My Heart Belongs to Zazie

941 Cole (between Carl and Parnassus), 564-5332. Open Monday through Friday for breakfast and lunch 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., weekends 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 9:30 p.m., Friday to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Aisles are too narrow for wheelchair access. Reservations taken for parties of six or more. Heated back patio, weather permitting. Parking: C'est horrible at night; daytime easier with one-hour meters. Muni: N Judah, 6, 37, 43, 66. Sound level: comfortable.

Sometimes you feel like dressing up and going out on the town. Other times you just want to kick back and have a meal — but one with more interesting flavors than you'll find at chain restaurants like Pluto and Pomodoro.

That's what good neighborhood bistros are all about. After last week's steakathon (crowds! martinis! loud male bonding! dead cows!), my soul longed for Zazie. At the foot of Twin Peaks, Cole Valley is a sweet little quarter populated by UC medical school staff and long-ago hippies who moved south from the Haight for a quieter life. The restaurant is right across the street from Cole Hardware, the neighborhood landmark and unofficial community center.

Zazie is named for the heroine of Zazie Dans Le Metro, Louis Malle's 1960 comedy (from a story by poet Raymond Queneau) about a 12-year-old's adventures on the Paris subway. And like a modern Parisian subway car, the storefront restaurant is long and narrow, crowded and quiet. The room seems airy despite its small size; service is friendly and the atmosphere is warm and relaxed. Although Zazie doesn't take reservations (except for large parties), if you get there by 7:45 you can usually walk in and sit right down. (Weekend brunches are a different story.)

In decent weather (when it stops raining, kids) you can sidle past the kitchen to eat on the heated backyard patio. The menu changes slightly each day; although it offers dishes from several nations (Italy, Hungary, Morocco, et al.), the cooking is always Provencal French, with layers of flavor upon flavor, and palpable respect for fresh, seasonal produce.

We entered single file, followed by the hostess, who bore an armful of baguettes (perhaps from the Tassajara Bakery a half-block away). It was a good thing, too, that she brought in the bread, because our appetizer of mussels mariniere ($7) was just made for dunking. The mussels are listed among the “small plates,” which aren't small at all. Some two dozen plump black bivalves were heaped in a tureen, dripping their juices into the classic silky sauce of white wine, saffron, and a little tomato. If you order this as one of several appetizers, eat it first, as its flavors are subtlest and the “dunks” prime your palate to start paying attention.

We enjoyed the lush, vibrant flavors of flawlessly roasted eggplant ($6), three large slices in a fleur-de-lis arrangement. Marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the satiny slices were scattered with crumbled feta cheese and rose from a base of julienne-cut marinated roasted red peppers and coarse-chopped fresh basil. Roasted mushrooms ($5), succulent but firm, were aggressively seasoned with salt, black pepper, garlic, cayenne, and parsley, and perhaps soy sauce and balsamic to boot, each flavor taking its turn at the forefront as we chewed. At my table, there were votes on both sides as to whether the intense seasoning was exhilarating or exhausting. Both these dishes and several more are included in a well-assorted main-course vegetarian plate ($10). Vegetable lovers will be happy here.

In fact, in several main courses the flora outshone the fauna they accompanied. I was shocked to discover that I like turnips, and my companions were equally surprised. None of us had ever enjoyed these pungent roots, but Zazie's kitchen had magicked them into a suave puree with the lumpy-smooth texture of good homemade mashed potatoes. They accompanied “seared ahi” ($14) that seemed to be neither seared nor ahi, but was flavorful despite truth-in-labeling violations. (All over town, menus are calling every sort of pink tuna “ahi,” just because we've all gotten so hooked on it in sushi bars.) I think Zazie's ahi was probably hamachi (yellowtail) — lighter, leaner, and a little dryer, but a nice piece of fish if you don't expect something raw, rich, and red. The pale exterior and moist, pastel-pink interior spoke of gentle pan-cooking (rather than searing); the accompaniment was a delicious lemon-garlic “aioli” (actually, a light-textured house-made mayo). The beauty of the combination did not, however, lie in the eye of the beholder, but on the palate, since the composition was perversely monochromatic, all-white like Victorian invalids' food. But carefully hidden under the fish fillet was a colorful medley of yellow and green beans, red pepper, and baby carrots.

Duck “winter style” ($16), based on a Gascon classic, was glazed to a gleaming mahogany, and scattered with brown and orange plumped dried fruits and dark ovals of grilled zucchini, all resting on a golden bed of couscous. Under its faintly sweet glaze the bird was totally greaseless, while the exuberant couscous mingled unexpected bits of crunch and blasts of sweetness from muscat raisins, currants, caramelized onion, and firm diced carrots, all lightly moistened by the duck's subtle wine sauce. A juicy French-cut double pork chop ($14), speckled with a heavy rub of black pepper and fresh sage leaves, held an alluring stuffing of sweet port wine compote. Alongside were braised red cabbage (quite vinegary, in the German manner), the same sprightly vegetable medley as the fish, and a mound of salty, coarsely mashed potatoes with no perceptible butter or milk. From the latter's surface rose the powerful musk of a strong sage au jus reduction, which seemed a rather strange match (or mismatch) for the spuds.

Since Zazie serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the beverage list offers a wide range of quaffs, including French cider ($3.50), mimosas ($4), and citron presse ($2), a do-it-yourself lemonade of straight lemon juice and sugar to combine at will. There's also Chimay ($4.50), a fruity-tasting Belgian ale. The affordable wine list (with ample choices in the high teens and low 20s) is mainly Californian, and includes Bonny Doon's amusing Vin Gris de Cigare rose, plus one imported Chianti and a few French bottlings (a Cote de Rhone, a Lurton pays d'Oc merlot). Almost all the bottles are available by the glass ($4-6), which at Zazie means a jelly glass. (Although they're not well-designed for inhaling vinous aromas, jelly glasses are probably less likely than stemware to get knocked off the small, tightly spaced tables.)

Pears are currently at their peak season, so the dessert menu bore a windfall of them. Upside-down pear ginger cake ($6) was as moist and chewy as a brownie; it came with slightly hard baked pear halves and a scoop of superb vanilla-bean ice cream drizzled with caramel sauce. But a pear charlotte ($6) tasted like a mad experiment gone awry: If dessert is a sweet course, this was a sour course, with pears and ladyfingers macerated in lime juice and swathed in very tart, unsweetened creme fra”che — something like a creamy version of citron presse, hold the sugar. (Had we arrived one night earlier, we could have had a chocolate-orange charlotte instead.)

Although dishes like this reflect some debatable culinary decisions, the complexity of flavor that's a constant here satisfies that craving for something special — something a little more engaging than whatever we might cook at home. Almost every San Francisco neighborhood has some “cute little neighborhood place”; Cole Valley is singularly fortunate to have Zazie.

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