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Bursting With Goodness: Nobody rushes home from Morgan Hill's Le Bistro, but entrees are served 'tout de suite.'

Maestro of Le Bistro

Chef M. Rabbaa cooks in the hearty tradition of Parisian bistros

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

ON MY WAY TO Le Bistro in Morgan Hill, I thought of Paris. I remembered the bistros where I enjoyed roasted veal chops and bean stews with chicken and bottles of blood-red wine. And when, shortly after I arrived, the food followed and displaced my fantasies, I felt, for just a moment, that I'd been transported across the Atlantic into the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Chef M. Rabbaa cooks in the bistro tradition I remember so well, serving hearty meats with rich, sturdy sauces, the kind I would lick from the plate if I were dining in the privacy of my home.

Le Bistro takes up where Encore left off and has been doing well since it opened nearly a year ago. Locals gather here in the snug dining room under a beamed ceiling with walls sponged with pale gold accents. This is a romantic neighborhood place with nothing fancy or artificial to steal the eye. In Paris, bistros are like this--warm, down-to-earth spaces where chefs often burst from kitchens with headless chickens and glasses of wine. Though I never saw Rabbaa romping in the dining room, his energy and creative impulse came through in nearly all the dishes we sampled.

Our dinner took flight with ravioli stuffed with lobster in a lavish butter sauce with leeks and tomatoes, finished with sprinkles of ruby bright caviar ($8). Except for the slightly chewy condition of the pasta, the flavors and textures of this fetching arrangement sparked our enthusiasm. Our second appetizer of roasted Moroccan chicken sausages ($8) was served with breakfast-style links that would have worked better with eggs in the morning than with the glossy reduction fortified with grapes and balsamic vinegar. "This sauce deserved better," commented Sister Lee.

Before salads, we also shared a plate of penne robed in tomato sauce simmered with rock shrimp, cherry tomatoes and capers ($14). The shellfish had been cut into small pieces that melded evenly into the fresh pulpy sauce.

Salads of organic greens with balsamic vinaigrette ($5) and slow-roasted beets with goat cheese and a walnut vinaigrette ($7) were remarkable in freshness and simplicity. Dressings fell lightly across both greens and earthy beets (red and yellow varieties), enhancing flavors without drowning textures.

Entrees at Le Bistro were the dishes that most reminded me of dining in those modest restaurants of Paris. Our filet mignon ($27) was fired with exceptional care so the surface was dark and the interior was red at the center--and juicy. A three-peppercorn demiglace framed the large piece of meat and shimmered like glass under the lights. A flaky mushroom-spinach crepe woven with fresh leafy greens stood alongside.

I enjoyed the stunningly simple pan-roasted garlic chicken ($17) almost more than the steak. The crispy skin played perfect counterpoint to the succulent meat. An ample portion of rosemary-infused potatoes with ribbons of fresh greens surrounded the bird. In this dish, Rabbaa demonstrated a straightforward cooking method that relied on natural flavors and juices to emerge without heavy sauce or seasonings.

In contrast, the Pistachio Szechwan Crusted Salmon ($19) seemed the product of an overactive imagination. Though the fish was sweet and ocean-fresh, the multitude of ingredients accompanying it, including peppery crust, rich lobster butter, wasabi and caviar, yanked our palates in opposing directions. Too much going on complicated this dish and nearly sunk the fish.

For dessert, we all shared a chocolate-encased hazelnut cake with a tart raspberry sauce. Though we enjoyed it, we agreed that the combination of raspberry and chocolate, as good as it is, is done so often now it no longer seems special.

Le Bistro has what it takes to become one of those cherished little restaurants, a place to go to hide from the world. I enjoyed the small menu and the cozy neighborhood atmosphere where locals hang out and nobody rushes home. Chef Rabbaa has great instincts, knows the fundamentals of sauce making and manipulates heat with obvious skill.

Le Bistro
Address: 207 W. Main St., Morgan Hill
Phone: 408.782.2505
Hours: Lunch 11am-2:30pm Mon-Fri; dinner 5-9pm Mon-Thu, until 10pm Fri-Sat
Price Range: $13-$29

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From the March 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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