I had. Plus, they were fabulous in the lamb's sauce.
DPaul had the roasted chicken, made with a delicious and mysterious compound butter under the skin. Paul is pretty picky about his roast chicken, considering it's a dish he has pretty well mastered himself, but he enjoyed it greatly. Matthew's grilled rib-eye was wonderfully charred, classically paired with pearl onions and frites.
For dessert we shared the tarte tatin (solidly good, if not earth-shattering) and had some port. DPaul and I had the Ramos-Pinto white port. I was not aware that there was actual white port; I assumed the ones I've had from California were American inventions. I will certainly seek this stuff out, though. It had strong apple-pear notes, which of course went fabulously with the tarte tatin, as well as peach and apricot. Late summer in a glass. Le sigh.
1401 18th St (at Missouri)