Steeped in chic

Bistro M seduces with a glamorous setting, a celebrity chef and a surplus of California-accented French cuisine

Remember that Woody Allen movie where the train full of beautiful, expensively dressed and well-coifed people, laughing and quaffing champagne, passes the train of squat dullards?

We felt like we were definitely on the wrong train when we arrived at Bistro M, Michel Richard's stylish new restaurant, one rainy winter evening. We made our way apologetically past the long-limbed blonds cluttering the entryway and spilling out of the bar. Dripping wet and with glasses fogging up, we accepted it as our due when we were led to a table in semi-Siberia. (The true Siberia, we later learned, was the low-ceilinged room behind the maitre d' podium.)

But we gamely pressed on, buoyed by the occasion, a semi-annual reunion of old friends, and by an opening glass of Taitinger champagne ($8.50 a pop but, under the circumstances, absolutely necessary). We started feeling better still when we found out the front-of-the-house revelers were there for a Gap office party; they were supposed to look young, spirited and insouciant — it's their job.

And Bistro M is such a lovely room, even in semi-Siberia. Long and spacious, with soft peach walls and Palladian windows, and tables spaced well apart, the dining room is dominated by a strangely tilted mural that — after much craning of necks — you finally realize depicts San Francisco. Even squat dullards start feeling charming after time spent in such surroundings. By the end of our meal, the only other couple in our section, wearing what appeared to be Banlon shirts, had started looking very good indeed.

Bistro M is celebrity chef Richard's newest baby — his L.A. first-born, Citrus, has spawned four other eateries. He has also cooked with Julia on TV, but at this point who hasn't? (The way the still-embarrassing TV Food Network, unavailable in the Bay Area, is gobbling up foodies, there's scarcely a person left holding a whisk who hasn't had his or her 15 minutes.)

If our waiter was representative, the service at Bistro M is impeccable. When asked about signature dishes, he promptly recommended the mushroom feuilletŽ ($10), plump shiitakes and chanterelles in puff pastry with a pool of heavenly cream sauce, and the ziti oxtail terrine ($17), an unusual presentation featuring a circle of melt-in-your-mouth shredded oxtail surrounded by standing-up ziti and winter vegetables. They were, indeed, the star dishes of the evening.

Crunchy escargot (dipped in cornmeal) in parsley sauce ($9) needed a bit more garlic; the fresh corn polenta that accompanied the sautŽed foie gras ($15) was divine, but the foie gras a bit undercooked.

Lamb shank Moroccan style ($16) was accompanied by couscous french fries that sounded better than they tasted, but the lamb was fall-apart tender and hinted of saffron and orange. Crispy whitefish (I'm a sucker for menu descriptions that say crispy or crunchy) was served with a lovely pearl-shaped pasta in a lobster sauce, the fish fresh and perfectly cooked.

By the time dessert rolled around and one of our party ordered the dessert crépes (a rube-ish choice), I was feeling too good to protest. And — surprise — they were exquisite, served with homemade vanilla-bean ice cream and a citrus-berry sauce. The chocolate mousse bržlŽe, with its crunchy burnt-sugar top, was good, but if you feel like messing around with chocolate and creme brulue, save it for Bistro Roti's black-and-white version.

A word on price. I remember when Rosalie's opened on Van Ness in the mid-'80s and everybody went and ordered up $16 appetizers like mad, kvelling over the galvanized palm trees, canvas dummies thrown around the room (this is true — I was there) and socialites behaving badly. Well that was then. With appetizers averaging $9.50 and entrŽes running from $16-$22 (the one exception being homemade chicken sausage for $13.50), this place ain't cheap. And although it's fun while it's happening, when it's all over you feel both a little bit ashamed and at the same time wish you'd been a bit more cosseted — a la Fleur de Lys or Masa's — for the price.

A great alternative to the full-blown dinner extravangza is sitting at the bar, which we found delightfully uncrowded one Saturday night. There you can pick and choose from the full menu and not feel like a chump for spending under $50 for two. We enjoyed the best crab cakes in town (full of large pieces of crab), a house-made duck terrine and a glass of by-this-time-traditional Taitinger, while chatting with bartender extraordinaire Michael Boleri. He told us he preferred the crowd at Bistro M to Postrio, where he used to work, making us feel very much in the know for having chosen so wisely.

Bistro M, 55 Fifth St, S.F., 543-5554. Open daily 6:30-10:30 am, 11:30-2:30 pm and 5:30-10:30 pm.

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