Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: L'Ardoise Bistro
Reviewed L'Ardoise Bistro: Saturday, April 17, 2010
If I could have a choice for my very last meal on earth, it would be a dinner at L'Ardoise. Ever since this gem of a restaurant opened its doors a few years ago on charming, tree-lined Noe Street near Duboce Park, I have been experiencing pure dining bliss.
Every element about this place spells unpretentious charm. The outside front façade of the restaurant resembles an old-school Parisian bistro, the kind that you find tucked away in some charming residential neighborhood -- far from the touristy spots -- where one might stumble upon it on a cold, rainy day and have a heart-warming meal. Call me a hopeless romantic, but this place couldn’t be dreamier. I remember the first time I went there, the food was so good, we ended up exchanging plates with a table of complete strangers tseated next to us, just so we could all taste EVERYTHING on the menu -- we were loving it that much!
Upon arrival, you are immediately greeted by a friendly host who escorts you to your table. He then discreetly tells the server who you are, so that when the server gets to your table, he’s warmly welcoming you by name, which sets the tone for a great experience to come.
The last time I dined there, it was a Saturday night. The place was busy, but not loud. I remember telling our server that we weren’t at all in a hurry, so he made sure we weren't the least bit rushed and were done with our courses before he asked us if we were ready for the next one. His timeliness and discretion were key and, as a result, we enjoyed a seamless progression of our meal. The breadbasket was filled three times and very quickly. Our wine was a Cabernet Franc, from Beaucanon vineyards in France. We chose the bottle on a whim, not knowing what to expect, and it turned out to be just exquisite and very complementary with our food.
As for the food, I guess we were craving goat cheese; we ordered two items that featured that ingredient. First, we had the goat cheese and artichoke special appetizer: a warm heart of artichoke sitting in the middle of the plate, surrounded by crumbled goat cheese. The goat cheese was peppered with some lovely spice that complemented the artichoke perfectly. Next was the goat cheese appetizer from the regular menu: a crusted goat cheese block, surrounded by an arugula salad that cleansed the palate and made for a very well-rounded dish.
But the real magic of the L’Ardoise kitchen begins to reveal itself with the arrival of the main courses. My partner ordered a filet mignon with tarragon butter that almost had the consistency of cotton candy. Rich with what we believe to be a red wine broth, it has got to be one of the best steaks I have ever had. Lots of bread was used to dip into the broth after the steak was consumed. The other star was the duck leg confit, which had so much flavor and fall-off-the-bone tenderness, it was hard to decide which entrée choice was better. There is something about the uniqueness of the sauces at L’Ardoise that elevates the dishes into new heights and infuses them with such great flavor; something I have not encountered anywhere else. If only there was a way to bottle and sell those sauces, they’d be worth their weight in gold!
We savored every bite and took our time dining and enjoying the ambiance and had great conversations and thus, we had more room for dessert. A flourless chocolate cake sounded very appropriate to round out a bistro-style meal, so we opted for that, along with some coffee, which was great and tasted fresh. I always say that the only problem with flourless chocolate cakes is that they make them too small! Every bite makes you want more, until you realize there is no more to be had, and that, alas, also signifies the end of an enchanted meal.
I told our server how happy we were with our dinner and asked him to send our regards and compliments to the chef. He then proposed -- much to our delight -- that he take us inside the kitchen so we could tell the chef in person how we felt! What a treat! Chef was very sweet and humbly accepted our accolades and sincerely asked us to return again soon.
In closing, I plan for my L’Ardoise dinners weeks in advance, and that gives me something to look forward to, as I know that each and every time, I am going to have an unforgettable experience.
Occupation: Courts Policy Analyst
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Manor Coffee Shop
Reviewed L'Ardoise Bistro: Saturday, April 17, 2010
San Francisco is a city blessed with quite a few neighborhood French bistros. Because of all this competition, attention to detail is critical in order to rise above the crowd. L’Ardoise does many things right, but it is the details, mostly in terms of food, where this Duboce Triangle bistro needs to improve in order to get more than just neighborhood denizens to return.
The interior of L’Ardoise is delightful, with many decorative details done right. A warm, rich red permeates the space that, for years, was Thai House 2, with striped shades on the lamps and the eponymous "l’ardoise," or "blackboard," that gives the restaurant its name. The restaurant makes maximum use of its space, although somehow, even though it is tight, it does not feel claustrophobic. However, the noise level can be high with a full house like on the night we went, making normal conversation difficult.
The restaurant’s relatively small size did present a challenge, but also demonstrated the helpful level of service available at L’Ardoise. I wanted a reservation for 6, and Open Table said I would have to wait 8 weeks, even though I was trying with a couple of weeks to spare. I called the restaurant and they said they could get me in at 6:30 on a Saturday night. I then tried to push my luck and called that Saturday afternoon to see if they could accommodate 2 more. The restaurant was reluctant to say no, promised to call if there were any cancellations before our reservation time, and even offered (albeit with a dubious tone) to seat 8 of us at the table for 6. I was thankful I had picked up on that clue when I arrived because our 6 was already a little snug, whereas with 8 it would have been like being in a clown car.
The good service extended to our waitperson. After she reeled off the specials with a charming hint of Gallic accent, we ordered one of the pricier Bordeaux from the short but varied wine list. It turned out to be balanced and yummy, and we ended up getting two more bottles to accompany our meal. I also appreciated that when we were ordering, our waitperson -- when asked which of two choices she preferred -- had emphatic opinions and endorsements, rather than the typical response of, "I like everything," or, “"It depends on what you want." Well, duh.
It is when the food arrived, however, that the unevenness and lack of attention to detail started to be noticeable. Really good bistro cooking makes remarkable flavors come out of pretty basic ingredients, so if there are only two or three things on the plate, then those two or three things have to be executed pretty well, or the gaps show through. The plates at L’Ardoise tended to muster up a "best 2 out of 3" result.
I started with the Tiger prawn ravioli with sauce vierge, a beautiful looking dish redolent with the smell of dill that tasted fresh and spring-like. Other standout starters were the creamy duck foie gras terrine (apologies to Ross Mirkarimi), served with marmalade, sea salt, pine nuts, and a dense, almost cake-like, toasted brioche that was delicious, and the relatively simple but tasty salad with goat cheese and baked apple crouton. The special appetizer also featured goat cheese stuffed in an artichoke heart with white anchovies on a bed of arugula.
This unexpected combination of ingredients worked well, and the greens were nicely dressed. The greens in the butter lettuce salad with white anchovies and smoked olive oil were also well-dressed, but as for the evocative sounding olive oil, perhaps the smoky flavor had already wafted away or was too overwhelmed by the anchovies to be detectable. As for the charcuterie plate, it represented unevenness in a single dish. The housemade rosemary pâté was flavorful and intense, and the accompanying dates were lightly pickled in vinegar, giving them a revelatory sweet-savory character. Unfortunately most of the hard sausages did not live up to the date condiment’s standard, being bland and under-seasoned, as was the house made duck rillette -- all rough texture and little flavor, which is not a pleasant combination when it comes to ground meats.
Seasoning was also an issue with the duck confit, so much so that we even searched the table for a salt shaker (quel horreur!), which was absent from the table in that annoying, our-chef’s-palate-is-not-to-be-trifled-with way of some restaurants. Even more striking was how dry a piece of meat -- that spends most of its time covered in fat as the duck does -- could be. The potatoes Landaise that came with the duck were great -- sort of halfway between a potato chip and a scalloped potato slice -- and fried lightly crisp on the outside (probably in that duck fat), tender and moist on the inside. They come as a separate side dish. Get them.
I had halibut, served with green peas and their shoots and lobster sauce, served on pureed potatoes. This sounds like it could verge on rich and heavy, but it was executed with a light touch and was seasonally delectable. The rest of our entrees tended to repeat the seesaw dynamic of the confit. The Crispy Skin Chicken Breast with Potato Puree, Spinach, and Roasted Garlic brought tasty, moist chicken and nice crispy skin as promised, and the sauce was very nice; could have used more of it. The potatoes and spinach, however, were merely serviceable. As for the salmon, it was served on what is best described as an arugula mush and was overall forgettable.
Two fellow diners also had the rib-eye steak special with buerre maître d’hôtel, and that staple of all bistros, the hanger steak with Saint-Émilion sauce. Both were served with frites. The frites were bistro-worthy, and the steaks were flavorful. However, they mixed up the cooking temperatures on the two dishes: the rib-eye came out medium rather than the requested rare, and the hanger steak was very rare rather than medium. Aside from being a huge pet peeve, this kind of mix-up should not happen at a restaurant of this caliber, in that if the meat is sent back the entire meal is disrupted, because some people are eating while others are waiting. My friends did not send it back and were flexible enough to enjoy it, but still. That is a pretty big detail to miss.
The dessert list is pretty limited and standard issue bistro fare. That being said, the tarte Tatin was one of the best I’ve had; the apple slices velvety smooth and scrumptious. The vanilla bean crème brûlée had excellent flavor, but a wider and shallower bowl would allow more surface area for more brûlée. The more innovative dessert on offer was the chocolate-banana bread pudding, and it was a disappointment. Rather than identifiable pieces of bread and banana with chocolate, the texture was more like that of an English boiled pudding with everything cooked together into one mass -- almost like an overcooked molten chocolate cake with no chocolate lava. Surprisingly, the banana flavor, usually an intense and forward taste, was almost indiscernible. As for the accompanying coffees, the regular was good, but the decaffeinated was terrible, having been cooked down and burned by being left on the hot plate too long. There’s the devil in those details again.
All in all, L’Ardoise has a great atmosphere for a not-so-quiet romantic dinner or a group outing without too many friends. It is a great asset to the neighborhood. With all of the other bistro choices available, I’m just not sure I would leave my neighborhood to make a special trip to go there.
Occupation: Retired Cooking Teacher
Location: Walnut Creek
Favorite Restaurant: Sichuan Fortune House
Reviewed L'Ardoise Bistro: Thursday, April 15, 2010
I went to L'Ardoise last night. (Thursday at 6:30.) We had a reservation for 5. My girlfriend and I were shopping most of the late afternoon, and we were both tired. When we got to the restaurant, she really wanted a cup of coffee right away. They already had a table ready for us and they kept her coffee cup filled through the entire meal.
We started off with the Tiger prawn ravioli, which was to die for. The light cream sauce was just enough and did not smother the raviolis, which were tender and tasty. If I go back, I would get a double order and have that for the entree!
For my entree, I opted to try the seared halibut with mashed potatoes and vegetables (fava beans, spinach, and pea sprouts). The fished was cooked perfectly, but I find that it lacked seasoning -- I think they forgot the salt and pepper! Also, I realize the dish is comprised of mostly soft food -- fish, fava beans, and spinach -- so, it needed some contrast in texture. The pea sprout had a coarse and chewy texture that overpowered the fish. They did not quite meld together, so when I ate both at the same time, I would end up still chewing away at the sprouts while the fish was long gone. It's like eating ice cream with a chewy and stale cone.
Another entree was beef stroganoff with mashed potato. The sauce was nice and delicious, but the beef stew meat was dry.
There were three other entrees. One was the filet mignon, which was cooked perfectly, and the accompanying sliced potato had a rich and bacon-y flavor. I would not mind having a side of that alone! Finally, the mushroom in puff pastry was a crowd pleaser. That was the only vegetarian entree of the entire menu.
I noticed spinach was the vegetable for the day -- it was in every one of our entrees except the stroganoff! Maybe the chef had a good deal on spinach that week.
We shared three desserts: crème brûlée, tarte Tatin, and chocolate bread pudding in banana sauce. They were OK.
The terra cotta colored walls and the soft lighting afford a cozy feeling. The tables were VERY close together, which can be a good thing or annoying, depending on the people sitting next to you. We were given a table right next to the door, but they had a heavy curtain in front of the door, so we did not feel the opening of the door nor the draft. Clever idea. The waitstaff was very professional, friendly, and helpful.
Oh, I have to say something about the bread. It came in small loafs that had been sliced. It's crusty and chewy. We really loved the texture, and they constantly filled our baskets with more bread and pats of butter. We couldn't stop eating it!
The average bill was $50. One person in our group had a glass of wine. The rest had coffee.
There are enough of pluses for me to recommend the restaurant. I would go back for certain items.