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The World Traveler, bilingual in English and French, began to catch the Gallic echoes of lower Bush Street the moment we left the parking garage. Across the street lay the Eglise de Notre Dame des Victoires, and he rushed over to see if services were conducted in French. (Yes: Sunday mornings at 10:30.)
Hurrying along to our reservation at Rendezvous du Monde, we passed the Consulate General of France flying its tricolor and the famous brasserie Le Central, with its distinctive "tabac" sign. A hundred years ago the neighborhood was a French enclave, and (as in France itself) the sense of the past is persistent and vivid.
Despite the name (which includes that "u" sound so difficult for Anglophones to pronounce convincingly), Rendezvous du Monde is more Californian than French. Yet, with its emphasis on seasonal ingredients, imaginative but uncomplicated preparations, and deft presentations, it's the sort of place French diners would entirely approve of.
A small jazz ensemble played softly as we were led to the very rear of the restaurant, which consists of two deep, narrow rooms laid end to end at a slight offset. The rear chamber, with its multicolored pastel plasterwork, exposed brick, and copper pipes, was like a cross between a grotto and an acid flashback, or the wine cellar of a Hollywood mogul.
The World Traveler, though jet-lagged by a flight from China via Hong Kong and wired up on a double espresso, was ravenous, and, after scarfing the complimentary appetizer -- crostini with baba ghannoug (the garlicky eggplant puree of the Middle East) -- led the charge into an impressive array of first courses. These were set before us with just the right amount of staggering.
The best of the lot was a warm Laura Chenel goat cheese salad ($6.75), a ramekin filled with feathery-light and mild cheese, surrounded by chunks of roasted tomato and olives. The warm goat cheese salad has become as cliched as tiramisu, but du Monde's relaxed version used the smoky tomatoes and the olives' saltiness to produce an unexpectedly subtle, delectable effect.
The duck confit pizza ($8.50) didn't quite achieve sublime thin-crustedness, but a hot oven left it nicely crisped and blistered. Besides the dark slivers of duck, the toppings included corn, artichokes, and herbed ricotta and Parmesan cheeses -- all of which melted sensuously together, like an orgy set in motion by the heat of a Jacuzzi. There was a brief dispute over the last piece, resolved in Solomonic fashion by slicing it in half.
The soup du jour ($4.50) was a thick, green-gray puree of potato, leek, and fennel bulb -- a kind of vichyssoise faintly scented with anise. I thought it was tasty, but I would have thinned it with a bit of broth. It also seemed a little wintry for a spring menu. Yellow Finn potatoes ($4) were cut into spears and roasted until nicely browned; the herbed aioli on the side was delicious but too-quickly depleted, leaving the last few potato spears to go it alone.
Both the grilled asparagus ($4) and the organic field greens with Maytag blue cheese ($5) tasted distinctly of balsamic vinegar.
"It's like Italian soy sauce," said the WT. "They sprinkle it on everything."
The asparagus spears were laid out in a pretty fan shape, then drizzled with a syrupy reduction of balsamic vinegar and olive oil and sprinkled with shavings of ricotta salata, a very mild white cheese. Mostly the dish tasted of the vinegar and the grilling -- a cooking method that particularly suits asparagus. The spears emerge from the heat tender and slightly charred, which mutes their sometimes cabbagy flavor.
More balsamic in the main courses? I thought I tasted it in the house-made porcini and sage sausages ($11.95), two fat links laid on a bed of soft polenta and covered with a blanket of stewed red and yellow peppers and baby mustard greens. The "natural juices" tasted as if they'd been spiked with the vinegar, but perhaps it was just a lingering echo from the first courses.
Pillows of ravioli ($10.50) were stuffed with salmon, mascarpone, and herbs and served with spinach and a tomato broth. Ravioli always seems to me to be the most inadequate of the pastas; there's never enough on the plate. These were more satisfyingly plump than most, and they nicely featured the salmon, whose taste was strong and assertive -- the wild local kind?
The grilled salmon filet ($11.95) was definitely local King salmon, and tasted like it. It seemed to me almost too gamy and dry, but then, like everyone else, I've gotten used to the farmed variety, which is -- besides being always available -- fattier (and so more moist) and less noticeably tasty than its free-range cousin. A salad of shaved fennel, orange, and pea sprouts lay on one side of the fish, while underneath was a heaping of orzo scented with lemon and curry oil and tossed with bits of asparagus. The WT had ordered the salmon and enthusiastically approved of it ("It's not overcooked"), as he did the rest of the meal.
"You just can't get this kind of fresh produce in China," he said, vacuuming up the last few shreds of food from his plate and glancing toward his wife, who was making her leisurely way through the risotto ($11), a veritable farmers market of fresh vegetables. The dish included English peas, asparagus, morel mushrooms, spinach, toasted pistachios, and fontina cheese, but the true test of risotto is the doneness of the rice. The kernels should be al dente -- tender but firm -- and they should have released their starch into a creamy sauce. Rendezvous du Monde's ver-sion was perfectly cooked and was, the four of us agreed, the best of the main courses.