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Country kitchen: Chez Marie co-owner Angie Lewis and co-owner/chef Shirley Palmisano have created a hidden gem that specializes in country French-Continental cuisine with a special menu of Cajun and Creole dishes.

Chez Comfort

Forestville's Chez Marie: a welcome find

By Paula Harris

WHILE OUR TABLE is prepared, we sit in a little waiting room inside the house that is the Chez Marie restaurant in Forestville. The parlor is very homey, with small tables topped by shiny Mardi Gras trinkets and chairs arranged in a semicircle. We stretch out our chilled feet toward the small radiator and enjoy the short wait.

Just beyond is the dining room, and it's a cozy one. A glowing fireplace, an assortment of decorative copper pots and pans, and soft lighting conspire to mellow out even the most rushed diners.

Chez Marie brings to mind one of those unpretentious cafes in the French countryside where the menu is chalked on a board, the tablecloths are checked gingham, the wine is local, and the food is straightforward and fresh.

On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the focus here is country French-Continental cuisine, including escargots, cassoulet, and bouillabaisse. But on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, Chez Marie transforms itself into "Marie's Mardi Gras Café" and celebrates down-home Cajun and Creole foods--like fried green tomatoes, red beans and rice, and gumbo--from New Orleans, the chef's home town.

That explains all the festive beads and other decorations hailing from the Big Easy that adorn the dining room. It's Mardi Gras every week here. On hot summer evenings, the Cajun music plays and there's a big washtub of iced beer right at the front door.

OWNED AND OPERATED by chef Shirley Palmisano and her partner, Angie Lewis, Chez Marie (named after their mothers, May and Mary) is housed in an unassuming building. There's a collection of cookbooks inside and a kitchen garden out back.

It's a west county hidden gem.

The two women have created a warm, welcoming ambiance in true family-run country style, and they make a good team. Palmisano darts around the look-in kitchen, which she seems to run single-handedly and in which she almost effortlessly turns out dish after dish of impressive, made-from-scratch goodies.

Meanwhile, Lewis works the dining room, serving the patrons. She's always quick with a friendly joke or a maternal arm around the shoulder as she recites the day's specials.

Even though the place is packed when we're seated, the dining room is (amazingly) not at all noisy. It's a "country French night," and classical music spills from the sound system. The mood is serene but not stuck-up.

Lewis brings the bread. It causes quite a stir at our table. Here are not just a few wimpy slices in a delicate basket, but huge hunks of warm baguettes drizzled very generously with olive oil and topped equally generously with shredded asiago cheese. We hungrily demolish one plateful and it keeps on coming!

WE TRY A SELECTION of appetizers. Ail et olive roti ($5.50) are warm-roasted Kalamata olives cooked with rosemary and plump buttery cloves of garlic and then seasoned with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Delicious.

The pâté du maison ($5.50) is a smooth, rosy pâté made from chicken liver and port wine pâté. It's served with a handful of cornichons, mustard, and bread.

A rich cream of tomato soup is enlivened with a sprinkle of toasted pistachios.

Eggplant Marie ($12.95)--grilled eggplant seasoned with oregano and layered with caramelized onions and mozzarella cheese in a wispy, papery filo shell, then baked golden--is a good bet for vegetarians.

We're pleased to see that some of the Cajun-Creole items are being served as specials tonight. The Louisiana jambalaya ($11.50) is a hot and hearty blend of ham, chicken, Louisiana hot links, and peppers in rich brown gravy served over rice. There's just enough spice to make those sweat pearls break out on the forehead.

One disappointment is the duck à l'orange ($15.95). The sweetish orange demiglacé sauce is fine, but the half duck has a stringy, dry texture that's quite unappealing. It's served with white rice and asparagus spears.

The scampi picatta ($16.95) are large prawns in a delicate white wine, parsley, and garlic butter sauce with artichoke hearts and hints of lemon and capers. It's fresh and light--a good springtime dish.

A small but selective wine list features local offerings.

All desserts are $4.50, including a lightly caramelized vanilla-loaded crème brûlée, an old-fashioned pecan pie scented with bourbon, and an intense bittersweet-chocolate custard.

It's all very relaxing, like eating at a friend's comfy home. Palmisano and Lewis want you to settle back in your chair, loosen your belt, and even slip off a shoe. "Come enjoy the music and the smell of good food cooking in the kitchen," they coax in the restaurant's newsletter. "The pot is bubbling with down-home stuff just for you."

Chez Marie
Address: 6675 Front St. (Hwy. 16), Forestville; 887-7503
Hours: Dinner from 6 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday
Food: Country French-Continental, Friday-Sunday; Cajun and Creole comfort food, Wednesday and Thursday
Service: Friendly, casual, and maternal
Ambiance: Relaxing bistro atmosphere--like eating in a friend's home
Price: Moderate
Wine list: Short but selective list of wines from Sonoma and Mendocino counties
Overall: 3 stars (out of 4)

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From the April 6-12, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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