By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
A lot of people were surprised when chef/owner Loretta Keller shut down her popular SOMA bistro, Bizou, on very short notice in late March, in order to retool the space. I was among the querulous and curious, being of the "If it's not broke, why fix it?" school. I had two happy memories of Bizou. During a quick weekend trip to S.F. with three friends a few years ago, we had dinner there, and were very happy with the rustic, warm setting, which felt like a cozy neighborhood place in France, although there were lots of Italian-inspired dishes on the menu, too. I remember sharing oysters, a wonderful duck liver terrine, and a flatbread with caramelized onions, and envying the person who had ordered a particularly succulent dish of beef cheeks. We also dined, that trip, at the French Laundry (it was the first visit there for my three companions -- oh, the famed oysters and pearls) and at Zuni, where two of us shared the incomparable roast chicken and bread salad; the Bizou dinner held up well in that august company.
And I was treated to a lunch there by two of SF Weekly's editors, on an even quicker day trip shortly after I was hired at the paper, but before I'd moved here. Having such an excellent restaurant within walking distance of the office, in a changing neighborhood, seemed to augur well for eating in San Francisco. I was a little shocked that nobody ordered dessert -- but of course, they had to return to work! I never managed to dine there again as I chased after new restaurants, many of them not fit to kiss the hem of Bizou's garment. But I often read the menu as I walked by, fantasizing about lunching on cassoulet or grilled lamb chops with pesto or risotto with morels and ramps. Those lunches, alas, were not to be.
I kept tabs on the remodel, which seemed to move quickly indeed, and, though the location at the corner of Brannan and Fourth remained the same, involved a new address, 500 Brannan, incorporated in the new name, COCO 500. (Bizou, which means "little kiss," used 598 Fourth St.; COCO, no less sentimental, is named after a special friend of chef Keller.) Out went the old, literally, and in came the new: Country tables replaced with sleek chic teak, antique chandeliers and school lamps replaced with art glass pendants. The look was now aggressively clean and modern, glimpsed through big uncurtained windows. The new menus posted outside were sparer, and, I thought, self-consciously hip in layout (all lowercase) and nomenclature: Salads were listed under "leaf," vegetable sides under "california dirt."
English pea ravioli $11
Fig and Gorgonzola pizza $12
Pork cheek tartine $10
Grilled salmon $14
Creamed corn $5
Peach and blackberry shortcake $7.50
Open Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday until 11 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday
Muni: 15, 30, 45, 47
Noise level: moderate to high
I lured Darrick there for dinner because he could walk over after work, and we were led to a table across from the Brannan windows, against the partial wall separating one ell of the dining room from the lively bar. Eating at the bar is possible, even encouraged, with such cocktail nibbles as a plate of house-marinated olives or a haystack of green beans fried tempura style among the 10 dishes at the top of the menu labeled "small starts." Or you can dine on a full meal.
Despite the new look of the menu, I recognized familiar dishes, such as those green beans, the beef cheeks, the flatbread with caramelized onions, and several pizzas. The descriptions were minimal -- "local calamari, black rice, stewed garlic" -- yet exciting. I wanted to eat everything. After some discussion, we settled on sharing a couple of the starters, and then splitting a pasta, before main courses chosen from "a la plancha" (on the grill) for Darrick and "wood oven" for me, and a shared vegetable side.
The couple next to us were tucking into a plate of dry-roasted chickpeas, some still in their husks, and a "taco" plate that looked more like hors d'oeuvres right out of Sunset magazine: taco chips topped with beef in mole sauce and a touch of guacamole. We loved our chunky, moist duck liver terrine, served with an acidic assortment of pickles, big caperberries, and pickled onion. I liked the look and taste of the pretty, bright-red piquillo peppers we also ordered, but I'd expected something a little more unusual from their stuffing of confit tuna, which tasted a lot like ordinary tuna salad. Still, the combination was fresh and appealing.
We each got two large ravioli, good supple pasta filled with English peas and pecorino pepato, under a blanket of creamy green sauce made with peas and mint, strewn with a few edible purple flowers: light yet savory.
Darrick couldn't have been happier with his chunk of grilled local wild king salmon, on a salady bed of greens, crisp Mediterranean cucumbers, and radishes, and dabbed with a chunky dill-and-pine-nut pesto. My duck confit, a leg and thigh, had melting, chocolaty flesh under skin crisped, even a touch burnt, from the wood oven, sided with chopped pistachios strewn over a little frisée, and a juicy roasted half-peach. Our lucky neighbors appeared to be friends of the house: The chef herself visited a couple of times, and sent out the calamari, which smelled amazing, and a whole fish, also from the wood oven, as well as cipollini onions and bacon in a cream sauce dusted with bread crumbs. I'd considered ordering the onions, and indeed, I'd lingered over all the vegetable sides: braised rapini with bagna cauda, caraway-glazed baby carrots, German butterball potatoes with butter, dill, and parsley. Vegetarians would be happy here (hold the bacon, add a plate of sliced heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with Davera Dry Creek Estate olive oil, and a mushroom pizza with Gorgonzola, onion, and rosemary).