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A Small Wonder

Le Petit Bistro
Christopher Gardner

Through the Cooking Glass: Jean Michel of Le Petit Bistro in Mountain View displays the roast duck.

Le Petit Bistro pleases Peninsula Francophiles with its modest, friendly charms

By Andrew X. Pham

WHAT'S IN a name? Much. Modesty has its charms, and in the case of Le Petit Bistro, an understated moniker suggests simple French cuisine, quiet dining, friendly service and moderate prices.

From the looks of it, the restaurant is just that: a neighborhood eatery with a brief bill of fare. Merely a pinch of a place, so small only one good game of hopscotch can be drawn on its sidewalk, the establishment looks out through curtained windows onto a busy stretch of El Camino Real in Mountain View.

More monastic than uncluttered, the room layout is Spartan by any measure: a few paintings, indoor awnings to foster a sidewalk cafe feeling and standard bistro dinettes. Still, there is plenty to like about the low-key atmosphere.

Along that line of thought, the kitchen offers a manageable menu that matches the restaurant: petite, modest and reliable. How can you go wrong with lobster bisque, onion soup, lamb chops, filet mignon, escargots and simple grilled fish? Everything here is practiced, nothing new or flamboyant.

The wine list is one sticking point: The bistro could use a better selection, with a couple of more moderately priced California vintages. We settled on the house merlot ($4.50 per glass), which was more than adequate to accompany crusty peasant baguettes and a duck liver pâté.

The latter, a hefty slab of smooth and musky pâté, was haloed in crushed pistachios and napped on a bed of butter lettuce among cabbage pillows and crunchy gherkins. It was good, but, alas, pistachio proved to be a two-edged blade: A little is divine, a lot is disastrous. Needless to say, the pistachio oil overpowered the duck liver.

We welcomed the basic soups, a lobster bisque ($5.50) and an onion gratinée ($4.50). The bisque was done in a tomato rather than a carrot base with an inspired touch of coconut milk. Decent, but a bonnet of crème fraîche and more strength in the lobster department would have been heavenly. As for the onion soup, the Gruyère cheese­crowned terrine coddled an earthy broth, fragrant with bay leaf. But, too bad, the short-handed waitstaff was inexperienced, and both soups were served 10 minutes too late. The bisque had thickened and the Gruyère had lost its supple seduction.

"Chef's Crispy 1/2 Roasted Duck" ($16.95) delivered its promised portion of golden and very crispy duck that was corseted in a citrusy sauce but smartly hemmed in with bananas to keep the whole affair from becoming too orangy. A cushion of short-grain rice and fronds of Swiss chard and green beans made good companions for the moist duck. Pleasant and quite uncomplicated, it could have been anyone's family recipe.

Beef brochettes with herbes de Provence and béarnaise ($15.95) brought forth aromatic gusts of thyme, rosemary, bay leaf and tarragon. A skewer of choice steak, grill-dark and oozing juices, was rather fetching on a thick cape of béarnaise, a fitting sauce for rare-cooked meats. A mini globe of mashed potatoes gave extra texture to the dish.

Sweet endings are plentiful and sweet at $3 to $4 a take. We enjoyed a luscious strawberry crêpe entangled in a chocolate web and cocooned in freshly whipped cream. Ripe strawberries played well against the heavily browned crêpe. Although charged with a wicked bourbon sauce, the bread pudding couldn't rival the crêpe.

A glance at the neighborhood and the restaurant's steady stream of patrons give evidence of the need for a good, moderately priced bistro in this neck of the woods. So, once management irons out the kinks, Le Petit Bistro should resettle into a niche in which it can make a notable stand.

Le Petit Bistro

Address: 1405 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View
Phone: 415/964-3321
Hours: dinner Tue.­Sun. 5:30­10pm (lunches starting in June: Tue.­Fri. 11:30am­1:30pm)
Cuisine: classic French
Price: starters $4­$9, entrées $10­$17
Ambiance: casual

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From the May 22-28, 1997 issue of Metro

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