By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
By Anna Roth
A.J. Liebling said that the primary requisite for writing about food is a good appetite. Well, that I have, although the daily renewing of that appetite is something of a miracle (or a curse!). But in my line of work one also needs companions, preferably with good appetites themselves. There are people out there who consider food fuel, and are vaguely embarrassed by a voluptuous approach to the table. I remember how disappointed I was as a child when I read that Johnny Carson's response to a question about what he liked to eat was a curt, "I don't live to eat; I eat to live." Food was so important to me, even then, that I'd assumed intelligent, interesting people (read: my heroes) would approach food with respect and excitement, as a source of pleasure as well as nutrition.
You might think that I'd grow more tolerant with the years, but actually I'm more demanding. Now I want my dining companions to be interesting as well as interested. In addition to a good appetite, I want good value. In the case of a couple of new recruits, Greil and Jenny, friends of friends whom I'd long wanted to get to know better, I asked for more than just companionship, but also suggestions. I was willing to take them anywhere, but "What," I wanted to know, "are your favorite restaurants, the ones you return to again and again?"
Their first pick, the well-reviewed Northern Italian Mangiafuoco, was, alas, not to be revisited by us; it had recently closed, after nearly a decade of operation (almost equivalent to a golden anniversary of marriage in restaurant terms, we hear), not for lack of customers, but due to a rent dispute. So the second choice was Chapeau!, whose exclamation point I found mildly off-putting. (It's explained, on the menu, that chapeau means "hat," but chapeau! translates as "wow!")
San Francisco, CA 94118
Region: Richmond (Inner)
Seared foie gras $17
Mussels $9/starter, $17/entree
Sweetbreads $9.50/starter, $19.50/entree
Cheese plate $8
Roasted figs $6.50
Open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday
Parking: moderately difficult
Muni: 2, 28
Noise level: moderate to high
And at first I found the snug room, filled with closely fitted tables that leave only a narrow center aisle free leading to the kitchen, a trifle off-putting, too. The space, and the rather minimal décor -- some vines and architectural details painted on the walls -- reminded me of Upper East Side French restaurants in New York, where the real estate is so precious that every inch is used.
But I was cheered immediately when I opened the extensive menu, where I was greeted not only by such erotica as truffles, foie gras, cassoulet, fricassee, sole meunière, beef cheeks, and confits made of duck and the more uncommon tomato, but also the amazing intelligence that one could assemble three prix fixe courses of this classic French cuisine for the sum of $29.75. (There are a few supplements: for the ballotine of foie gras, an additional $1.50; the seared foie gras, $6; for filet mignon or rack of lamb, $2. Otherwise, you can run riot through it all, at a savings of $8 or $10 off the combined a la carte prices.)
The interesting wine list was full of reasonable and enticing bottles, too. I began to get excited.
I continued to be excited throughout our meal, which ranged from the comfortingly familiar (a textbook-perfect onion soup, made with a deeply flavored beef stock and full of long-cooked onions, crusted with good bread and melted cheese) to the interestingly tweaked (a generous, well-dressed mesclun salad, with the uncommon additions of tapenade crostini and the aforementioned tomato confit, a house-made preserve moister and sweeter than the overused, often-overpowering sun-dried tomato) to the just plain delicious (mussels classically steamed with white wine, shallots, and parsley, topped with a hillock of thin, crisp french fries, and sided with a crock of garlicky aioli).
I think I mildly shocked my guests by taking home quite a bit of each of my three courses. I started with the suave ballotine of foie gras, glamorously tricked out with thin rounds of warm toasted brioche and prunes cooked in a spicy red wine syrup. (I wanted to order the seared foie gras with every fiber of my being. An order of it was delivered to the table next to us, a sizable, wonderful-looking slab perched on a potato galette, so close to me that I could have reached over and stolen a bite, but something about the more modest choices of my guests -- soup and salad! -- made me choose the less extravagant, or, in truth, less expensive dish. The lush, firm, but creamy pâté was extravagant enough.)
It was particularly sufficient as a starter before the almost overwhelming classic cassoulet, the meltingly cooked cannellini beans enrobing succulent lamb shoulder, house-made duck confit whose skin was surprisingly crisp, and two different sausages, garlicky and robust.
Still, I rallied and ordered the cheese plate (a $2 supplement), and by this time in my history with Chapeau! I found the array of five cheeses, including such favorites as St. Andre and morbier, typical of the restaurant's style: typically generous (garnished with fresh berries and walnuts) and typically well-thought-out in its assortment of hard, soft, pungent, and mild.
When we left (Jenny and I kissed on both cheeks by the exceedingly Gallic and attentive proprietor), Chapeau! was my new favorite French restaurant, as I confessed in our Best of S.F. issue. And that wasn't just for its value (I could scarcely believe the early bird menu -- three courses with several choices each for $19.50, available Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 6 p.m.), but also for its quality. I was cheered to hear that the owners had plans to expand into the adjacent space. Then I'd have an excuse to return and enjoy their excellent cooking in comfort.