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French Bliss

[whitespace] Chez Sophie Sophie's Choice: Restaurateur Sophie Nicolas relies on chef Francois Alip to oversee the menu at her Palo Alto bistro.

Christopher Gardner

Chez Sophie romances diners with Gallic charm

By Andrew X. Pham

WE STROLLED DOWN TO the quiet end of California Avenue, where Chez Sophie enticed us in with a chalkboard full of specials and a bistro table set on the sidewalk. Behind the restaurant's bank of French windows, the warmly furnished dining room glows with light from votive candles. From this very first impression, Chez Sophie began to coast into our favor with a lighthearted bearing that encourages romance.

Owner Sophie Nicolas welcomed us at the door and folded us into the intimate mood of her establishment. Walls adorned with books, plates and knickknacks made us feel at home while the dimmed lighting and sassy French music suggested romantic possibilities. We chuckled at the amount of tasteful quirkiness Nicolas had loaded into her petite bistro: salt and pepper shakers shaped like cars and animals, menus written on porcelain plates. Everywhere we looked, telling details acquainted us with the folks of Chez Sophie.

The changing menu showcased the creations of chef Francois Alip and recipes from Nicolas' mother, a native of Lyon, France. Aside from the personable heirloom dishes, traditional bistro fare--escargots, pâté, French onion soup, grilled fish, lamb rack with Dijon sauce--dominated the menu.

Throughout the evening, the well-trained staff kept us in good cheer. Everything went so smoothly--Nicolas chatting about her passion for restauranting--that we didn't realize until we finished our first glass of wine that the waitress had uncorked the wrong bottle. But given the staff's honest efforts and Nicolas' charm, we deemed the mixup inconsequential.

Alip served starters large enough for sharing, which we did. The heavily garlic-doused escargots de Bourgone successfully launched our meal in classic bistro fashion. Each snail was as large as a walnut, its glistening shell boasting a mouthful of meat, hot and buttery. After half a dozen of these lovelies, we meandered onto a plate of salty and flavorful jambon crowned with kiwi coins and berry gems--delicious with a crusty baguette and wine. A split portion of the house salad of romaine lettuce, apple, blue cheese and walnuts helped us prep our palates for the main events.

The roasted duck breast served atop a splash of raspberry sauce turned out to be the weakest link of the evening. Unevenly cooked, the duck breast was rubbery. Even the luscious raspberry sauce could not convince us to eat more than a few morsels. We particularly savored the lamb stew--Grandmere's recipe. Small, tender pieces of twice-cooked lamb lolled in a thick and sweet tomato base. Entree portions were moderate, so big appetites such as ours required all four courses.

Other ravishing dishes we enjoyed on a later visit included veal sweetbread in a pastry purse, an excellent coq au vin (chicken cooked in wine with mushrooms, salt pork and herbs) and a creamy but spiced squash soup.

In our experience, few things send diners home more blissful than a well-executed sweet finale. At this Chez Sophie deals a winning hand, never underestimating the power of desserts. Topping the list is another of Grandmere's triumphs--a superb chocolate marvel, part cake, part torte, all fabulous, heightened with nut crumbs. Its monastic presentation--a dark wedge on porcelain white--begged to be misjudged, but its richness unfolded in the mouth like an act of love. Two other favorites were a house-made kiwi-strawberry sorbet and pastry puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and dished up on a plate of dark chocolate sauce.

First and second courses range from $5 to $8.50, with most averaging around $6. Entrees start at $13 and top at $23 with a major grouping near $16. Desserts are absolutely a deal at $4.75. An affordable wine list features French and California vintages in the $25 range.

Despite the occasional missteps--avoidable by sticking with proven winners--Chez Sophie, with all its charms and warmth, is one of the good ones.

Chez Sophie
Cuisine: Traditional French bistro
Ambiance: Enticing pastoral, intimate
Menu: Starters $4-$8; entrees $13-$23; desserts $4.75
Hours: Lunch Tue.-Fri. 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner Fri.-Thu. 6-10pm, Fri.-Sat. 6-11pm
Address: 201 California Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650/322-8586

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From the March 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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