A Breath of French Air

Alain Rondelli is a soothing, sophisticated surprise on chaotic Clement Street

There are Big Deal restaurants and there are big deal restaurants. The former, like Fleur de Lys and Masa's, require something from you, namely getting dressed up and acting like a grown-up. The latter, in which Alain Rondelli falls, are more comfortable. You can chance in off the street, bad hair and all, and you'll get the same superb food and service as everybody else.

The street in this case is Clement, even though you'd never know it. Once inside Alain Rondelli, you're a million miles away from the hustle-bustle of the city's second Chinatown. I live within walking distance of Alain Rondelli and use Clement daily to run errands. It took me several visits to figure out how they accomplish this transcendence, how I could feel so transported while sitting blocks from the dry cleaner, Walgreen's and the bank, not to mention the ubiquitous produce stands, Chinese restaurants, holdover Irish bars and, I'm sorry to say, trash.

It all starts with the maitre d'. Jean-Luc Hitta just oozes charm. Not the greasy, fake kind, rather that genuine warmth that tells you instantly you'll be taken care of. Not only that, his sophisticated knowledge of the menu and wine list guides you through the evening, enhancing that feeling of being somewhere else. His accent -- he's from Paris -- doesn't hurt either.

The soothing decor reinforces that divine mini-vacation state of mind. Tiny white lights on the trees outside (trees -- on Clement Street!) are just visible through the plantation shutters, which also act to filter through any remaining daylight at the start of your meal. Inside, soft sconce lighting, tasteful still lifes and a restrained off-white-and-brown color scheme all work together to create an atmosphere of intimacy and indulgence.

Speaking of intimacy, the restaurant has just 45 seats. That means the maitre d' has enough time to get into serious wine consultation, the waiters aren't darting about frantically, even the busboy can stop and chat about his other life as an artist. And the meal is adroitly paced.

The meal? You were curious about the food. If I had to pick five top restaurants in the city on the strength of their kitchens, Alain Rondelli would be on that list. Owner/chef Rondelli was Ernie's chef before opening his own place. Prior to that he was in France, where he worked at the famed L'Esperance and spent a year and a half cooking for Presidents Mitterand and Giscard d'Estaing at the French presidential palace. (And he's cooking on Clement? Sorry, I still can't get over it.)

On our first visit, our appetizers were so good we wanted to stop right there, afraid the rest of the meal couldn't measure up. We had the nightly special, smoked salmon and goat cheese on a warm brioche, topped with dill, chervil, tarragon and fine herbs ($8). We also tried the foie gras, covered with a delicate port wine glaze, wrapped around a fig and accompanied by its own mini brioche ($11). In each case, the marriage of ingredients worked superbly.

Menu items, by the way, are described simply in capital letters (beet, onions, chicken, rabbit, etc.), followed by a brief mention of ingredients. This is a practice I'd love to see copied, especially at those places where the menu goes on forever. The waiters are happy to elaborate should you care to know more -- for example, on exactly which range a chicken roamed freely.

For my entree I had the rabbit "three-style" ($19), a tiny fried leg, a cold saddle wrapped around green olives and a thigh cooked with yogurt and cumin. While some might find it fussy, each style was distinct and delicious, and I liked the variety.

My dinner partner, Marc, insisted on the tripe ($16), a choice which, I'm aware, alienates at least half of those still reading. As a tripe-eater myself, however, I was intrigued by the fact that it was a provençal braise prepared "V.G.E." style -- V.G.E. referring to the former French president. It came under a puff pastry dome with carrots, potatoes and peppers in a light white wine sauce with herbes de Provence and a hint of anise. While it wasn't the heavy cream sauce treatment favored by Marc's French grandmother, I noticed that it disappeared rather quickly.

All around us were sophisticated, well-heeled serious eaters, studying the menu intently and talking about things like runs on Shell oil and someone's relative who used to be the ambassador to England. It was on my second visit that I realized we weren't the only ones in the place who didn't have a summer home in Tahoe. The man at the next table, introducing himself as a hairdresser from Brisbane, told me he'd love to work on my hair. And one woman several tables over had forgotten to take off her convention name tag.

All of them, nevertheless, seemed to enjoy the cotton candy (really) on a paper cone that comes before dessert.

For dessert we had the "chocolate warm cake" with pecan praline and apple bread pudding with caramel-vanilla ice cream. It seems everyone serves similar desserts these days, but pastry chef Tobi Sovak's versions are definitive.

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