The Bay Area's restaurant business can be as brutal as junior high. Every year, hundreds of small entrepreneurs shovel millions of dollars and hundreds of hours into new restaurants -- all for the sake of slim profit margins, a few write-ups in the press, and a little love from the customers. As a restaurateur, your reputation depends almost entirely on first impressions. An overcooked piece of fish or a waiter with the breakup blues could turn a customer off forever, as well as the twenty friends she'll warn.
Needless to say, second chances in this biz are rare. So when I heard that Gilles Boulaine was reopening La Salamandre after closing the restaurant in May 2004, it went on the top of my to-visit list.
I never did a full write-up of La Salamandre in Danville, but when I visited several years ago Boulaine impressed me with his comfortable, careful food that clung to French tradition without turning it into a gimmick. Alas, a coronary blockage that sent Boulaine into surgery shut the restaurant down.
After a respite in France, Boulaine and his family have returned to give Danville another shot. He renamed his restaurant Louka, after his son, and reopened in mid-December. Instead of buying a new space, or even repainting it, they've simply reopened the dining room and introduced a new concept: global small plates.
Truth be told, for the first five minutes of my first meal at Louka, I fought off a mild case of the heebie-jeebies brought on by the still-empty room and the soundtrack -- Eurotrash disco played at disco volume. My date and I squirmed when the second Madonna remix of the evening appeared.
Then the food arrived.
We dipped three little spoons into three little soup tureens and brought them to our mouths, eyes widening at the amount of flavor concentrated in each: the bright splash of the chilled apple-kiwi, the fruitiness of the warm cherry tomato, the woodsy, soft wash of black trumpet-mushroom bisque. I had ordered a mixed green salad with goat cheese just to have a little green on the table, and it turned out perfect. Shallots flushed out the oil-and-vinegar dressing, and buttery croutons no bigger than a sparrow's beak hid out between the leaves, a series of unexpected crunches. The chef played up the delicacy of a few stalks of white asparagus, barely blanched and laid across a pool of pink blood-orange and Meyer lemon vinaigrette, a few tangles of chervil at each end. It was some of the most openly sophisticated food I've ever eaten in the East Bay.
When Louka's owners say small plates, they mean it. Most would fit inside a Chinese takeout box with room to spare. The waiters advise you to order three dishes per person, and you should take them at their word. Each plate, however, hides a richness that you begin feeling on your fourth course, when you realize it will take a little stamina to make it to dessert. Louka also pulls a trick introduced by San Francisco's small-plates restaurants: no bread on the table to fill you up. It's a crime to serve French sauces without French bread to sop them up, and the owners know that. Just ask and small plates of it will magically appear.
Chef Mike Miller, who trained under Jean-George Vongerichten in New York and Wolfgang Puck in Los Angeles before opening Umunhum in San Jose, designs most of the dishes as miniature entrées, each with its own sides. Fried rabbit legs and part of the saddle, coated in a thin batter shell, flank a marshmallow-sized round of pumpernickel bread pudding spiked with sharp Cheddar. Described as "baby beets and grains," a tiny mesa of quinoa is surrounded by what is really a salsa of slivered yellow beets, pickled red onions, and herbs, all tossed in a sharp, sweet vinaigrette grounded only by the beets' earthy undertones.
Miller doesn't achieve such fineness with every dish: A cup-sized bouillabaisse, served in a slightly larger miniature tureen, contained a few plump prawns, mussels, and specks of fish. The broth hinted of lobster stock, but we couldn't taste it for the tomatoes. In fact, the soup was upstaged by a bit player, a croustade spread with smoky roast-pepper rouille resting on top of the bowl. Butterfish, a meaty species that could easily take on black olives or beef stock, tasted pallid when paired with more precious stuff -- vanilla-infused grits and a thin orange-juice reduction spiked with a dash of Pernod. Three medallions of sweetbreads were as creamy as could be, but the flabby little leek tart they came with ruined the effect. Perhaps by focusing too much on shrinking down main courses, the chef is diluting the impact of his own talent.
Thankfully, Louka's menu may be global in the scope of its ingredients, but never loses touch with its French roots. They assert themselves in Miller's best dishes. The French know that there's nothing like good old heavy cream to turn a root vegetable into a luxury: It soaked deep into the gratin dauphinoise, a perfectly cylindrical stack of thin sweet-potato slices, turning them to custard. The first bite into an open-faced sandwich topped by a fried quail's egg, and the yolk oozed over salty bits of soppressata and crunchy bitter greens. A second bite, unfortunately, finished off the sandwich. And the duck pot pie reminded me why I liked Le Salamandre so much. We broke through the puff-pastry lid into a duck stew whose flavor was so deep you could drown in it.
On my second visit a few weeks later, the owners had changed out the Diva Hits 1995 CD for something more ambient, and the main room, whose salmon-hued walls and navy-blue tablecloths felt a little intense without the presence of people to lighten it up, had filled up. Having more customers, in fact, improved the service; on our first visit the waitstaff had orbited the table, whisking plates away before we could finish our last, carefully measured bites. On visit two, the waiter, buser, and Boulaine worked the room smoothly. A proper Frenchman, Boulaine believes the meal doesn't end with the dessert, and lets diners linger at the table long after it's gone.
The other change Miller introduced between visits one and two was to replace a regular dessert menu with a "farandole," a chef's choice of micro-desserts served on a partitioned plate. I wasn't sure I wanted so much dessert, but the sampler platter sure made my job easy. My tablemate and I worked around the plate clockwise, tasting a tiny molten-centered chocolate cake, a few tablespoons of an orange-scented crème brûlée, two bites of a densely creamy cheesecake, and a forkful-sized almond-berry galette with raspberry sorbet, all excellent.
Not everything at Louka is perfect, but Boulaine and Miller are serving some of the most exciting -- and polished -- food to be found in Danville. When your meal is made of so many little dishes, the misses are quickly forgotten. The successes, however, linger like a great first kiss. Or a second chance.