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Ma Vie en Rose

[whitespace] Piaf's Dish Decadence: Executive chef Dane Boryta displays his richly Gallic grilled andouille sausage and carmelized onion quiche.

David Fortin

Can a Valentine's Day French kiss be trumped by the gallic charms of brunch at Piaf's?

By Michael Stabile

You can say what you like about the commercial artificiality of various "holidays" and wax ineloquent about losses of meaning and true spirit and the Trilateral Commission of greeting-card companies, toy stores and florists. But you do have to admit, especially in aseasonal San Francisco, that they break up the year. Valentine's Day is no exception, especially among indignant single people who spend Feb. 14 acting like heathens at a Christmas party.

For the second year in a row, I find my charming self dateless again, partly relieved that I have no Prada to purchase or roses to buy but partly envious that I haven't a real excuse to spend frivolously on oysters and gouge my wallet on Veuve Cliquot la Grande Dame. Nevertheless, I neurotically make reservations each year, usually a month in advance, hoping and praying and wishing and dreaming that I won't end up alone or--almost as disappointing--with a pretty yet dateless lady friend who doesn't mind last-minute calls from frantic homosexuals hoping to go Dutch for dinner. Then, at the very least, I have a slight chance at picking up the waiter.

This year, there's a table reserved for Stabile, party of two, eight o'clock at Piaf's on Market. I've found more romantic dining venues--Fleur de Lys, Acquerello, Julius' Castle--but they all seem so predictable for a romantic date. And what if you've just met the person? Even the least commitment-phobic boy would be wondering if you weren't already planning baby (or, in certain circumstances, puppy) names. Piaf's decor is lush and impressive (an abundance of royal purple fabrics, mounted tree branches sparkling with tiny lights, the table lamps a shimmering marriage of French Deco and Southern gentility), and the entertainment--unobtrusive but quite enjoyable cabaret--fogs the room with comfort.

Named after chanteuse Edith Piaf, she of the wistful and haunting cabaret style, the restaurant attempts to echo her in its mood and cuisine, so almost everything is decadent, romantic and almost maudlin with its prewar French attitude. Forget fusion, forget overwrought desserts piled high like Le Tour Eiffel. It's modern, with the requisite California touches based on local availability (an ahi tuna appetizer comes wrapped in smoked salmon with an avocado mousse), but the kitchen does best keeping to dishes Gallic and rich. The seared Sonoma foie gras ($13) is marbled and silky, its luxurious flavor soothed by caramelized apples, and its texture plushed by puff pastry soft as a canopied bed.

The entrees are classic, rustic and creative, and they are encouraged by the waitstaff in a manner that suggests they are excited about everything on the menu. I may be a reviewer, but I can't help but think that our waiter's enthusiasm was frank and uninfluenced by either management or a loyalty to gratuity. "Excellent choice" is always reassuring to hear, especially when it's heartfelt.

Rather indiscreetly, I found myself gnawing on my rack of lamb sans silverware. Like a medieval lord, I was not content with the tools at my disposal. After I had disposed of the wine-braised artichokes and pommes de terre gratinees (potato gratin), and after I had sliced enough of the blissful garlicky herbed meat from the bone, I could hardly resist cleaning the rack like a rabid dog. It seemed a rather out-of-place gesture in such a discreet and respectable venue, but sometimes visceral reactions (along with half a bottle of Bordeaux) bury such bourgeois inhibitions. The grilled filet mignon ($22.50) may have its competitors at other restaurants, but the accompanying shallot-Madeira sauce and potato-sage gratin complemented a wonderfully prepared cut of meat, even done medium rare.

I suspect that by the time most of you get around to making reservations for Feb. 14, 1999, Piaf's will be fully booked. It's hardly a secret, but the restaurant's reputation lacks the billboard quality and tour-book praise of the Farallons and Postrios of Union Square. And the Slow Club (another consistent favorite of mine), while not taking reservations, will be closed on the cupiditous occasion this year because it falls on the Sabbath. Thankfully, brunch is available at Piaf's (as well as at the Elite Cafe and Moose's) and is perhaps a better choice than a heavy, slightly drunken late dinner. Who, after all, is in the mood for romance with a hunk of protein in their stomach urging sleep?

Brunch at Piaf's, which includes performances of interpreters of Garland, Streisand and Monroe, is as much a bargain as it is a delight. In typical French fashion, breakfast includes omelets of mushroom and brie, crepes stuffed with apples and caramel, and quiches of caramelized onions and chevre. Of course, Piaf's presents the requisite Salade Nicoise (which I am as poor at resisting as I am at Bellini at Cannes) and the more dejeuner classics of croque monsieur and croque madame.

The highlight of brunch (or the semi-petit dejeuner, if you will) is Piaf's Eggs Parisian, two poached eggs bathed in Hollandaise and bedded on diced ham, spinach and mushrooms. I normally oppose poaching eggs, addicted as I am to solid oeuf-ed McMuffins, but after trying Piaf's version I realize I have neglected the wonderful way a loose yolk binds disparate flavors and textures like an epicurean semicolon. The croissant, layered and airy, proves more of a match for the liquid center than would a generic nook-and-cranny fast-food muffin.

The prix fixe brunch ($11.95) also arrives with delicate pastries, a first-rate fruit salad and complimentary coffee, mimosas and Bloody Marys. To think that I've waited in line for 45 minutes at Kate's Kitchen when, for the bother of sporting a pair of cufflinks and a crisp white oxford, I might have dined every weekend in unmitigated luxury.

The beauty of the Valentine's Day brunch is its availability and its convenience. After a full meal and a bottle of wine, the last thing a date would be is romantic. Unless, for you, romance involves your partner passing out. Brunch at Piaf's fulfills all romantic inclinations but leaves one light enough to engage in an afternoon picnic, cocktail or parkside rendezvous.

After breakfast at Piaf's, even a Lifetime Original Movie becomes a source of libidinous desire. I loved my dinner, and come Feb. 14 you'll certainly see me here again (of course, with whom is a crapshoot), but barring Viagra or methamphetamine, I'll stick with brunch as the surest-fire method of romantic encouragement on Valentine's Day.

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From the February 1, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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