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You Can Leave Your Hat On

[whitespace] Chapeau!
David Fortin

Prix-Fixes: Chapeau! offers three prix-fixe options, one of which is vegetarian, and then a number of a la carte options.

Enjoyable cheap French at Chapeau! on Clement Street

By Paul Adams

Chapeau! is a find. Way out in the Richmond, it's an aggressively charming bistro that has high-quality French food for unusually little money. It serves what seems to be a predominantly neighborhood-based crowd of regulars. The proprietor, host and de facto sommelier, Philippe (genuinely French, by the way), is buoyantly friendly, helpful and enthusiastic to an almost alarming degree--he adds a great deal to the experience.

The restaurant is small and almost too narrow for the amount of traffic--there are as many as six staffers bustling around maybe 15 tables. Getting attention here is not a problem. The decor is hat-oriented and includes many wall-mounted chapeaux, as well as some Nagelesque hatted women and other incidental ornateness. At the end of the meal the check arrives in a hat ("Voici le chapeau!").

The wine binder is 2 inches thick and is clearly the object of a lot of attention from the management. In addition to a large number of wines available by the glass, there is a selection of bottles under $30 listed in a separate section. Philippe appears to be intimately familiar with the nuances of each bottle's taste and origin and is very glad to help the diner choose.

The bread is that rarity in San Francisco, the non-sour baguette, and is served with a top-notch butter. Service is often on the fawning side of attentive, professionally classy and charmingly accented.

The menu doesn't change as often as it does at some places, but it's large enough that the recidivist diner can have a number of practice-honed meals before repeating himself. There are three prix-fixe options, one of which is vegetarian, and a number of a la carte choices which overlap the prix-fixes. (A prix-fixe dinner hovers around $25--less before 7pm.) Everything on the menu has a lushness that makes the diner feel pampered. Appetizer selections include a potato-Brie galette served with frisee that is satisfyingly rich and greasy, and a round of warm goat cheese that arrives atop a little salad of haricot-vert slices, with yellow bell pepper bits, herbs and a tangy vinaigrette. Also available is a plate of sweetbreads, which were not the best imaginable, accompanied by black trumpet mushrooms in a port sauce; a wonderful shellfish seafood-chunks-in-nage dish; and a green salad.

Among the entrees is an excellent light, fresh and flaky fish--bluenose bass, recently--in a dark meaty sauce, served with artichoke and potato as vegetables. A tower of duck-breast pieces, red cabbage and apples is excellently conceived and elegantly constructed, but its duck could have been more tender. The most delicious of the entrees sampled on a recent occasion was a corn galette--reminiscent of a very soft, rich fried polenta cake, but dramatically flavorful. It is served with eye-opening savory morels in a lavish sauce.

Desserts are the standard classics: intense tarte tatin, chocolate torte, super-creamy crème brûlée, perfectly textured profiteroles, and so on, in addition to a warmly spiced cold orange soup--all very good. There is also the cheese plate, snugly at home in this environment (but being trendily ushered in everywhere, you'll notice), featuring a selection of half a dozen or so fine cheeses, including a portion of freshly sliced, oh-so-pungent tête-de-moine.

If you're looking for a relaxed, fun dining experience and you're not a Getty heir, chances are you'll be quite pleased with what Chapeau! has to offer. The food is satisfying and can be highly memorable. It's a good choice for vegetarians dining with meat eaters, or really any small party. The exuberant host will no doubt make solo diners feel like dear friends.

Chapeau!, 1408 Clement St.; Tuesday-Saturday 5-10pm; Visa, American Express and MasterCard; 415/750-9787.

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From the June 1-14, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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