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Baker Street Bistro
Baker Beachhead: Put-together yet unpretentious, the Baker Street Bistro remains an island of Gallic charm in a rising sea of wraps, tapas and general trendy food faddism.

Eclipsed in recent years, French food still holds appeal

By Hank Hamilton

Not all that many years ago, the cuisine in San Francisco was dominated by France. People eagerly ate heavily sauced, trite recipes with limp vegetables that seemed to come from New York hotel menus. Then the French got very complicated with minceur and nouvelle and whatever, to the point where nobody could keep score. And then came the Italian revolution (not to mention the Asian revolution, or the way Russian faded and then rebounded, or ... you get the picture), which pushed French cooking into the background.

Or so one might have thought. Luckily for Gallophiles, San Francisco is still blessed with a delightful collection of more than 50 French-inspired cafés and restaurants. There are the high-end expense-account places like Masa's, the Ritz Carlton Dining Room and Fleur de Lys. And there are the upper-scale neighborhood restaurants such as Chez Michel, Alain Rondelli and La Folie. But most folks don't eat at these places every day, and probably not every month, and sometimes not in a lifetime. With that in mind, I offer a small collection of café-style French dining establishments that will not disappoint. These can be enjoyed on an everyday or every-week basis.

Baker Street Bistro
This is a real bargain with the plus of an attractive bit of eccentricity: two cozy rooms connected by the sidewalk. Check in at the one on the left and hang around until your table is ready. Yes, even with reservations you may have a 15- to 20-minute wait. They proffer glasses of house wine to make you more comfortable with the wait, and it works. Tables are so packed together that you are hip to jowl with your convivial dining companions. It's filled with after-work financial-district types, local laid-back regulars and the occasional "a friend told me it's great" newcomer.

In any event, these guys really cook, and they seem to do it from dawn to midnight. The service here is a French dream ... that is, the kind of service the French dream of getting: very informative, prompt, considerate and attentive. The wine list offers around 18 items, mostly French, priced from $13.50 to $45, with six or eight offered by the glass. There's a $12 corkage fee (geez!).

A four-dish $14.50 prix fixe meal is available, and a great a la carte dinner for two can be enjoyed for about $52 with a couple of glasses of wine. The escargot plate is a good way to start. Then dig into dishes like rabbit in mustard sauce and top sirloin of lamb in a Bordelaise sauce. 2953 Baker St., above Greenwich (415/931-1475). Light breakfast, lunch Tu-F, dinner Tu-Su, late dining M-Sa, brunch Sa-Su. Beer and wine. Di, M, V. Reservations suggested. Parking is often scarce; try the other side of the block.

Le Charm
This is a pretty place with pretty food in an unlikely location: the ground floor of a semi-industrial block more or less around the corner from Yerba Buena Square. Indoor tables are comfortably spaced, but still close enough that you can get familiar with your neighbors and what they're eating. There's a patio out back that is used whenever they think it's worth the effort (if patio dining is important to you, call), and they close in August.

The service is very crisp and to the point, with good follow-up attention. The staff is aware of what the dishes are and can help you through the menu. They do a good lunch business and are filled early for dinner as well. Prices are right (dinner for two with wine is about $50) and the 35-item wine list is attractive. Wine prices range from $14 to $28. Eleven are offered by the glass.

Relax and order a goat cheese and roasted pepper salad and/or the duck confit and apple salad, a real eye-opener. A couple of the interesting main courses might be halibut with tomato confit with a sorrel beurre blanc and a beef bourguignon with pomme Anglaise. Two can eat a la carte for about $50. An $18 three-course prix fixe dinner is available. 315 Fifth St., above Folsom (415/ 546-6128). Lunch M-F, dinner Tu-Sa, brunch Su. Beer and wine. Mod$ M, V. Reservations available. Parking is on streets and in nearby lots or the garage at Fifth and Mission.

Plouf! is located in the growing French Quarter of San Francisco, near Kearny and Bush. It is brought to us by some of the folks that also own the nearby Cafe Bastille. This is a theme restaurant, and the theme is fish. Models of game fish adorn the walls and fish dishes adorn the menu. Food service is at a counter and at tables. I enjoy the counter service. If you don't like seafood, don't come here ... try Cafe Bastille instead.

One of the many pleasures here is the 50-odd-item (although a bit pricey) wine list with 11 by the glass. If you don't like any of those, there's a $12 corkage fee (geez again!). A house specialty is mussels in a variety of broths. One of my favorites, because you don't find it everywhere, is mussels in an apple cider broth with slices of apple and onion. Follow that up with courses like crab cakes with a mango salsa and baby greens or sautéed monkfish medallions with pearl onions, bacon and cabbage ragout. A fine evening for two can be had for $60. 40 Belden Place, above Montgomery, between Bush and Pine (415/986-6491). Lunch M-F, dinner M-Sa. Cocktails, beer and wine. Mod$. M, V. Reservations available. Park where you find it; the Sutter-Stockton garage isn't far away.

South Park Café
This is one of the elder French cafés in town, located in the midst of what is now multimedia gulch and the highly yuppiefied South Park area. There is a familial relation to Ecco across the park and the highly regarded Universal Cafe down toward Franklin Square. The look and feel of this place is much like that of East Coast and European cafés, which translates into croissants for breakfast, light lunches and hearty dinners.

There is a restorative effect from the leafy park across the street and the feeling of being freed, for a short time, from the urban thrall. A few sidewalk tables are used in good weather.

The "attitude" that used to permeate this place seems to have softened into a more friendly, easy, California style. The place gets a bit noisy as it fills up, but it's still pleasant. And you could probably find your next job by eavesdropping on the next table. Full food service is available at the bar, so you might squeak in without reservations, but I recommend you reserve or come early if you aren't alone. Parking can be a bit of a challenge, but there's always something within a block.

The well-selected 48-item Franco-Cal wine list offers 11 by the glass. There's a $10 corkage fee for those who prefer their own. In the hours between lunch and dinner, a collection of tapas-like dishes is available.

When it comes to choosing a meal, depend on the specials, which will be posted on a blackboard. You might be able to enjoy a duck confit with marinated carrots and a hazelnut vinaigrette or roast duck breast with a honey-lime sauce and green cabbage braised with bacon. Two should get a good dinner for about $65. 108 S. Park, above Second St., above Bryant (415/495-7275). Light breakfast, lunch, dinner M-Sa. Beer and wine. Mod$ A, M, V. Reservations available.

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From the June 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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