We can't get away from it: America's language of food epiphany is French. Or rather, Frenglish. You know, like "navarin of Niman lamb" which takes a brand with local cachet and dresses it up in culinary French couture. It promises pedigreed ingredients prepared by techniques every bit as pure as the raw materials. Problems arise, however, when those techniques falter. I mean, what's so special about a "navarin" if what shows up at the table is clunky Irish stew? A restaurant has to deliver on the epiphany or the whole exercise can seem fatally pretentious.
In Kensington, a chef with a rare fluency in both vernaculars is trying out her Frenglish, or Franglais, if you prefer, in a space that has had its problems with dinner. If Robin Valerie Low can't pull off a French-laden menu cooked with local ingredients, it probably can't be done. Not in Kensington, anyway.
On March 1, the 35-year-old chef launched Post Meridian, a five-nights-a-week dinner service at the Kensington Bistro. Bistro owner Lynn Sullivan had deep-sixed the restaurant's own dinner service last November. She and her two sons acquired the split-level cafe space back in 2001, a charmer with an exterior tricked out in 1920s storybook stucco, complete with turret. Since then, she's tried to nail the restaurant's brunch, lunch, and dinner mix.
The Sullivans built their rep on brunch, solidifying a neighborhood around weekend mornings at nearby Kensington Pub (a kitchen they subleased before picking up their own space). At dinner, however, the family struggled to match the consistent appeal of its daytime comfort foods.
That's where Low comes in. The chef lives in the neighborhood and is a regular brunch customer at Kensington Bistro. Regular enough that Lynn Sullivan learned nuanced details of Low's history: how she'd long been a personal chef and caterer, had attended Le Cordon Bleu Paris and survived the killer stages culinary internships marked, in Low's case, by twelve-hour days at the stylish Parisian sister restaurants Guy Savoy and Les Bouquinistes. So Sullivan floated an offer. Low could take over dinner as chef/owner. She could do her own thing, cook her own food, bring in her own wines, even hire her own staff. All while avoiding the huge overhead of a startup.
While the arrangement has its kinks Low's staff must haul up tableware from a downstairs storage space every afternoon it's a dream arrangement for a budding entrepreneur. And a couple of recent meals suggested the chef is making the most of it.
Given her bio, it's no surprise that Low's food is steeped in cuisine bourgeoise, a style of full-flavored cooking from the glory days of the French middle-class table. It's a tradition that doesn't shy from butter and cheese, conceives of vegetable soups as mousse-y purées, and never met a meat it couldn't work a slow, aromatic braise on.
Low grew up in a family steeped in the back-to-the-land ethic of 1970s California bohemians. Her parents cultivated an enormous organic vegetable garden in Solano County, and the family's idea of a summer getaway was picking wild berries at Point Reyes. She's a chef with flawless Frenglish credentials.
That navarin I floated as example: In the hands of Low's young kitchen staff, it emerged as a thing of solid beauty, a broad, shallow bowl ladled with a stew of carefully browned meat, iconic spring vegetables, mashed potatoes, and a fantastic jus. The dish had the meat-and-spud plainness of homespun mom cooking, but glowed with a chef's touches even the mashed potatoes. Instead of some starchy pile of pulverized Idahos, these were a silky purée of gold-fleshed Yellow Finns. Their airy texture made it likely they'd been pressed by hand through the fine French sieve called a tamis. And the pile revealed bits of sliced green garlic, immature bulbs with edible stalks whose delicate allium flavor is like a taste of spring for Bay Area foodies. It was a heap of mash in the sweetest tradition of cuisine bourgeoise: simple, hyperconscious of its ingredients, and constructed with obvious care.
Those same qualities breathed through a main course of pan-seared wild Pacific Northwest rock cod. With big, loose flakes and a roughly caramelized surface, the fish had a homely simplicity, but it wasn't the tastiest thing on the plate. Neither were pieces of braised fennel and browned potato slices. Nope, it was the pool of cream sauce that begged to be mopped up, squeegee-like, with fingers and hunks of bread. It tasted like an enriched braising liquid, the mingled, concentrated juices from the fish and aromatic vegetables, diluted, before a final reduction, with a hefty addition of house-made crème fraîche. The technique was over-the-top Frenchy.
But maybe the Frenchiest thing about Post Meridian is its prix-fixe menu and paired wine flights. Assuming you walked in determined to order multiple courses in the first place, the current menu is a bargain. For the cost of two courses (starter and entrée), you get four. On a recent evening, we started with carrot soup under a spoonful of crème fraîche, the thick purée had a carrot-top earthiness. Next came a Niman Ranch ribeye steak au poivre. It featured grilled slices draped against a high mound of those delicious mashed Yellow Finns, above a sweet, port-laced jus studded with whole green peppercorns. The meat the perfect medium-rare I'd asked for had the deeply beefy taste and gelatinous grain of ribeye, but the sauce contained too many peppercorns.
If the hard, searing peppercorns registered as an irritation, at least the next course proved soothing. Whole leaves of butter lettuce were chilled and only faintly dressed. An accompanying wedge of Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog goat cheese provided plenty of vividness all on its own. And a sticky toffee pudding had a small, soft cloud of whipped cream dissolving onto its warm top surface.
Low makes the selections for the accompanying wine flights. For the prix-fixe meal, that meant four glasses of California vintages, yielding the equivalent of about twelve ounces. That's not enough to make most drinkers loopy, but sufficient to satisfy. Low is probably a better chef than she is a sommelier. A dry Pedroncelli Zinfandel rosé tasted fine with the carrot soup, and a Terre Rouge Syrah with the beef was massive enough to stand up to the green peppercorns. But following that kind of flavor bomb with a Seven Terraces Sauvignon Blanc with the salad course was the equivalent of a roller-coaster drop: What was no doubt a svelte, gravelly wine seemed, by contrast, thin and weedy.
Every à la carte item comes with a wine pairing, too, and for eighteen bucks you can get the same twelve ounces spread out over three glasses. Needless to say, depending on what you order, you can be up against a similarly jolting contrast. Think of it as a stutter in an evening of otherwise fluent Frenglish. The cooking alone leaves open plenty of opportunities for epiphany.
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