Not So Suite

Ambition outstrips performance at a new French restaurant

I felt secure in choosing La Suite for the final night's meal of my friends Jeff and John's trip to San Francisco because I'd enjoyed my visits to the numerous restaurants operated by its owners, Jocelyn Bulow and Marc-Henri Sempere of Potrero Hill's Chez Papa, Chez Maman, and Baraka (Bulow is also a half-owner in Belden Place's Plouf). La Suite is their latest venture, a French restaurant in the spacious quarters on the Embarcadero that most recently held the Slanted Door.

It was Saturday night, it was Fleet Week (we'd been treated to an unexpected fireworks display the night before), and there were a number of French sailors dressed up like adorable dolls with striped jerseys and red pom-pomed berets on the sidewalk outside. Passers-by in a flashy convertible cooed "Hiya, sailors!" to their evident delight, as we turned our car over to the valet. We were led through a noisy bar area and past a large front room to an even noisier back room, getting a brief impression of much brass and flash: A tin ceiling, hanging glass light fixtures, and a mosaic tiled floor, all attractive, did little to dampen the din. (It looked as if almost all of the owners' other restaurants could fit inside this space.) But the general feeling was of festivity, though it bordered on the manic where we were, tucked away in the somewhat cramped back room, adjacent to the service-area doors.

The oversized menu offered the four of us (we were joined by my friend Jon) plenty of choice: Under the Franglais heading "Les Appetizers" it listed 16 dishes, plus an unlisted soup of the day, with a dozen more under "Les Plats Principaux." Each description amounted to a recipe ("ahi tuna tartar with almond, capers, citron, and argan oil," the last ingredient a new one on me). But when the clumsily overdecorated plates arrived, there seemed to be even more on them than we had expected. They looked fussy and slightly amateurish.

Brass and Flash: The festive feeling at La 
Suite borders on the manic.
Anthony Pidgeon
Brass and Flash: The festive feeling at La Suite borders on the manic.

Details

Roasted bone marrow $9.50

Beet salad $8.50

Tomato tart $8.75

Rabbit $18

Pots de crème $7

Cheese degustation $22

593-9000

Open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: valet, $10 at dinner only

Muni: 2, 7, 9, 14, 21, 66, 71, F, J, K, L, M, N

Noise level: moderate to high

100 Brannan (at Embarcadero)

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The "beet coloriage" was a perfectly nice salad of roasted beets, interestingly flavored with nutty sesame seeds. The pan-seared scallops were also OK, with sautéed chanterelle mushrooms and orange truffle sauce. The four big chunks of roasted bone marrow came with garlic croutons and crunchy flakes of fleur du sel, a rich and decadent way to begin a meal. Still, these starters felt correct but uninspired; the bone marrow came the closest to what I'd expect from a mid-range restaurant in France, but there was nothing about these dishes that inspired excitement. The one complete misfire was the poached pig trotter carpaccio that I ordered, irresistible to me because I'd never seen such a thing before (the essential adjective "poached" breaking up the dissonance between "pig" and "carpaccio," something of a joke on the inadvisable pork tartare). The carpaccio looked like paper-thin slices of charcuterie, but at the touch of a fork, the circles dissolved into mush -- and tasteless grey mush at that -- obscured by a truffled shallot vinaigrette. A perplexing dish, implying a lot of effort in the service of not much.

My disaffection continued with our main courses, adequate but unexciting renditions of bistro classics, such as a generous rack of lamb (a lofty presentation of three ribs crisscrossed with two, sided with an appealing rendition of the familiar baked tomato topped with Provençale herbs and speared with a branch of thyme) and a still-moist rabbit under a creamy sauce. I wasn't quite sure why my daube of duck leg à l'orange, served on mashed potatoes in a lake of liquid, had salty, untraditional olives added to its sweet sauce, except perhaps to emphasize the orientation of the menu toward Provence. I was surprised that John insisted on ordering the wood-grilled ahi tuna with seared foie gras: It seemed an obvious take on the "tuna melt" famously invented by George Morrone, and he'd had the original the night before, at Tartare. This one sat on a bed of creamy celery root purée rather than the crisp potato cake topped with spinach of Morrone's version; the large tuna steak was less expertly cooked, and the truffle-port sauce darker, sweeter, and heavier. "Yesterday's was a dish in which everything worked together, and this is more like an assemblage of separate ingredients," John said. (I note that the version at Tartare is $29 and La Suite's $26. Close enough for jazz.)

For dessert, we shared a trio of soft little pots de crème, pleasantly and variously flavored with chocolate, jasmine tea, and orange, and big firm profiteroles stuffed with hazelnut ice cream and topped with a ganache perfumed with Grand Marnier. (The suggested accompanying snifter of the special 100th-anniversary Grand Marnier would have set us back $22. I hasten to add that La Suite's wine list is quite decent, fairly priced, and offers an especially nice list of options by the glass. Just a tiny bit of overreaching at the grande finale!) We had to try the plateau de fromage because the temptingly laden cart had rattled by us many times in the course of the evening. The extremely hyper server who helped us offered us a choice of three of its more than two dozen cheeses, and in the end we got four, including a lovely American camembert and a goat cheese he included as his gift. They were all perfectly à point, but they were cut (with a lot of tra-la-la) in the tiniest portions imaginable, dressed up with two scoops of a fig preserve and more slices of walnut bread than the cheese required: $14 seemed a bit steep for more style than substance.

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