I'll forgive a restaurant a lot if it serves great food. Slow service, drafty dining room, ear-splitting noise levels, dingy bathrooms ... all things that I can overlook in service of a fabulous-tasting meal. But I'm rarely willing to do the reverse. A restaurant can be the warm, beating heart of a neighborhood, clearly beloved by its regulars, but if the food is even slightly mediocre I will be quick and merciless in my judgment.
It's good to be reminded of one's prejudices every once in a while, as I was the other night at Le P'tit Laurent, a charming sliver of France in Glen Park which has been serving bistro food to neighborhood regulars for the past seven years. There are certainly better French restaurants in San Francisco; La Folie it is not. But I also don't think it's trying to be. Le P'tit Laurent exists for the community around it, one of those neighborhood places that are excellent in the context of its location, though not necessarily outside of it. The magic of these places is that for the course of a meal you, too, feel like you belong to the community they foster.
The restaurant won me over when I walked in, from the warm greeting of French owner Laurent Legendre, to the homespun walls decorated with vintage metal signs and painted to look like the Eiffel Tower, to the many windows looking out on the fetching urban village that is Glen Park. The dining room was lively, with tables filled with retirees and families with young children — two demographics rarely seen in the scene-y restaurants of the Mission. Everyone seemed to be unself-consciously enjoying themselves. Nary a plate was Instagrammed.
And I was enjoying myself too, caught up in the general good cheer of the restaurant as I shared a bottle of under-$40 rose with friends who lived in the neighborhood. The menu of French classics held a lot of promise, as did the prix fixe "neighborhood menu," a steal at $27 for three courses that change weekly. I eavesdropped on the couple at the table next to us who were celebrating a birthday or anniversary or something; the man had once been a regular but hadn't been back in a while. "I feel like I'm at home," he told Legendre after they embraced. Then he pulled out his iPhone and the two men flipped through photos of his children — a small, genuine moment of intimacy that you never experience at the buzzy places.
It was all very bewitching. Then the appetizers arrived. Some of the food was quite good, like the charred frog legs in a garlic-parsley sauce. The frog drumsticks were light and tender, their meat a cross between crab and chicken, with none of the pond-water muddiness that can come with it. I only wished the salad the meat rested on was more than a lackluster mix of seemingly bagged greens.
The escargot was chewy without being rubbery, bathed in the same fragrant sauce as the frog legs, and tasted mostly of garlic and butter.
But if the frog legs were the high point of the meal, the low was the French onion soup — a disappointment, since good French onion soup can cure most of life's ills. Instead of being a bowl of soup with a bit of cheese on top, this was a bowl of melted cheese with a bit of soup at the bottom. And what broth there was tasted all wrong, too much wine and with none of the rich, beefy, earthy flavors that should come through.
None of the entrees was as disappointing, though they also didn't soar to the heights of great French cuisine. There was a fine rendition of beef bourguignon, that classic French comfort food, with a lush, wine-heavy sauce and properly tender bits of beef. Cassoulet was less successful; the beans were too salty and didn't have the round, full flavor you expect from the slow-simmered casserole, though the duck leg confit was crisp and fat-saturated. And the bouillabaisse wasn't really a soup at all, but a pile of steamed fish in a tomato broth so thick it was more like a sauce.
Dessert brought pain perdu, aka French toast, which was custardy and richly doused in caramel and ice cream, but I'd wager it's even better doused in syrup and butter at the restaurant's Sunday brunch.
So maybe there's not a lot of pull for an outsider to hop on BART to go to Glen Park for dinner, but then again, that's not the point of a neighborhood restaurant like this. They act like anchors in the community, places for families to get together and eat and watch other families, their neighbors, out the windows. Every neighborhood has a restaurant like it; a place "undiscovered" by foodies because they don't put value on what there is to discover. As San Francisco continues its metamorphosis, I wonder if that sense of belonging that only a small neighborhood restaurant can provide will begin to fetch more of a premium.