International politics are hurting the French. The Senate cafeteria recently started calling french fries "freedom fries" and, according to recent reports, American importers of French cheeses and wines have been seeing orders canceled and business drop since France took a stand against the United States' planned invasion of Iraq. This odd turn of events leads me to a sentence I never thought a restaurant critic would have to write: Now is the time to support your local French bistro.
If you're in Walnut Creek, that means patronizing Le Bistro, which proclaims itself French the way Dubya uses his Texan accent. From the "cuisine élégante" on the window to the beaux-arts flourishes on the menu, from the Carnival de Nice poster to the badinage between the Francophone cooks, it's as Gallic as it could be. Maybe even more. The mood is country fete: Garlands of golden plastic grapes, beads, and white Christmas lights festoon walls painted faux-finish sandstone.
The chef-owner, Jean-Paul Beluffo, was raised in Nice and cooked around the world for 25 years. His wife, Kathleen, convinced him to settle in Walnut Creek after they married six months ago. Together, the two have completely Gallified the former New York Pizza space. Kathleen runs the front of the house and greets everyone at the door, often by name; under her aegis, the service, while sometimes unpolished, is sweet and unstuffy.
Le Bistro's ever-changing menu, which emphasizes Beluffo's native southern France, describes the food as "homey," and it is. It's not evenly wonderful -- of course, neither is the food my roommates and I cook at home -- but when it's good it's welcomingly, reassuringly hearty.
The appetizers all kicked ass, or étaient canon as the French would say. The mixed green salad, of all things, made me anticipate the entrées to come. Americans, accustomed to iceberg lettuce doused in bottled Italian dressing, think a salad should make your lips pucker. Conversely, too many California-cuisine cooks overcompensate for their childhoods by cutting so far back on the acid in the dressing that you taste only the oil. Beluffo's red-wine vinaigrette achieved that instinctive balance and restraint that French cooks can find with their lips closed.
Another appetizer, baked Brie -- which I generally think of when I think 1977 -- surprised me by being just as good. A wedge of the delicately funky cheese was baked, smothered in a port-wine veal reduction -- whose meatiness mellowed the sweet-tart flavor of the port -- and red grapes, which burst and softened as they cooked. We sopped up the unctuous fondue with slices of the house focaccia; the rosemary leaves baked into the bread added another layer of flavor.
All of Provence fit into the multilayered terrine of eggplant and roasted red peppers. The sweet, mild flavors melted together, as did the vegetables, which had been roasted so long we were able to spread them on our bread. Topping the terrine with dabs of black-olive tapenade tinged with the floral notes of capers gave a needed jolt of salt and pungency.
The gratinée á l'oignon did justice to its reputation. My friend and I tried not to be piggish as we dipped our spoons through layers of the just-blistered Gruyère, soft bread, meaty broth enriched with wine and cognac, and sweet caramelized onions, but I'm afraid a few grunts slipped out. (Side note: The slices of bread in French onion soup are not an eccentric touch but a holdover from medieval cookery. The word soupe, in fact, referred to the stale bread used to sop up the broth from boiled meats, and only later came to denote the liquid itself. Bread is still used to thicken the region's most traditional of soups and sauces, including some versions of French aioli or Spanish ali-oli and the Catalan chilled garlic soup with grapes.)
The quality of the entrées was more erratic. The lamb "cassoulette" on the menu one night surprised me: I expected that the chef had misspelled cassoulet, the dense, savory stew of white beans, duck confit, and herbed breadcrumbs. When I tore away a corner of the feathery puff-pastry lid covering the small clay casserole I received, I found no beans but instead a straightforward lamb stew. It had a fine, meaty flavor tinged with fresh rosemary, but some of the lamb slices were veined with gristle that an extra hour or two in the pot would have melted off. At home I headed straight for the Larousse Gastronomique, the Encyclopedia Britannica of French cuisine, to find that the chef actually misspelled a different word: cassolette, or clay pot. I confirmed my guess on my next visit, when the dish was spelled correctly.
Another spécialité of the maison, "crusted tilapia" (tilapia en croûte), enclosed a filet of moist whitefish and sautéed mushrooms in a thin layer of phyllo, which baked up perfectly -- no sogginess at all. The ratatouille sauce blended roasted tomato and pepper with white wine and butter into a lovely beurre blanc.
Along with an extra scoop of ratatouille, the fish came with a tangle of soft long-roasted red peppers and a dollop of creamy celery-root purée. The same trio of sides flanked a roasted veal chop. The pale pink, perfectly medium-rare chop pulled apart with a fork, but it had an odd taste, as if it had been wet-aged so long that it had gotten a little musty.
Another hunk of red meat, the hangar steak, could have been sliced a little thinner to break up the muscle fibers in the meat, instantly tenderizing it, but the steak was cooked medium-rare. I enjoyed the sauce, a red-wine and veal-stock reduction chunky with sweet, rich shallot confit. The steak was accompanied by another familiar French vegetable that doesn't appear much in the United States: braised endive, buttery and faintly bitter. And the wild boar with a blackberry- and raspberry-infused marinade had a rustic flair.
The desserts are all dainty giants. Chef Robert's eponymous tart was a confectionary house of cards. The "shell," a ribbon of gossamer-thin dough, undulated around a Grand Marnier-touched ragout of pears, apples, and dried cranberries. A scoop of ice cream held in place a strudel-dough frill that looked as if it had been stripped off a teenage gymnast's braid. I loved -- and not in a healthy way -- the caramel sauce surrounding the tart, but there was an unhealthy amount of it, and it overshadowed everything else. Similarly, "floating islands" of poached meringues rose out of an ocean of vanilla crème anglaise too sweet to drown ourselves in. The meringues in this super-traditional dish, so old that it has regained its novelty, were as ephemeral as a dollop of whipped cream, so we fished them out and finished them off.
The quintessential 1970s insult "chauvinist" once meant a person with excessive nationalism. The original was Nicolas Chauvin, a superheroic, obviously touched soldier who was wounded seventeen times in battles defending first the French Republic and later Napoleon's empire. In times like these, consider combating the unlikely wave of anti-French sentiment with a little culinary chauvinism of your own. You'll find that the pig part comes quite easily.
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