"Bistro! Bistro!" shouted the hungry Russian soldiers (the story goes), when, having stormed Paris in 1815, they went on to storm Paris' cafes. That's the apocryphal origin of the word.
"What's a bistro, really?" asked TJ, in one of his analytical moods. "Are all bis-tros French?"
"Umm -- the word is French, for a small, comfortable, unpretentious restaurant, where you typically go after work to hang out with friends, drink some wine, eat some nice hearty food. Bistros serve traditional dishes, classics like roast chicken, onion soup, potato gratin, and local specialties like duck with turnips or cassoulet -- French comfort foods."
"So what's an 'American bistro'?" TJ asked, fingering the purple paper menu on the table.
"It's a bistro in the Marina region of America where we're going to eat tonight."
Open since June, American Bistro is owned by Lance Joseph, who was born to the business (his parents own two restaurants in Chicago) and has worked at Postrio and La Folie (my favorite local restaurant, whenever a rich great-uncle names me in his will). Initially the fare ran to "California cuisine," but in October the original chef departed. Sous-chef John Pauley (another Midwesterner, most recently sous-chef at the Heights) took over and gave the menu a Burgundy-Lyons spin.
We were lured one November night by a prix fixe dinner ($29.50 including wine) celebrating the arrival of the 1997 Beaujolais Nouveau. Beaujolais is the classic bistro wine -- unpretentious, food-friendly, usually consumed young. The "nouveau" is Beaujolais that's bottled and sold, unaged, as soon as it's done fermenting. It often has a peach-skin fuzziness that food maven Charles Perry describes (without personal proof) as "like having sex with a 13-year-old." (Metaphor puritans may substitute Melanie Griffith for Lolita.) In France, its release is always a big deal.
After just 35 minutes of cruising we nabbed a parking spot a mere 12 blocks away, and found the tiny restaurant (about 20 seats at street level, perhaps 24 more on the mezzanine) bedecked by balloons and jampacked with jolly customers. We were soon seated and served quickly and warmly by a waitstaff evidently beefed up to cope with the full house. Most of the dishes for that dinner are on the regular menu -- but the dinner as a whole was far less successful than the a la carte dinner we ate a month later, after the chef had had time to find his balance.
The Beaujolais extravaganza began with three tiny cubes of seared ahi (also on the menu as a full appetizer for $8.50) with tobiko, sesame seeds, and hot-sweet house-pickled ginger. This amuse-geule certainly amused TJ's sushi-loving gullet: "The chef knows just how hot, how long to cook an inch-square strip of tuna on all the edges and leave the inside not even warmed!" Then we had a cleanly harmonious terrine, layering silky house-cured salmon with spinach, red onions, capers, and basil-laden creme frache ($8.50) -- perhaps a homey homage to La Folie's more extravagant smoked salmon terrine. But in our escargot and mushroom ragout "en croute" ($8.50), the gentle earthiness of the tender snails was overwhelmed by an excess of Dijon mustard on the puff pastry topping, and by an unpleasant note in the heavy wine sauce. "This tastes like it's thickened with canned gravy," said TJ. "Well," I said, "it's a French dish in an American bistro, so -- Franco-American, whaddya get? But seriously, maybe they ran out of house-made meat stock, because the flavor reminds me of some commercial restaurant-supply stock concentrate I once bought. Ruined two dishes and flushed the rest."
A spinach salad with candied pistachios and bleu cheese ($6.50) was also awkwardly dressed in a sweet, syrupy port wine reduction. An entree of mushroom-stuffed roast chicken breast had properly done meat and a pleasantly salty skin, accompanied by tangy garlic-horseradish mashed potatoes and a few good okra pods. But the duck and rabbit legs had an off-flavored wine sauce like the snails. Desserts repeated the Jekyll and Hyde routine: One was a delicious miniature cream puff with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce; the other, a chocolate peanut-butter terrine, was a mutant hybrid of a Reese's cup and a "chocolate decadence," with a topping that looked like coconut cream but tasted like sugarcoated margarine.
"Just because some things were askew doesn't mean the chef's doing it wrong," said TJ, who liked the vibes enough to urge a return visit. "He's not trying to duplicate classics, he's going off on his own tangent on them, with a sense of humor. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't." A few weeks later, hearing that American Bistro was offering moderate-priced ($39.50) feasts on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, we ventured back. TJ dropped me off at the door to secure our table while he parked. Outside, a signboard listed the day's specials. The soup du jour was consomme -- indicating a rich supply of house-made meat stock. (Good restaurants don't serve Campbell's.) I was seated immediately (no beeswax about waiting until my party was complete) and read the menu and the wine list (lots of affordable, venturesome choices, including "flytes" of three small tasting glasses). I read a book, watched other diners depart by cab, went outside, came back in, fidgeted. The waitress came by to chat about food and parking; her warm, first-name allusions to the owner and chef made me feel included in the restaurant's family. When TJ finally showed up, even the starry-eyed lovebirds at the next table rejoiced. In the hour it took, we could have driven to Larkspur to eat at the Left Bank, La Folie's bistro offshoot.
The consomme and most other specials were mainly rehearsals for the holiday menus. We began with the special oxtail appetizer ($8.50). "Whenever I see oxtails on a menu, I have to have them," I told the waitress. "I only cook them about every three years, when I get six free hours to spend in the kitchen." "That's what chefs are for," she answered. This quintessential bistro dish, simple and grand, had a single large round of rich, tender meat, wrapped in a succulent millimeter of fat and silverskin, with the bone neatly removed. The flavorful red wine and oxtail broth reduction surrounding the tail slice held a half-dozen superfluous pieces of some tough, thick pasta. But TJ's pasta was a delight: Penne provencale ($7.50, or $12.50 as an entree) was tender but not mushy, lightly and zippily dressed with rock shrimp, orange zest, capers, miraculously ripe tomato chunks marinated with fresh fennel, and a nip of hot pepper.
The two appetizers (plus a salad or dessert) would have made a full dinner, but we forged on. Instead of some dizzying array of numbers to memorize, the main-course specials are all intelligently priced at $16.50, just slightly higher than the average entree ($12.50-22.50). And the specials are the way to go, because they're what the chef wants to cook -- they taste of his enthusiasm. "You're in luck!" said the waitress. "We still have a portion of the honey-roast duck. John tried it out on us a few nights ago and it's great!" Very good, anyway -- the fowl was greaseless and lean (although a tad tough), with a honey-cinnamon-red wine glaze and a pool of gastronomique, a classic reduction of duck stock and red wine. It came with a few unthrilling pearl onions and roast potato cubes. TJ really was in luck, with a thick fillet of Trew cod (a local bay whitefish species) seasoned with sweet fresh thyme, wrapped and steamed in a tender savoy cabbage leaf (like a classic pheasant breast "chartreuse"). Around the plate were tiny turned ovals of parsnips, zucchini, and crookneck squash, in a luxurious golden pool of roux-thickened lobster stock with a hint of saffron. Under the fish was a puffy white vegetable bed. "You've gotta taste these mashed potatoes!" TJ urged. "What's in 'em this time? Horseradish? Wasabi? White truffle oil?" "No, different! Better!" he said. A bite revealed not potatoes at all, but an inspiring puree of earthy, subtle celery root, mashed with an extravagance of butter and cream.
By now it was so late, our wondrous waitress bid us farewell. "I've gotta go, been up since 6, but don't rush," she said. "Lance will take care of you, and the kitchen's working on a catering job all night." The kitchen didn't mind freshly cooking us a pleasant tarte tatin variant with Granny Smith apple slices (somewhat mushy), heaps of spanking-fresh walnuts, and a warm light crust, all robed in caramel and topped with a delicious lumpette of vanilla-bean ice cream. "Lance" did take care of us, and better yet, he takes professional care of his restaurant. From what we could see, the chef feels free to fly, the staff seems to feel good about working there, and the customers are treated with kindly, "attitude"-free attentiveness. That's what makes a bistro a joy in any country.