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Arriving at Chez Papa Resto for dinner on a chilly night feels a little mysterious. The small plaza next to the still-deserted, stately old Mint building is eerily empty, and you walk into the square tentatively, almost as though you're looking for the entrance to a secret club.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Region: South of Market
Halfway down the northern side of the plaza, you enter a door to a burst of noisy conversation and music, although your first impression is still dark as night: The place has black walls, with black chandeliers hanging overhead. It feels like a club, and it's definitely one that's been discovered. On a recent Friday night, every seat was filled, and we had to wait near the entrance about a quarter of an hour after our 8:30 reservation until our table was ready.
When it was, we were given my least favorite option for a party of three: a table for two, clinging to the wall near a service passage, with settings around three sides of the table. It's a tribute to both the excellent service and the diverting food that my initial discomfort with the table and the noise of the place dissipated as we concentrated on our dinner and our own conversation.
The menu created by executive chef David Bazirgan, veteran of Baraka and Elisabeth Daniel, is touted as Provençal. But except for a few touches (pistou on the caramelized onion tart, steamed mussels with a pastis-saffron broth, roasted monkfish with bouillabaisse fumet), it looks like classical French cuisine: oysters, beef tartare, foie gras, duck breast with parsnip purée, and roasted pork with chanterelles and sauce poivrade. We've been drawn to the restaurant, open almost a year, because we heard it recently lowered its prices and added prix-fixe lunches and dinners.
The three-course prix-fixe dinner ($34.95) is available Monday through Wednesday, with two or three choices per course. The prix-fixe lunch, three courses for $21.95, is on offer Monday through Saturday. But there was an even more tempting option this night, a four-course celebration of California citrus ($50), that seemed an amazing bargain: a baby beet salad with pomelo, butter-poached lobster with Meyer lemon, duck confit à l'orange, and an orange blossom panna cotta, plus an amuse-bouche of bay scallop ceviche with kumquats. Usually if a restaurant offers a tasting menu, the whole table has to order it, making it an unappealing option for the critic who wants to taste as many dishes as possible. But Chez Papa Resto is happy to serve it to as many or as few in the party who want it. When I learned that it was the last weekend for the citrus menu, we turned our attention to the regular menu.
The tropical-sounding Dungeness crab salad with mango and piquillo-pepper coulis ($12) was appealing, but we ended up choosing two orders of the irresistible-sounding seared LaBelle Farm foie gras ($17). The nice-sized portion of carefully seared foie gras is paired with sautéed apples and a sweet reduction of Banyuls wine, though some might prefer a tarter or firmer fruit, such as figs or quince, to contrast with the smooth, rich liver in its silky sauce.
I thought I knew what the port-glazed veal sweetbreads ($14) would taste like, from the menu's enticing description of its accompanying wild mushrooms, bacon, snap peas, and spring garlic emulsion; but there are additional ingredients, including purple basil, piled under the nuggets of meat that made the accompanying concoction taste muddled and bitter. I enjoyed the sweetbreads, but didn't finish the vegetable bed.
The main courses were uniformly successful. Seared Maine scallops ($23) were set atop roasted squash and apples, topped with chestnuts, and coated in a pomegranate glaze. Eight or nine of the little constructions were set out in rows; a generous serving indeed. Delicate Loch Duart salmon ($22), a farm-raised fish with more flavor than most (though I still prefer wild salmon), was grilled and served with a mélange of citrus, faintly licoricey orange-braised fennel, and shreds of opal basil. My own Châteauneuf du Pape braised lamb daube ($23) comprised two large, succulent lumps of meat that fell apart at the touch of a fork. They floated alongside carrots and turnips in a sea of deep, dark sauce lightly perfumed with rosemary oil — we couldn't resist mopping it up with the remains of our side order of crisp pommes frites ($6), which also came with a pot of creamy aioli.
The only drawback to Chez Papa Resto I found, on this weekend night, was that the place was consistently full and seemed to grow more festive and clublike as it got later. Still, we could hear each other converse, and we lingered over two desserts (both $8): a house-made, boozy baba au rhum, the tender cake cut in half and paired with a wonderful pineapple–rum raisin ice cream; and a chocolate dessert featuring a soup-spoonful of chocolate mousse, a tiny flourless chocolate cake, and a ball of chocolate ice cream, all excellent. When my friend hesitated while considering it, our server assured us it wouldn't be too much, and he was right — it almost wasn't enough.
We were surprised to realize when we left that we'd been there almost three hours, not because of any service lapses, but because we were having such a good time. Chez Papa Resto is a bit more stylish and ambitious than its owners Jocelyn Bulow and Marc-Henri Sempere's sister restaurant, the popular Chez Papa Bistrot, an anchor of its Potrero Hill neighborhood since it opened in 2002. And its newly reduced prices (dishes are now between one and three dollars lower than a year ago), as well as its new prix-fixe menus, are tempting reasons to sample its well-prepared modern take on classic French fare.
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