Dessert First

It's worth making a reservation, driving to the Richmond, and spending half an hour parking, just for Clementine's dessert. Assuming, of course, that good dessert is a priority for you. If not, it's not necessary for you to go to Clementine, or even to read about it. You may turn the page.

OK, in fact, let's start with dessert. All desserts are $5.50. The unchallenged star is the pain perdu, known to Americans as French toast.

Oh, but.
The bread is hugely fluffy, baked with eggs, and then saturated with cream and egg. The consistency alone is worth thinking about days later: The starch in the flour doesn't become at all glutinous when soaked, unlike most French toasts; it remains in discrete tearable layers separated by liquid cream. And the flavor of yeast comes through faintly, along with a certain tang unmasked by the sugar it's cooked in. The surface is caramelly, and the dish is accompanied by light applesauce and nutty ice cream, whose distinct fruit-kingdom flavors sing counterpoint to the animal-fat luxury of the dessert. This dish is highly recommended.

Also available is a perfect molded bitter chocolate cake with a trufflelike liquid filling; a large creme brulee that's about as sweet and loose as such things get; a pear-almond tart that is tasty but not spectacular; and a colonel, to refresh the palate: tangerine sorbet swimming in vodka, engineered so that the flavor of the vodka comes through just enough, and just when it's needed. The desserts are sizable; try to leave room for an entree.

These run the gamut from bass to lamb. The better choices seem to be the land-dwellers. Chicken breast ($13.50) is earthy and satisfying: stuffed with, but not overwhelmed by, anchovies, cooked to perfection, cut into medallions, and served in a rosemary jus. It's accompanied by pureed potatoes with a traditional French (read: very high) butter-to-potato ratio and garnished with nice potato gaufrettes. The rack of lamb ($16.95) is a series of tasty little lamb chops, rubbed with thyme and possibly dry mustard, and served with toothsome fingerling potato rounds and bok choy. The round of veal ($16) is mild and tender, flavored with tarragon and served dry, with a gratin dauphinois that's like drinking a cup of cream.

The boeuf bourguignon ($16.50), though, lacks something. It's a dish of stringy, fatty meat in a fine but unpunchy sauce, topped with somewhat overdone noodles. The fish dishes -- cool tuna in red wine sauce, steamed salmon, etc. -- are similarly just OK.

With that, on to the appetizers: A mesclun salad ($5.75) is a shining example of its species, with a subtle walnut-oil dressing and excellent buttery goat cheese lacking even a hint of chalkiness. The homemade rabbit terrine ($6.50) is enough appetizer for four people, though the heavy terrine format highlights rather than masks rabbit's gaminess. It comes with pickled pearl onions and cornichons, and might make a better pre-appetizer snack than an appetizer. Also on offer are unsurprising escargots ($6.75), and dryish sweetbreads ($8.50) sauteed in a nut crust and served with a savory mushroom sauce.

The wine list is short and features a number of less-known bottles. (Looking it over tends to make one pine for the previous tenant at 126 Clement, Alain Rondelli.) The restaurant's setting -- mirrors, gold upholstery -- is more elegant than the casual service and moderate pricing would seem to demand. The place fills up with a neighborhood crowd: This inexpensive French food is apparently just what the Richmond wanted. But the restaurant seems to try, occasionally, to raise itself to the level of a citywide destination, and it's not -- quite.

If everything at Clementine cost $5 more, the service as it now stands would be unacceptable. As it is, it's attributable to a casual atmosphere. Misplaced drink orders, uncouth bussing, inability to narrow down wine recommendations to fewer than 10 choices, and no discernible pattern of who serves which table when all contribute to a faint feeling of unease that a slightly increased -- or more organized -- staff would eliminate. Later in the evening, French rock blares from the bar. All in all, Clementine could tolerate a couple of minor improvements, but it's a decent, not too expensive neighborhood French restaurant. And did we mention the fabulous dessert?

Clementine
126 Clement (at Arguello) 387-0408. Open Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m, Friday and Saturday to 10:30 p.m; brunch Saturday and Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations recommended. Parking: possible, but not easy. Muni: 1, 2, 38. Noise level: loud.

 
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