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French Twist

For his second act, Corey Lee doesn’t so much resurrect the classic Parisian bistro as gut-renovate it.

Duck confit

(1 of 5)

The spare, sleek dining room

(2 of 5)

Chef de cuisine Jason Berthold

(3 of 5)

Pommes gaufrette

(4 of 5)

The gâteau marjolaine
(5 of 5)

 

At once a vague and a vivid word, “bistro” gets tossed around so freely—Cal-Med bistro, modern bistro, Asian bistro, corner bistro—that it often seems to have lost all meaning. Yet most of us approach an evening at a bistro with preconceptions, shaped by movies, TV, books, or our own travels, of what such a restaurant is supposed to be.

My enduring ideas about the form come from A.J. Liebling’s memoir, Between Meals, in which the author takes his epic appetite to prewar Paris and finds the city every bit his match. Liebling recounts repasts of such scale and duration—oysters, cassoulet, mutton, marrow-topped steak, bottle after bottle of claret, champagne, sauternes—and does so with such relish that it’s easy to forget that his dens of excess busted everything but the bank. Simple food at modest prices: That was the inherent promise of Liebling’s beloved bistros. That such a Platonic ideal can’t be found around the Bay Area has never dashed my hopes of discovering one here.

I mention that unrequited longing as we turn to Monsieur Benjamin, the most buzzed-about new bistro of the year. Billed as a “modern bistro,” it does not look like the ones that haunt my daydreams, despite the white butcher paper on its tables and the cute-fox- in-a-dinner-jacket logo on its plates. (Monsieur Benjamin, je présume?)

Situated in Hayes Valley, it comes from Corey Lee, former chef de cuisine at the French Laundry and the man behind the refined, two-Michelin-starred Benu. Like his mentor, Thomas Keller, Lee is a Francophile, and like Keller, who followed his fabled Laundry with the more casual Bouchon, he has chosen for his second act a restaurant that reclaims French bistro classics, the sort of food that the chef himself enjoys eating.

Outfitted with clean lines and a spare black-and-white palette, it omits the chalkboard menus and Toulouse-Lautrec-style renderings of cancan dancers. Behind the bar-to-ceiling shelf that greets you at the entrance is a large, gleaming open kitchen, flanked by counter seating, with an army-size staff overseen by Jason Berthold (RN74), who captains the ship on Lee’s behalf.

It’s a very pretty place, reflective of today’s shiny-money San Francisco. One glance at the menu, though, leaves no question of its allegiances. It’s a document inspired by the canon of casual French cooking, its greatest-hits riffs ranging from steak frites to sweet-breads grenobloise, escargots to beef tongue dijonnaise. But in other ways, Monsieur strays from tradition. You know those set-price menus that were a hallmark of old Parisian bistros? You won’t find them here. The abundance of choices, Lee has said, is meant to ensure that anyone can find a favorite—a reliable dish to anchor their next visit.

Whether on a first or a return trip, I’d do the camembert beignets, tart squares dusted with porcini mushroom powder and buttery in texture, and the seafood sausage (an homage not to France but to a dish made famous at New York’s late, great Chanterelle), its casing plump with scallops, lobster, sea bass, and pine nuts, set in a shallow pool of creamy beurre rose. I’d request the duck confit, served with dense duck sausages and turnip purée, its moist meat capped in crispy skin that cracks like crème brûlée. And I’d pair that lovely dish with a glass of côtes du rhône, from a wine list composed mostly of French labels. I’d finish with the gâteau marjolaine, pastry chef Courtney Schmidig’s impeccable tribute to a classic layered cake, dense with hazelnut meringue and chocolate buttercream.

At which point, I’d wish I owned some Twitter stock. With a butter lettuce salad that commands $12.50 and steak frites that fetch nearly three times that much, Monsieur Benjamin categorically rejects the modest price tags synonymous with the quintessential bistros of yore. More disappointing to me, given my Liebling bias, is that the restaurant is so moderate in other ways. Monsieur Benjamin is not a lusty bistro, and not just due to the absence of dancers on the wall. The refinements of the kitchen verge at times on frou-frou, as if the Benu crew had left behind their tweezers but brought along the twee.

Take the pommes gaufrette with whipped chicken liver. The waffled pommes themselves deliver the perfect crunchy balance of salt and starch, but their frothy accompaniment betrays scant evidence of the liver’s earthy influence. Close your eyes, and you could be eating French onion dip. The veal blanquette, a cream-enriched stew, comes in a sauce more dainty than indulgent, its warm promise hijacked by culinary cool. Which may be precisely what the public wants. We all come to bistros with different reference points, and Lee’s modern spin will no doubt please a lot of people in a city where French cooking doesn’t get much play these days. Whether it fully satisfies you will depend on how you hunger. At Monsieur Benjamin, there’s bone marrow on the menu. I’m still waiting for a bistro that makes me feel like I’m sucking the marrow out of life.

Monsieur Benjamin
451 Gough St. (Near Ivy St.), 415-403-2233
Two and a Half Stars

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two at Monsieur Benjamin
Camembert beignets....................$7
Seafood sausage...................$17.50
Beef tongue dijonnaise.............$14
Steak frites......................................$36
Duck confit......................................$28
Gâteau marjolaine................$10.50
Palmier ice cream with calvados caramel...........................$8
Bottle of pesquier 2011 côtes du rhône...............................$45
Total..............................................$166

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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