Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dish on Dining: Chez Papa Resto

From Bistro to Paris Chic
414 Jessie St., San Francisco
Mint Plaza in SOMA
PH: 415.546.4134
Lunch, Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; brunch, weekends, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.; dinner, daily, 5:30 to 10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. Thu.–Sat.)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

I easily list Chez Papa in Potrero Hill as one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants. The cozy bistro up the hilly 18th Street has a real French feel, from the French country comfort dishes to the accents of the wait staff.

So I was excited to try Chez Papa’s latest venture, a restaurant or “resto” in the new Mint Plaza—the refurbished little alley just south of Market and Fifth Streets. Opened earlier this year, Chez Papa has dropped any of the neighborhood bistro feel and has created a grand stage for the culinary styling of Executive Chef David Barzigan.

The metal exteriors that blend with the rest of Mint Plaza shield the drama inside the near-black interiors of the restaurant. Waiters dressed in black walk around black wooden furnishings underneath black chandeliers barely seen against the black walls. It was so black that I couldn’t help but notice how the red “exit” signs seemed to pop out even more than normal. I guess that’s a good thing in case of an emergency.

OK, so I may be a bit dramatic as well. There were accents of plush bronze here and there.

The settings with a large bar and long communal table in the center could easily fit into a hip neighborhood in Paris. But this is the Mint Plaza, so the room on this night was filled with tourists and after-work cocktail drinkers.

My server, not surprisingly, was slim and French. (How do they find all the handsome French-speaking waiters in the city?) Service overall was friendly and helpful. My server steered me toward a very buttery Pinot Blanc from France to go with my dinner.

Chez Papa’s menu has an extensive appetizer selection (you could probably make a meal of just ordering a few appetizers) and an entrée section that seems to lean heavily on seafood. It was a real balancing act for me because there were so many things I wanted to try but several of them sounded heavy and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get past one dish if I didn’t play smart.

So I decided to start with the Port-glazed Sweetbreads ($15) and the Squash Blossoms with Mozzarella and Goat Cheese ($13).

The sweetbreads came covered with foam—supposedly a spring garlic emulsion according to the menu, but it just seemed like spilled whipped cocoa. I’m not a fan of foam because I can never really taste the essence used to create it and never seem to see the value in how it accentuates the dish. In this case, the foam basically buried my sweetbreads, which I eventually found underneath.

The sweetbreads had a nice umani-like coating from the port, giving it a slight sweet but savory taste. Unfortunately, I felt the sweetbreads were a bit chewy and nothing at all like how I had it done at Bar Tartine recently. Still, the dish was brightened by these incredibly fresh and crunchy snap peas.

The trio of squash blossoms was my favorite of the evening. I broke my rule about eating fried foods because the menu said it was “lightly fried.” Still, when you bite into it, you know this had to be deep fried a lot because it was so incredibly crunchy. I also liked the presentation of the dish, with the tomato coulis and aged balsamic vinegar.

I could tell that Chez Papa was an expert in fried things because their pomme frites (French fries) at another table looked really enticing. (Oh no, I think I’ve gone down the slippery slope of deep-fried dining!) Another really scrumptious-looking and classic French dish was the huge bowl of PEI mussels at the table next to me (yes, it was just an appetizer portion but still hearty in size).

For my entrée, I ordered the Grilled Loch Duart Salmon with Citrus Mélange ($21). When it arrived, I realized why my server kept asking if I wanted any sides with my meal because the plate carried only my salmon filet. Sure, it was beautifully presented with the creamy citrus mélange spotted with tiny purple opal basil and it sat on a slight bed of braised fennel, but how I craved for some mashed potatoes to go with it. (For the sides, you can order potato gratin or ratatouille for an additional $6.)

The salmon was grilled perfectly, but there was a slight off taste when combining the fennel with the citrus mélange. I couldn’t put my finger on it but it was like a slight blunt to an otherwise well-executed dish.

Actually, since I had two appetizers, the single serving of salmon was enough for a meal. Plus, I wanted to save room for dessert.

I ordered the almond and basil panna cotta with raspberry coulis ($8). The panna cotta was on the dense side—creamy and thick—and pleasurable with the slight almond essence. I think I could have gone without the raspberry, but I guess the chef felt he needed the striking red color to contrast with the white panna cotta.

I didn’t feel rushed dining at Chez Papa, so it actually gave me time to make a lot of little odd observations. Things like:

1) I don’t get the comical cartoon of a French chef’s face (I guess he’s chez Papa) that’s on the restaurant’s logo. It really takes away from any attempts at elegance.
2) While opened for just a few months, a lot of the wooden chairs are already showing signs of being scuffed. I guess that’s what happens when you use black-colored chairs. You can’t hide anything.
3) The room was really loud even though it was half full at the time. I bet it gets even louder as the night goes on.
4) The servers seem to really spend a lot of time wiping down wine glasses when they’re not busy.

I think I would have been more forgiving if this were a bistro, but it’s a full-fledge restaurant with fine-dining prices. So I think my expectations were heightened. And while Chez Papa Resto delivered in some dishes (namely the squash blossoms), it was simply satisfactory in others. The environment, service and food contribute to an overall pleasing dining experience, but is that enough in these times of high-priced dining?

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (Fancy French)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Chez Papa Resto on Urbanspoon


Passionate Eater said...

I completely agree with your observation about foam. I never see how it adds to any dish either. And wow, it was dubbed as "spring garlic" and tasted like cocoa? Huh, I think they need to go back to the drawing board on that one.

Single Guy Ben said...

Hi PE! It actually didn't taste like cocoa. I thought it just looked like whipped cocoa foam. It actually tasted like air, which is what most foam tastes like to me.