A woman seated somewhere to the left of our table at Cassis Bistro was making repeated — and noisy — reference to Michael Bauer, the Chronicle's food savant and awarder of stars.
“That's him,” she said with the authority conferred by half a bottle of red wine. “Right over there. Michael Bauer.”
I sat, stony-faced, and had a sip of Evian. Surely she didn't mean me. When she went off on some other tangent, I took a discreet glance around for suspicious-looking characters who might be food critics.
But I saw nothing odd. Cassis lacks dark corners for captious people to skulk in. The restaurant is an artful cross between a French country inn and a hip California cafe: trellises on the ceiling, along with track lights; trompe l'oeil of grapevines on a support pillar near the bar, along with a glamorously huge mirror behind it. The dining room's two levels make it seem bigger and airier than it is, and because we were sitting at the last table before the drop-off, I enjoyed a commanding view of those seated below me.
At one table sat, with fussy parents, a small boy who drank milk from a wine goblet. Michael Bauer? Not likely: He would be older than 10, and drinking wine. At the next table, a man and woman deep in conversation regarded one another gravely. For an instant, my glance met the man's before shifting anxiously to the menu in front of me. I felt like a closeted communist in the 1950s.
The restaurant's menu is attractively modest. Each item carries a one-line description of ingredients — enough detail to give a sense of what a dish will taste like without the fulsome recitation of techniques and ingredients that has become increasingly common around here.
For example: Cassis' bill of fare describes La Rossette de Lyon ($4.25) as “warm sausage with a crust.” I had the idea that the plate would hold some sausages that had been cooked long enough in a skillet to caramelize their casings. Or perhaps the sausages would be dipped in some sort of batter and fried.
The dish turned out to be a thick slice of crusty bread in which two stubby rounds of sausage had been inserted, as if they were wide eyes. What kind of bread? Some sort of peasant or country loaf; we didn't know more than that, and we didn't need to. It was good fresh bread, well-suited to the kitchen's purposes.
The sausage, too, was a mystery. It lacked heat or smokiness, but still had been generously seasoned. It also had a fine texture, as if the meat (pork? beef? a combination?) had been passed more than once through the grinder. My friend liked the sauce, which we decided was simply the juice of the meat. It was easily sopped up with the bread. The dish was beautifully self-contained and wasted nothing.
La tarte a l'oignon ($3.75) was a disk of flaky pastry (without edges, fluted or otherwise: a country touch) spread with a thick layer of onion that had been diced and caramelized, giving it the nose-filling sweetness so characteristic of French onion soup. A small flourish of tomato and black olive completed the tart, adding, besides color and texture, a welcome tweak of salt and acid.
There was a bit of a wait for the main courses. The people next to us had been seated later than we had, but they were tucking into their plates before we were. The astonishingly attentive maitre d' acknowledged the problem with a glance, and made amends with a complimentary glass of Cotes du Rhone (the same vintage that had so enlivened the table where Michael Bauer was being discussed). The wine was pleasant if a little thin — not as good as in France, I thought, wondering at the same time if things taste better in France merely because one is in France.
The meat in le fricandeau de veau a l'antiboise ($9.50) was poignantly tender; the cubes of veal seemed to start disintegrating as soon as I touched them with the fork. A pile of rice rose at one edge of the plate, and at the far edge was a helping of ratatouille, the classic eggplant-pepper stew of Provence. In between, the veal lay in its sauce, a reddish-gold, viscous liquid that captured the evanescent flavor of saffron.
But the paillarde de boeuf Arlesienne ($11.50), a butterflied New York steak, while tender and served rare, as ordered, needed salt. In fact it seemed not to have been salted at all. The roasted bell-pepper butter arrived in a generous dollop atop the meat; it melted slowly into a rich sauce, but it didn't solve the salt problem. The sauteed potatoes were perfectly crisp-tender, and on the side was another serving of the tasty ratatouille.
Our plates were cleared, but the man I suspected of being Michael Bauer showed no sign of leaving. He gazed resolutely at the woman on the other side of his table. Our dinner had become a spy mission (could the maitre d' tell what was going on?), and to buy time we ordered dessert.
La creme renversee ($2.75) was a creme caramel with a garnish of strawberries. The custard itself was fine, but the caramel sauce was too runny and lacked the intensely concentrated flavor of this dish at its best. The thicker and more syrupy the caramel, the better the flavor will be; I could tell just by dabbing my fork in the sauce that it was likely to disappoint.
The gateau Cassis ($4.50) was a slice of almost fudgelike chocolate cake — moist and dense enough to satisfy the most hard-core chocolate nut. The twist was the light pastry cream, which looked and tasted like crme anglaise, rich but not too sweet.
Cassis doesn't take credit cards (as an awkward little sticker on the menu announces), so I held myself hostage while my friend went out in search of a cash machine. It makes no sense for a restaurant not to accept plastic, but Cassis is so good — such a deft blending of Old World and New, in setting and food — that it's actually worth the bother of paying cash to eat there.
As for the Michael Bauer suspect: We were careful not to be caught speculating about one another again. Food writers' code of silence? The maitre d' smiled at me and said, “Au revoir!” If he knew anything, he wasn't telling.
Cassis Bistro, 2120 Greenwich St., S.F., 292-0770. Tues-Thurs 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat 5:30-10:30 p.m.