By Gretchen Giles
E ditor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do .
Architects aren't the only ones who know that buildings have souls. Restaurant-goers know that, too. And so it is that the building at 620 Fifth St. in Santa Rosa has long been mourned as the former home of Cafe Lolo, a Frenchified haven for seriously good-food-starved Santa Rosans. Two short-lived places tried briefly to illuminate this small space, and now Lolo alum, chef Brian Anderson, has returned with sous chef Adelaar Rogers to put the soul of the place back in order.
Opened just the first week in February, Bistro 29 was packed with twenty-somethings and other adventurous eaters on a recent Friday night. Tables are close together as in a traditional bistro and the high-ceilinged room is painted an attractive deep red and finished with bronze touches that will patina as the years flash by.
And flash by they will, as Bistro 29 is a keeper, a chic place that the after-work crowd can fall into and have an honestly prepared plate of excellence for a reasonable price, no pretensions or unnecessary frills welcome. (The wise are advised to "fall into" the place with a reservation well in order. We watched sad-eyed legions turned away from the hopping dining room by the professional serving team.)
Buckwheat crêpes are the true soul of Bistro 29 itself, and they find their way crisped as croutons into the baby green lettuce salad with fine herbs and a Champagne vinaigrette ($6) and as the toast in the Soupe des Johnnies ($7), a French onion soup finished with hard cider rather than the traditional cognac. Crêpes (all $10) have their own course on the menu, the rich and salty duck confit version napped with garlic thyme jus and freshened with a sprinkling of frisée.
Winter entrées range fruitfully among the hearty and the filling, including the de rigueur roasted chicken ($19) that defines a bistro, and the hanger steak with pommes frites ($20), a perfectly tender cut that arrives with a green herb butter slavishly melting on top. The cassoulet ($22) is in its own sweet little pot, a duck leg sticking lasciviously out from the creamy white beans, among which are hidden a melting slab of pork belly and a nice portion of Toulouse sausage.
The wine list favors North Bay vintages among a few French offerings, but runs dear, the average bottle ranging at $40 or so. A real coup was to find John Hawley's Dry Creek Cabernet on the list, also at $40.
Not surprisingly, crêpes inform the dessert menu (all $6), with house-made ice creams and sorbet also beckoning, as does a chocolate fondant cake that sports a scoop of caramel–sea salt ice cream. The "cafe gourmand" option is a three-item dessert tasting menu with coffee for a mere $9, but who has the room?
Bistro 29 has retained the small bar it inherited from Lolo's, and one can easily envision sitting there with a glass of wine and a crêpe, quietly enjoying a $20 trip to a Paris of the mind. Now that's some soul.
Bistro 29, 620 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. Currently only open for dinner, Tuesday–Saturday. 707.546.2929.
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