Salmon Gravlax; Bacon-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin with Chestnut Purée and Brussels Sprouts; Trio of Lemon Tart, Chocolate Shake, Passion Fruit Parfait/Strawberry Pot de Crème
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Chapeau!
Reviewed Chapeau!: Thursday, December 8, 2005
What makes someone want to return to a restaurant? In the Bay Area, the competition is fierce and the clientele is sophisticated and savvy. Aside from food, atmosphere, and service, a restaurant needs an extra something going for it to inspire customer loyalty. For me that extra something is: Does this restaurant make me feel welcome and special for having chosen to dine there? The husband and wife owners of Chapeau! have mastered this skill.
Ellen and Philippe Gardelle have owned and run this restaurant for eight years. Located on a quiet section of Clement Street just west of Park Presidio in San Francisco, it is a small neighborhood bistro that seats around thirty-five people. The walls are covered with fanciful murals featuring, of course, hats. Philippe used to employ chefs to run the kitchen but later decided that he wanted more control over the food. Now he designs and executes his own menus based on the food he grew up with in the south of France.
On my visit (12/8/05) I arrived with a companion for my 5:30PM reservation to a nearly full restaurant. We decided to order off the early bird menu ($21.25): a three-course prix fixe special that is offered from 5-6PM Sunday - Thursday. You have a choice of four different appetizers, main courses, and desserts from the main menu.
For starters we were served an amuse bouche: a rich, amazingly complex squash soup served in a demitasse cup. My first course was the Smoked Trout Salad ($9.50 on the main menu). The salad consisted of fingerling potatoes marinated in an anchovy dressing, topped with pieces of smoked freshwater trout, beside a small mound of mâche dressed in a brightly-flavored, slightly sweet lemon vinaigrette. Each of the elements complemented the other with the sweet salad greens a nice foil for the salty trout. The potatoes in anchovy dressing added a comfort element. My companion had the Duo of Salmon ($8.50 on the regular menu with the addition of salmon caviar). The salmon -- in both gravlax and smoked forms -- was complemented by fried capers and chopped, cooked egg.
My main course was the Bacon-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin ($18 - regular menu) with chestnut purée and shaved Brussels sprouts. The pork was moist and smoky with the right amount of pinkness in the center. Though not a fan of Brussels sprouts, these were blanched, thinly-sliced, and sweet with an appealing crispness. The chestnut purée rounded out the flavors and added a nice seasonal touch. My dinner companion had the traditional Coq au Vin ($18 - regular menu). The wine sauce was properly savory and the chicken, tender and well braised. It was delicious, but I was happy with my dish.
For dessert I chose the Lemon Tartelette ($7 - regular menu), which was actually three desserts: a creamy lemon tart, a small strawberry pot de crème, and a miniature chocolate milk shake. The combination was playful with each element well done. My companion had the Trio of Sorbet ($7 - regular menu), served with a hazelnut basket filled with fruit compote. The sorbets (raspberry, lemon, and lime) were intensely flavored with refreshing acidity. For wine we chose a bottle of the Stuhmuller Chardonnay 2004 ($40) from the Napa Valley. The wine was rich, nicely-balanced and went well with our food.
Service is friendly and communal with three or four different people waiting on your table during the course of the evening. Depending on when you go, the service can be slow and the tables are so close together that you’ll be tempted to steal a bite of your neighbor's food. Philippe handles the wine service. He is knowledgeable and his wine list is extensive and one of the most user-friendly in the city. In addition to the usual organization into reds and whites, there are also helpful subcategories like "best wines for under $28." There are also twenty-one wines available in half bottles and another dozen available by the glass. To the delight of wine snobs, the proper glass accompanies each wine so that Burgundies are poured in Burgundy glasses, etc.
Price-wise, Chapeau! is a bargain. In addition to the early bird menu discussed earlier, the regular menu offers food that is as good as or better than that of many “destination” French restaurants at about half the cost. Finally, the warmth and personal attention Ellen and Philippe give their customers makes you feel like you’re having dinner with friends rather than having a meal out. You want to return.
Occupation: Information Systems Analyst
Favorite Restaurant: Ninna Restaurant
Reviewed Chapeau!: Thursday, December 8, 2005
Chapeau is a small cozy restaurant. I arrived in time to enjoy the early bird menu, which is an excellent value. The prix fixe menu gives you several choices between salads or appetizers, entrees, and desserts. For a moment, I thought that we would not be seated. Even though there was only one couple there when we arrived, the waiter asked us to wait while he determined if they could take us. We had not made reservations. I felt slightly daunted. Still, throughout our meal, the restaurant did not fill up, even though a group of eight people arrived to celebrate a birthday.
Chef and owner Philippe Gardelle and his wife Helen, make a point of being interactive with patrons. Servers are highly attentive, almost hovering. With the birthday party underway, and with the restaurant being so small, the place was very noisy and loud.
I was delighted by the lagniappe serving of puréed cauliflower soup drizzled with white truffle oil. The flavor was delicate and addictive. The mesclun salad was fine, as was the coq au vin with potato purée, bacon, and red wine. The chicken was tender and fell off the bone. Dessert was another high point. The profiteroles looked decadent, although I opted for the plate of small desserts: lemon tart, chocolate milkshake, and a creamy passion fruit parfait. The small desserts were cute and tasty. The lemon tart filling had the consistency and flavor of lemon curd, while the shell seemed to have been ready made. This was a light dessert that is perfect if you’ve had a heavy entrée. We were also treated to a serving of the trio of sorbet dessert, which was lime, passion fruit, and red wine. I loved the red wine sorbet. It had a rich flavor that was refreshing and fruity.
As we left, Chef Gardelle walked my friend and me out. There had been a stressful experience as we were first being seated. We were initially seated in a very good location (to me), but my friend, who is a very large woman, seemed to be in the way of the wait staff. The waiter moved us to another table. He then asked my friend to scoot up so that potential patrons who would sit at a table behind her would have room. There were no patrons seated at that table behind her the entire evening, however. With the tables being so close, I wondered how they would accommodate wheelchairs. My companion was highly insulted by this incident, but Gardelle's extra care went a long way toward assuaging her indignation. Gardelle states that he works hard to provide a place where people can come and have good food. His hospitality certainly makes patrons feel special. I was impressed that he paid enough attention and cared enough to make an extra effort to mollify my friend and address her issues.
I think the incident with seating us distracted me, so my enjoyment may have been less than it could have been otherwise. I became concerned about my friend and had a difficult time focusing on the meal. I was tense throughout dinner because my friend was unhappy. The seating incident made me feel like I was in the way. I would recommend this restaurant to people who are going to be in the area. For me, the drive is just too long when there are a few fine French bistros in Oakland. Even so, I don’t think there are many places that would give you the personal attention and care that you get at Chapeau.
Occupation: Director of Media
Favorite Restaurant: Red Sea Restaurant
Reviewed Chapeau!: Tuesday, December 4, 2005
My friend and I were having an early dinner at Chapeau to take advantage of their $21-prix fixe, early bird menu. Being from Oakland, I don’t go out to the Avenues much, but Chapeau is a definite destination. Great marketing on the early bird — the place was jammed by 6PM. The spirit was convivial in a bit of contrast with the impeccably formal and white tablecloth service. The person having the best time was the chef/owner himself, working the room as per his reputation, greeting me as if he’d known me for years, and shaking the hands of numerous patrons who were clearly his regulars.
The menu reads like a dream — although even a veteran food groupie like me was taken aback at the coq au vin, which was described as being prepared with rooster. Rooster. I know coq au vin is technically rooster with wine, but I’d never seen it described that way on a menu. (I selected pig instead.) I chose salmon two ways for an appetizer, and pork loin for the main course. My friend had squash soup to begin and arctic char for her main. Dessert was profiteroles and a combo assortment of a mini chocolate milkshake, a strawberry custard, and a lemon tart. The wine list is extraordinary for a restaurant this size, and I loved the fact that I could have half a glass of a crisp, Alsatian Pinot Blanc with my salmon and a glass of Bordeaux with the pork. And, oh la la, the stemware is luxurious — wine DOES taste better in fancy glasses.
For me, the food at Chapeau is expertly prepared but missing the “wow.” It’s like when you take a bite of something you are trying for the first time, pause to really get the full effect, and then exclaim, “Wow, this is the best blah-de-blah I’ve EVER had.” I couldn’t say that about anything at this meal. Everything at Chapeau was very good -- a high quality product, expertly cooked and beautifully presented by efficient staff members. But the place was missing a little bit of the joy of the meal (I think it got lost in the formality of the service), and the plates were lacking the inspiration/passion clearly present in the chef himself. The pork was tender and flavorful, arranged on a bed of chestnut purée with a chiffonade of Brussels sprouts. Every bite was delicious. The smoked salmon lacked flavor, and the chopped egg and crispy capers (a little burnt) weren’t enough to make the dish a transformative experience. The squash soup was excellent, a hint of autumnal sweetness, a drizzle of crème fraîche, and a smattering of lightly toasted croutons made each spoonful memorable. The arctic char was nicely grilled, served on a bed of diced potatoes, cranberries, and a few other yummy tidbits. I’m not a big fan of fruit with meat/fish, but this dish had elegant restraint in its preparation and it worked. It just didn’t sing.
The profiteroles were perfectly bathed in velvety chocolate sauce, and I consider chocolate the only true end to a meal. The combination dessert plate was whimsical and fun, down to the paper straw in the mini-milkshake. I liked this plate a lot for its nature as well as its content. The lemon tart in the buttery pastry shell was perfect. The strawberry custard might have been more flavorful during strawberry season, and the chocolate milkshake was outshined by the sauce with the profiteroles. But altogether, the meal was a delight, the room buzzing with good vibes, and the staff working it like a finely-tuned machine. The check is presented in a chapeau, continuing the humor till the end. And in a world where you can exit a restaurant after spending big bucks with no one to say "thank you," there’s nothing like a kiss on both cheeks from the chef as you leave.