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Welcome to the Neighborhood 

Baker Street Bistro strikes a low-key Parisian note in Cow Hollow

Wednesday, Jul 17 1996
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A squadron of tots -- rosy-cheeked and saucer-eyed -- reconnoitered the Memoirist and me as we sat in the Baker Street Bistro over a recent noon hour. Their mothers may have stopped in (as had we) to lunch on a beautifully crusty croque monsieur and exchange a bit of tart chat, but the little people were far more interested in climbing over and under the tables and chairs and along the window ledges. It was like being on 24th Street in Noe Valley on a bright summer's day: lattes and baby-stroller gridlock, the dynamic of a residential neighborhood in the city.

The restaurant occupies a double storefront in a hidden corner of Cow Hollow, the streets serene (by city standards) and lined with tall trees and handsome homes. The place would seem quite at home in a remote quartier of Paris: tiny, modestly decorated, and friendly, with the sort of flawless food that brings out the exclamatory in customers. Baker Street Bistro looks like, and is, a homey neighborhood spot, but it also brings an enthusiastic precision to its food that's distinctly French.

The Memoirist was in an abstemious mood, and he settled for a simple omelet with mushrooms and ham ($5.75), which he pronounced "excellent." The grilled potatoes on the side had been cut into quarters and nicely crisped up to give the perfect potato effect: an instant of satisfying crunch, then a melting flash into nothing.

For some reason (to offset my companion's lack of appetite?) I was ravenous; after a cup of porridgy potato-leek soup ($3), in which the subtle onion scent of the leeks was faint but clear, like a whistle over the pleasing roar of the potatoes, I moved on to the daily pasta ($5.50), a plate of spaghetti with a blood-red Bolognese sauce whose meatiness was satisfying -- but not satisfying enough.

So, under the scrutiny of the tots (who, from various redoubts near their mothers, kept an eye on me as if they were prey and I the predator), I also had the croque monsieur ($3.50), a simple grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich whose glory far exceeded its humble ingredients. Like the potatoes, the sandwich produced the same gratifying crunch-melt in the mouth, with the additional, sinful pleasure of being the ideal un-diet food.

(America, the Memoirist and I agreed, is a thoroughly bulimic culture. We sin, by enjoying high-calorie grilled sandwiches or adulterous affairs; then we feel guilty, confess, tell ourselves and everyone who'll listen that we won't do it again; then we do it again. The French make much less fuss, at least about adultery and fat in the diet, which they enjoy as the necessary pleasure it is.)

The meal's only flaw was the creme caramel ($2.75) for dessert. The disc of custard was fine, but the caramel sauce drizzled around it was runny and lacked the concentrated flavor of thicker stuff.

Dinnertime found the restaurant free of toddlers, and the effusive maitre d' seated us with a flourish at a table that afforded me an unobstructed view of the finishing kitchen and its array of chinoises in various shapes and sizes.

The menu offered a fixed-price option: four courses (soup, main course, salad, dessert) for $14.50; a great price and a deal I would ordinarily find irresistible. But the nightly specials tempted us away. The quiche monegasque ($5.75) was studded with chunks of tuna and perfumed with basil -- almost like a salade nicoise (without black olives) baked into an egg-and-cheese pie.

And the mousseline of scallops ($6, from the main menu) consisted of three ocean scallops cut in half crosswise and sauteed until they were just creamy. The accompanying lobster sauce (the reddish-orange color of cooked lobster shells) actually tasted like the pricey crustacean, while a little triangular pastry and a fine julienne of carrots finished the plate.

If a menu includes grilled duck breast, my friend will order it (in much the same way he will always order tiramisu). The specials menu did, and he did. Duck breast is almost like beef filet, and the kitchen understood that it's at its juicy best when cooked rare. The slices were arrayed in a purplish-red half-moon around a mound of smoky ratatouille and dressed with a green peppercorn sauce whose flavor I couldn't quite make out. A slice of potato au gratin (again, crispy-creamy) met the starch requirement.

The boneless chicken breast with ginger sauce ($8.75) sounded plain, except for the ginger -- one of those Asian staples the post-colonial French have found a place for in their own cooking, and an ingredient whose nose-filling sweet tang can lift an entire dish. The kitchen placed the thinly sliced, pinkish ginger in the middle of the plate, so that some might be folded into each bite of chicken. At the side: scalloped potatoes in a cream sauce and a bright medley of root vegetables (a little wintry for a mild summer's evening, but tasty all the same).

The couple sitting next to us were well into their desserts as we were deciding about our own, and we ended up having exactly what they had. Creme brulee ($4.50) left nothing to be desired: lovely gooey custard under a brittle cap of caramelized sugar. But the tarte tatin ($4.50) was a masterpiece: the pastry tender and flaky, the apples still slightly firm, and a drizzling of mint creme anglaise a mischievously decadent metropolitan touch. It was the sort of dessert that put out of mind, at least briefly, the prosaic matters of paying the bill and getting up to leave; it lingered in the memory.

A perfect dinner is a kind of tonic after the sort of exhausting days many people regularly endure, and Baker Street Bistro -- with its mix of Parisian service, French comfort food given a beguiling city spin, and an arboreal setting -- delivers the goods. For amazingly little money. It's the sort of place that deserves to be in business a long time.

Baker Street Bistro, at 2953 Baker in S.F., is open daily save Mondays. It serves coffee and pastries from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. (8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends); lunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. (5 to 9:30 p.m. Sundays); and brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 931-1475.

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Paul Reidinger

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