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It is a bit of a shock to arrive at Bandol for the first time and realize that it's where the old U.S. Restaurant used to be. The space, which was once dark, old-school, family-style North Beach Italian, has become a New Restaurant. Granted, there was an intermediate stage, wherein the owners of Enrico's and Tavolino had already bought into the old joint and redone it, but they retained the name and much of the tradition. No longer. The restaurant has been transmogrified into Bandol, a French-ish bistroic place, named presumably for the prestigious wine appellation and vacation spot in southernmost France.
431 Columbus Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94133-3901
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Actually, using the word "bistro" is giving Bandol the benefit of the doubt. The restaurant describes itself as "a southern French bistro in North Beach" but "bistro," which tends to imply a small and/or homey restaurant, smacks a bit of wishful thinking. Indeed, the uncozy setting is the restaurant's major flaw. The space is large and triangular, bounded by Columbus on one side and Stockton on the other. It is de facto divided, by the restrooms' protrusion into the dining area, into two sections, one in front and one in back, while a curvaceous wooden bar runs the length of the Columbus side. This makes for an oddly shaped room, in which the restaurant's too many tables sit uneasily, unevenly spaced, at unpredictable angles to the walls, unsettling those patrons who are seated facing into the restaurant. Those who face out are rewarded with an unrestful street scene, as tourists and others peer through the restaurant's inviting plate-glass windows. A few yards of curtains would go a long way toward enhancing the illusion of "southern French bistro" dining. Above the windows a handsome mural unfortunately clashes with the rose color of the walls and seems out of place, dominated by the cavernous room.
Abutting, nearly blocking, the door is a piano (often with pianist) and a section of the bar doing double duty as a host station -- there's no foyer or cooling-off area. It is understandable, given the vast sum that Bandol's real estate must cost, that management would want to squeeze in as many profit-making tables as possible in this Euclidean universe, but there is a penalty in terms of comfort. The design of the restaurant doesn't set one at ease. Still, Bandol's owners do not exact other penalties in the name of profit. They could rush diners, so as to achieve a greater turnover; they could scrimp by buying subpar cuts of meat; they could charge 50 percent more per dish -- but they don't. If you set the unbeautiful environment aside, Bandol is a lovely place to eat.
The food can be terrific. Strong, warm, elemental flavors are featured, which with assists from such reliable backup players as truffle oil, olives, butter, and wine achieve an excellent balance of sturdiness and subtlety. A salad of supple cress and stiff shredded endive leaves is ever so lightly vinaigretted and studded with fragments of hazelnut, segments of fragrant satsuma orange, and slivers of hard, rich cheese ($6). It's an inspired composition, crunchy balancing tender and vegetal complementing sweet. A plump pissaladière ($5) is more moistly eggy than flaky; the traditional golden tart abounds with soft onion ribbons and little nicoise olives, and the tangy seaside scent of anchovy permeates it. The round of steamed mussels ($9) is wonderfully tender and flavorful, as the little animals are bathed luxuriantly in your choice of a marinière broth (white wine, shallots, garlic, butter) or a more intense one made with nutty -- almost bitter -- browned garlic and parsley. A side of garlic braised greens ($3) is also excellent. The greens are cooked enough to bring out the softer side of their nature but not so long that they've lost their integrity -- beet greens remain beety, chard bitter, and so forth.
The bouillabaisse ($15) teems with tender creatures of the sea. Although no bouillabaisse can equal the bouillabaisse one enjoys in Provence, where the magical and unmatched creatures of the Mediterranean literally burst with flavor, Bandol's is no slouch. It's got the tomato, it's got the buttery olive oil, it's got the spicy garlicky rouille. Also good is the pork loin chop ($15). Milky white, juicy, and tender, it absorbs the sweet buttery caramel that leaches from the accompanying apple slices. It comes with a pool of luxuriously fatty potato purée that melts on the tongue. (The wonderful purée is available as a side for $3.) Roasted salmon fillet ($14) has a crunchy, salty crust and perfectly moist meat; it comes with tart beets and rich truffled lentil salad.
All too often, a restaurant's grilled vegetable plate is a flavor-impaired attempt to throw together an entree without meat. Bandol's, though, is one of the best dishes on the menu ($12). None of that tedious grilled eggplant and bell peppers -- as of this writing, the plate is a paean to winter, with peppery sautéed broccolini, al dente Provençal red rice with minced vegetables, marvelous herbed yellow squash, grilled until black, and a rich, nutty parsnip purée that's delicious with the grilled focaccia points or without.
The wine list, with about 50 bottles, includes only a few token California wines. Most choices are from the sunny South of France: no Burgundy here, no Beaujolais, but some great Rhone reds -- Crozes-Hermitage is about as far north as it gets. Many of these are excellent, little-known wines; your server can guide you skillfully through the selection process. The service, by the way, is solid, knowledgeable, and smooth, though a little underpowered. It would be a boon if Bandol were able to hire another waiter or two as good as the ones it's got.
Dessert is a simple affair of $5. The baby profiteroles are both delicious and adorable, nestling icily in their dish, while the pear tart, accompanied by a seductive fromage blanc sorbet, provides more adult pleasures.
It's a shame Bandol suffers a degree of disparity between the excellent food and the awkward environment so pronounced as to make one ambivalent about eating there again. Chances are, though, the food will win customers despite the uncomfortable ambience. And, should the restaurant's owners decide to remodel again, more power to them.