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[whitespace] 71 Saint Peter
Christopher Gardner

Open Door Policy: Staffers show off the alfresco dining option at the remodeled 71 Saint Peter.

Downtown San Jose's 71 Saint Peter continues to make the world safe for bistro fare packed with flavor and finesse

By Christina Waters

PACKED on a Friday night, just as it should be, the cozy bistro that is 71 Saint Peter just keeps on providing well-made New American recipes that speak with a slight French accent. I've always loved this tiny dining room, wedged into its old brick storefront on San Pedro Square. A romantic oasis in the midst of the hum and throb of this dining gold coast, 71 Saint Peter attracts an eclectic mix of regulars who obviously adore the intensely flavored foods streaming from the exhibition kitchen. The short menu was augmented with a large roster of specials the evening we visited last week, and among the choices everything from venison and pork tenderloin to ahi and seafood linguine is available. Although the kitchen here is capable of turning out an impressive range of stylish entrees, you never feel that your particular dinner has been part of a generic assembly line.

A basket of three breads--including a luxuriously moist onion focaccia--arrived along with a bottle of sparkling water and our wine choices. Knowing full well that Jack had already zeroed in on the peppered seared ahi appetizer ($8) didn't stop me from suggesting that he try a glass of Silver Ridge Syrah 1996 ($6.50) from the listing of affordable wines by the glass. Red wine and raw tuna make perfect partners. To accompany my entree of roast duckling ($17) I chose a Montevina Zinfandel Amador County 1996 ($5.50) and was pleasantly surprised by its spiciness and the hint of something complex and minty. Jack looked smug with his very distinctive, fruit-forward syrah, a really satisfying glass of red. So we were in a relaxed and receptive mood by the time our rather brisk waitress brought the appetizers.

The seared ahi creation was gorgeous. Three triangles of pepper-edged ahi, the color of a deep red blush, alternated with fist-sized mounds of tobiko (flying fish roe). In the center of this colorful plate sat a cloud of wasabi-laced crème fraîche--delightfully fiery--from which tiny daikon sprouts appeared to, well, sprout. We both loved this appetizer, and also found much to like in my salad of roasted beets ($6) so tiny as to be downright prenatal. The beets popped up throughout a field of tender greens flecked with salty feta cheese and topped with shaved fennel. The fennel, curiously without flavor, looked good but added little. And the whole creation tasted unsure of its purpose--i.e., there was no sense of necessity about this particular choice of ingredients. In a menu this small, every single dish should have a sense of coherence.

We feasted, however, on a king's ransom of tobiko and never looked back.

Entrees were good-looking and steamed with freshly prepared aromas. 71 Saint Peter has always excelled in superior reduction sauces--and still does. My delicious duck--as well-done as I'd been warned about by my wait person--was richly moistened by a robust raspberry and black pepper demi glace, the sort of sauce that goes brilliantly with mashed potatoes like the ones on my plate. Grilled squashes and a long shaft of red bell pepper accompanied. Jack's entree was the hit of the meal, however, a truly inventive marriage of vegetables, gnocchi and slices of rare, tender venison ($19.95) topped with a sprig of rosemary.

For my money, venison should taste bold with a hint of wild game gaminess. But I'm sure most people would prefer this farm-raised dish and its extremely mild flavor. A vigorous garlicky reduction sauce topped the venison, which rode on an eclectic bed of gnocchi--imaginative touch!--tiny carrots, baby artichoke hearts and fresh spinach. This is a terrific dish that might easily join the main menu.

Finally--since I'm on record as having extolled the virtues of 71 Saint Peter's textbook version of crème brûlée--let me say that a shared order of this dessert ($5), not cloyingly rich but instead a quivering, perfect custard topped with a very thin glaze of crunchy burnt sugar, was outstanding.

71 Saint Peter
Address: 71 N. San Pedro St., San Jose
Phone: 408/971-8523
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. from 11:30; dinner Mon.-Sat. from 5pm
Cuisine: New American bistro
Entrees: $15-$21

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From the February 25-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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