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The French Quarter 

Two restaurants from the same part of the world colonize Mission District corners

Wednesday, Mar 8 2006
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Despite its promising provenance (based on the book by Anthony Bourdain, created by Darren "Sex and the City" Star, and starring a host of cute guys), Kitchen Confidential, the Fox television show set in a downtown New York restaurant, irritated me more than it enthralled me. Apparently America agreed with me, because it closed up shop faster than a food cart hit with multiple health code violations. The last episode lingered on my TiVo for months, and I clicked on it the other night more out of a sense of closure (I'd dutifully watched all the previous installments, after all) than appetite.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying it -- more than I recall enjoying its predecessors -- partly because of the unexpectedly charming performance of the usually bland Michael Vartan, working his real (and habitually suppressed) French accent as a rival chef to Bradley Cooper's "Jack" Bourdain. Vartan, who owns a French bistro across the street from Cooper's Nolita restaurant, copies one of the place's signature dishes, lamb and ratatouille with a vanilla curry sauce, and an escalating war of pranks (including hiring away Vartan's bread baker) is set in motion.

The realist in me (never particularly useful while watching a sitcom) wondered why a classic French place called Maison Valentin would score with a recipe from the ostensibly eclectic and New American Nolita -- not to mention, ratatouille with curry and vanilla, yuck! While pondering this quandary, my mind wandered over to a couple of newish San Francisco restaurants. La Provence and Garçon! are not exactly across the street from each other -- they reside one block apart on 22nd Street, at the southeast corners of Guerrero and Valencia, respectively -- and stylistically, though they're both French, they seem unlikely to be poaching recipes from each other. (They both could use a new bread baker, in my opinion.)

La Provence, as one can tell from its name, features the cooking of its namesake province in the South of France, fragrant with lavender, thyme, and anise, including such dishes as pissaladière, soupe au pistou, salade Niçoise, and daube à la Provençale. Garçon!, on the other hand, is the very model of a modern Parisian bistro, where ahi tuna tartare with harissa sauce can be found alongside the old-school charcuterie plate, and lobster ravioli appears not far from the classic duck confit with pommes Sarladaises.

Provence conjures up drowsiness in the warm sun, with chirping cicadas and buzzing bees, and the charming décor of La Provence puts the warm sun all around you with golden paint, the cicadas in the form of pottery tea light holders and the bees, in Napoleonic style, embossed on the water glasses. The wooden tables are draped with yellow cotton runners printed with olives, the banquette is upholstered in a wine-striped fabric, and several enviable, huge, vintage wine posters glow on the walls. In a witty version of recycling, sprigs of lavender sprout in ceramic Saint Benoît yogurt containers, and flowers in Orangina bottles. Whoever designed the place can revamp my apartment anytime.

I was more enchanted with the décor than with the food, which came on plates as beautifully decorated and composed as the room. Dishes ranged from good (the pissaladière, often referred to as Provençal pizza, a pastry circlet topped with caramelized onions, olives, red pepper, and optional anchovies, which I took; a moist lapin roti au miel de lavande, roast rabbit with a sweetish sauce whose lavender honey was obscured by rosemary) to off the mark (the duck rillettes weren't fatty and shredded at all, but a decent terrine of duck; the daube featured inexplicably dry chunks of beef in its otherwise tasty bath of red wine, garlic, thyme, and orange zest; the crab tian, ringed with a delicate tomato gazpacho, was made with a terrific bell pepper chutney but less-than-stellar crab) to nasty (I can't remember the last time I sent back a dish, but the gray-beige squid in the fricasée de calamars crumbled in the mouth and tasted off; the entree was swiftly removed and replaced with a much tastier and fresher plate of half a dozen shrimp flambéed with Pernod). I must admit that my companions, including two of the best home chefs I know, my friend Robert and my sister Wendy, and Alisa (who said dinner awakened happy memories of her visits to the South of France), enjoyed their meals much more than I did. And the desserts, which included a panna cotta and a fragile chocolate mille-feuille, were excellent, especially the tarte Tropezienne, a yeasty cake stuffed with orange pastry cream and served with chopped oranges.

Garçon! feels modern and sophisticated, gleaming with polished wood, white napery, huge slanted mirrors, and a few touches of dark blue. And again I was happier with the dining room than the kitchen. Hits included a fabulous starter of mussels "Mamie Tourenne" in which every shell seemed to contain, miraculously, not just its mollusk but also tiny chunks of prosciutto and garlic and even tinier crisp croutons; a lovely plate of organic red and gold baby beets served with a salad of arugula and feta dressed with a bright lemon vinaigrette; and the Savoyarde tart, a round of pastry topped with thin-sliced potatoes and onions and pungent Reblochon cheese. Main courses seemed more timid. The papillote of petrale sole yielded mushy fish, whose accompanying mélange of tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, and olives, with crème fraîche, was overwhelmed by the anise flavor of Pernod Ricard; the Garçon! cassoulet -- including a leg of duck confit, a slice of pork tenderloin, and chunks of garlic and Toulouse sausage, along with firm-to-the-tooth tomato-infused white beans -- could have used a lot more garlic (I preferred the duck confit served on its own, with fried potatoes, bacon, mushrooms, and a hint of truffle oil); and the filling in the lobster ravioli was more spinach-y than lobster-y, though it was helped along by a very good lobster reduction sauce and a garnish of a good chunk of crustacean. In this instance, my companions over two dinners, Paul at one and Heftsi and David at another, were no more taken with the food than I was. Heftsi occasionally even lapsed into impatience, as with the curious, cheap, chewy, colorful candies that decorated the otherwise appetizing lemon and raspberry sorbets. We weren't really sure why they were there; they were pretty, but they didn't taste very good. Every gumdrop and licorice whorl was carefully picked off and laid on the underplate.

Both places felt sincere in their desire to please us and be authentic, in that the glories of French cuisine, provincial and as served in the capital, are not as easy to find as they once were. Duplicates of La Provence and Garçon! can be found in Marseilles, Nice, and Paris today: not exactly divine, never really brilliant, but good enough.

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Meredith Brody

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