Two words came to mind when I walked into Hayward's A Street Bistro: Old. School. The headwaiter sports a tuxedo, if you can believe it, and the carpeted room feels faded and dim, with pink linen tablecloths and a bouquet of flowers for decoration. Most of the clients went gray before I left my teens, and the menu listed items they've been eating since their sock-hop days -- fish quenelles, shrimp cocktail, duck á l'orange. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find most of A Street Bistro's classic French cuisine on the menu in a France now enamored with the cuisines of its newest immigrants.
But eating two meals at this little bistro felt like spending a couple of hours in an antiques store: There's some magic about that old-school craftsmanship that sleeker, trendier places can't conjure up.
A Street Bistro has been a fixture at the corner of A and Second streets in Hayward since 1987. That's when Christopher Ng, who cooked at some of San Francisco's toniest French restaurants during their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, moved south to open his own place. Ng still runs the kitchen six days a week; his headwaiter, Bob, has been with the restaurant since the early 1990s, joined occasionally by Ng's wife Fannie. Not a few of their clients have been coming in for a decade or so, and the restaurant has taken on a familiar air.
The food harks back to a time when class was more important than culinary pyrotechnics, when menu items came avec ses garnitures instead of with their pedigrees, when people ate aspic, for God's sake. Those velvet-wallpapered days are gone, but Ng is still doing what he learned at restaurants like L'Etoile, downscaled to neighborhood-bistro proportions.
All the entrées at A Street include a bowl of soup or plate of salad. Get the soup -- both night's salads were garishly overdressed. But Ng's clam chowder tasted of fresh cream and mollusks, and a thick cream of broccoli soup made this humble vegetable taste like the other red meat.
Other than the salads and a dull crab cake (though it was fresh enough to be seeded with chunks of shell), all of the dishes showed impressive command of classic French technique. Case in point: The chef's affinity for poaching meats. A couple of decades ago, poaching fell into disfavor -- grilling and roasting are quicker, more-easily successful cooking methods. Both yield meat that readily stands up to the vivid, fresh flavors of the salsas, vinaigrettes, and Mediterranean ingredients that Californian cooks so love.
When done right, poaching produces delicate, tender meat. It takes a flavorful cooking liquid, a vigilant eye, and a steady hand, and in a fast-paced bistro the last two are in short supply. But with just two people in the kitchen, Ng produced fish quenelles (dumplings) with the texture of marshmallows, their piscine flavor refined by a rich curry and shrimp-stock cream sauce.
His knack for poaching also gave us a spoonable salmon filet glazed in a thick tarragon-vermouth cream sauce, velvet on velvet. A poached chicken breast, thinly sliced and fanned across the plate in soft, pink slices, tasted like chicken, not just white meat, imbued with the flavor of the poaching liquid. The raspberry-vinegar sauce napped overtop gave me a shock. Reading the menu I had visions of a puckery, sweet vinaigrette, but instead the chefs substituted vinegar for wine to start off a succulent chicken-stock reduction sauce -- just bracing enough to invigorate the mild meat.
The vinegar sauce was just one of a whole host of sauces that reminded me why they were -- perhaps still are -- the glory of French cuisine, the raison d'être of the breadbasket. In fact, the highest position on the line was once the saucier, whose critical job was to make all the sauces. Being a saucier doesn't just require a top-notch palate, it takes long-term thinking -- boil veal bones too hard, say, and thirty hours or so later you end up with a cloudy, muddy-tasting reduction sauce. Don't reduce the wine enough before you add your veal demi-glace? The sauce'll come out sharp-edged and impotent. Reduce it too much? Bitter and blunted.
Ng may not place the most elegant ingredients on the plate -- "baby carrots" from the bag presented with every dish, creminis and dried shiitakes labeled "wild mushrooms" -- but his soigné sauces were more welcome than foie gras. Well, as welcome.
It required a couple of baskets of oven-warmed bread and every pan-fried potato in sight for us to satisfy our sauce lust. The red-wine reduction on the just-right lamb chops? Not a drop left on the plate. The aforementioned wild mushroom cream sauce on the tender veal scaloppine? The dishwasher never had it so easy. Really, the only sauce that didn't amaze us was a red-wine-ginger sauce surrounding a roasted duck breast, just because none of the ginger came through. The duck breast, however, had been set skin-side down in a sizzling pan until all the fat had melted away, giving the skin a crackling that no bacon could best -- a rich topping to supplant the sauce.
A couple of dinners at A Street Bistro left me ruing the waning of Escoffier and Carême's influence on contemporary cuisine. Thankfully, the service had none of the rarified stuffiness we used to expect from our temples of haute cuisine. Despite his tuxedo, there was no sniff about the waiter, and Fannie Ng was just motherly enough to charm everyone at my table.
Desserts finished the meal in classic tradition, with fruit napoleons, chocolate mousse, and sorbets. A chocolate-almond mousse cake, ringed by a web of raspberry sauce and crème anglaise, could have been a dense chocolate bomb, but each layer -- airy cake, smooth mousse, and sliced almonds -- all but dissolved on the tongue. Vanilla crèmes brûlées normally don't merit a mention, but under its crackling sugar shell Ng's custard was all cream, with the mouthfeel of whipped butter.
Like everything else at A Street Bistro, the crème brûlée has become dated. But let me tell you, jaded foodies -- dated still tastes good.