Aix Marks the Spot

Really good eating at a friendly neighborhood bistro

Practically since my first month in San Francisco, I'd been meaning to take my cousin Erica out for a good French dinner. After eating at Jeanty at Jack's, my aunt turned to me and said, “Erica wants to come here with you for your second meal.” “But this was my second meal!” I wailed, having had a first at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville. In retrospect, the French obsession seems silly; why not invite her and her husband to share German, Cambodian, or Cuban food with me? I'd sampled all of them in the following weeks. But I was stuck on classical French, and as the weeks turned into months, not only did the kind of place I had in mind not materialize, but also the couple of times I tried to make a date the realities of modern living (work, travel, family) intervened. Which means that the road to our French reunion was paved with three years of good intentions.

Recently I came across a wildly positive mention of Bistro Aix in the Marina. Erica had spent her junior year abroad, quite happily, at the University of Aix-en-Provence — how perfect. And how perfect that she and Bill were able to join me a couple of nights later for an early dinner.

How less than perfect that I was uncharacteristically running late, and then running in uncharacteristic high heels from the Wells Fargo lot around the corner, glad to ransom a Marina parking space for $10, in order to greet them breathlessly as they cooled their heels at the bar. And how surprised I was, once we were ensconced at a table in the large heated patio out back, to open the menu for our long-awaited French meal and see tempura-crusted calamari, orecchiette, spaghettini, and cracker crust pizza. Where was I? Even the list of main courses, a scant five, did not restore my sense of equilibrium: grilled hamburger on focaccia, crispy roasted chicken breast, grilled top sirloin, grilled lamb steak, grilled rare ahi tuna. So much grilling: This is what I think of as turn-over cooking. Where was the ratatouille, the daubes of beef or lamb, the coq au vin I was longing for? No mention of herbes de Provence, or lavender? There were eight daily specials listed on an additional page, but again they seemed more Italian than French — gnocchi, risotto, veal Milanese.

Neither Erica nor Bill seemed at all perturbed. They were busy deciding what to eat — once I told them that we all had to order different things, and whoever spoke for an item first would get it. “You snooze, you lose,” my cousin told her mate, after she'd announced her choice of arugula salad followed by grilled tuna. He came up with calamari and grilled lamb. I chose burrata with tomatoes and basil, partly because my companions didn't know the cheese, and partly because I'd been shocked when I was recently offered burrata as an off-the-menu special at a fancy place, both by the $20 price and the information that it was served ungarnished except for oil and cracked pepper. I've had burrata paired with tomatoes, beets, even anchovies, but never on its own, and never — even in New York, even when it was flown in fresh from Italy — at such a lofty price. Aix's price ($10.50) proved irresistible. I've been longing for a juicy, old-fashioned roast chicken lately, but something about the word “crispy” and the fact that the breast was boneless (except for that oddly vestigial-looking leg bone) encouraged me to choose the veal Milanese. (Later, a visit to the bistro's Web site revealed that owner/chef Jonathan Beard, in addition to graduating from the Cordon Bleu in Paris, has also studied Italian cooking in Torino, which explained a lot.)

The kitchen wasn't serving calamari that night (something we should have been told when the server handed us the menus), so Bill switched to a starter of crispy duck confit, happily for me because it seemed among the Frenchiest items on the menu, despite the inclusion of hoisin sauce. My spirits rose with the first taste of our starters. I loved my bite of moist duck confit, served in a little casserole atop stewed lentils, and also my taste of Erica's big bright salad, snappy organic arugula strewn with sections of clementine, slivers of manchego cheese, and toasted almonds, all slicked with Tuscan olive oil. My nice-sized chunk of burrata — its mozzarellalike skin spilling its buttery, creamy filling onto the plate — was surrounded by sliced tomatoes that actually had some flavor (despite the season), fragrant torn basil, and a touch of olive oil. We cleaned our plates, sopping up any juices with the house-baked focaccia and baguette.

“I thought the name of the place was Bistro X,” Erica confided, and maybe I would have been less startled with the menu if it had been. Under any name, our main courses were just plain good. Several juicy chunks of lamb with a lovely cheesy potato gratin, sauteed fresh spinach with plenty of garlic, and a benediction of rosemary-flavored jus were nearly consumed by Bill before Erica and I nabbed a bite; what I tasted was as delicious as it could be. A number of rosy-hearted slices of ahi ringed a hillock of garlic mashed potatoes with a light red wine sauce and crispy fried spinach. My large portion of nicely fried tender veal topped with arugula salad was adorned with slivered wild mushrooms. We washed it all down with a $35 bottle of Bordeaux Superieur, which contributed to my sense of ease and good will. Bill complained a tiny bit about his rather unyielding aluminum garden seat (Erica and I perched on a wooden bench along the wall), but we were having a swell time, which continued through the good rustic apple pie with Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce and the lovely crème fraîche panna cotta decorated with candied kumquat slices and strawberry wedges.

When I returned a week later with Peter, I knew the drill, and we got what I expected: not overly ambitious food, but a meal that pleased us in every particular. We selected from the nightly bargain-priced prix fixe, a choice of two appetizers and two entrees, which in essence means you get a free starter for the $18.95 price of your main course. Peter picked the grilled top sirloin, and this time I went for the crispy chicken breast. I loved the cannellini bean soup of the day, its mild broth fragrant with lots of slivered garlic, fennel, and a touch of basil pesto; for $1.40, Peter added a nice-sized round of breaded goat cheese, melting under its crust, to his mesclun greens in a tarragon vinaigrette. Emboldened by our savings, we split a pizza of the day before our entrees; the crisp cracker crust is not our favorite style, but the toppings — chunks of applewood smoked bacon, leeks, broccolini, and aged Swiss — tasted wonderful together.

Once again the food was very good indeed: tasty sliced steak slicked with a hint of melting maître d'hôtel butter accompanied by thin frites that could have been a tiny bit crisper and a pile of nicely bitey watercress; tasty chicken that could have been a tiny bit juicier served with perfectly cooked baby red potatoes, perfectly cooked haricots verts, and a little chicken jus that brought everything together. Classic food, carefully prepared. Behind us a table of five was enjoying a meal that ranged from burgers for the little ones to an enticing chunk of halibut with grilled asparagus and Meyer lemon aioli for the grown-ups. We lingered over a glass of Sauternes and a crème brülee with thin aniseed cookies. It wasn't quite the French bistro I expected, but after two pleasant meals, I was happy with Bistro Aix exactly as it was — and not surprised that every seat in the house was filled.

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