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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Birth of a Bistro

Matthew Greenbaum's ongoing gastronomy in Graton

By Jonah Raskin

BEYOND A DOUBT, the best bistro food I ever ate was in the unpretentious proletarian restaurants around Les Halles, the gargantuan Parisian market--the "belly" of Paris, the novelist Emile Zola called it. Unfortunately, Les Halles closed in 1969, and with it a chapter of French cuisine came to an end. I was a student in Europe at the tail end of that era and I can still remember the stupendous onion soup, the fantastic bifteck and pomme frites, the baguettes, the red wine, and the company of the robust French workers. The food was incredibly good and incredibly cheap. Never again will anyone find bistros that inexpensive, but like many Americans--and like the French themselves, who are notoriously nostalgic--I've never given up hope of eating in a bistro that takes me back, gastronomically speaking, to those halcyon days at Les Halles.

Now at last, a bistro and bar will open soon, practically in my own backyard. The French workers who packed the bistros around Les Halles might not find the food familiar, but they'd probably recognize the ambiance.

The Underwood, as it's called, is meant to be a cozy culinary home away from home, and it's almost certainly guaranteed to draw large crowds and to inspire great expectations. Matthew Greenbaum, who has Rabelaisian appetities and who was raised in restaurant-rich Manhattan, has already made a reputation--among the cognoscenti--as the master chef at the Willow Wood Market. For years, he's been preparing, perhaps, the best polenta in Sonoma County, as well as gourmet sandwiches, flavorful fish stews, and my favorite--roast chicken with mashed potatoes and greens.

Why Greenbaum is so eager to open a bistro and bar in Graton is puzzling.

For one thing, bistros are so commonplace in Northern California they're practically a public nuisance. (Californians often want to one-up the French, whether in food or in wine, and the current bistro explosion seems to be yet another California attempt to out-French the French.) Greenbaum's bistro is also puzzling because Graton, his hometown, is off the well-beaten restaurant track. Then, too, the Underwood will open directly across the street from the Willow Wood Market. Greenbaum and his partner, Sally Spittles, who is British, will be competing with themselves.

If the Underwood turns out to be as successful as they both suggest, it might undermine the Willow Wood.

AFTER COOKING passionately since he was 17, Greenbaum obviously needs a new venue and new cuisines to conquer. He's always daydreaming about dishes to serve the world, and apparently the only real way to make his dreams come true is to open another restaurant. Perhaps, too, he needs more recognition than he's had so far. Last spring, when the Willow Wood received a rave review in a major San Francisco newspaper, Greenbaum wasn't mentioned. Undoubtedly, he's one of most invisible gourmet chefs in Northern California, but that seems likely to change once the Underwood gets under way.

Greenbaum plans to do the lion's share of the cooking, which will be a change from the Willow Wood, where the sous-chefs play a major role. The menu for the Underwood isn't carved in stone, but Greenbaum's head is already bursting with creative ideas. You can expect to enjoy dishes like roast lamb with white beans, pancetta, and Roma tomatoes; pan-seared sea bass with green peppercorn vinaigrette and garlic mashed potatoes; pizza with fresh figs and goat cheese. When he won't be standing over a hot stove, Greenbaum expects to sit at the old-fashioned, full-service bistro-style bar and schmooze with friends. If he's lucky he'll get to go home after only 12-14 hours on the job.

The Underwood promises to be less folksy than the Willow Wood Market, which doubles as a kind of convenience store that sells milk, eggs, and bread. Unlike the Willow Wood, the Underwood will be dark, swanky, and sexy. It'll serve food and drink until late--at least that's the idea. Whether Sonoma County folk are prepared to eat, drink, and be merry at 10 or 11 p.m. on a weekday night remains to be seen. The Underwood will even have an outside patio designated for cigarette smokers, an idea that might not go over well with west county citizens offended by even a hint of nicotine. But Parisians will probably appreciate it.

Greenbaum has never eaten in a bistro on French soil, but he's made it his business to eat in as many bistros--from Balthazar to Bouchon--as possible. Not long ago, he went bistro-hopping in Napa, and came back to Graton singing the praises of Jeanty, a small restaurant that made him feel very much at home and very well fed. He's also made it his business to devour cookbooks about bistro food--Linda Dannenberg's Paris Bistro Cooking and Daniel Young's The Paris Café Cookbook. If you're curious, Greenbaum will explain the differences between a brasserie and a bistro, or complain about the fact that in some towns bistros have gone corporate, thereby betraying their roots. Still, he hasn't become academic or tradition-bound. Over the last year or so, he's been experimenting with recipes, aiming for a cuisine that fuses the best of France and California.

Of course, you can count on me to be on hand opening day. I can see myself sitting at the bar drinking a Negroni or maybe a Martini. Chances are--I've had a peak at the menu--I'll order the fried artichoke with fennel aïoli as a starter, and the grilled ahi tuna niçoise--a classic French dish--as an entrée. Granted, I won't be transported back to Les Halles in the mid-1960s. But Greenbaum's bistro cooking will be nearly impossible to resist. I don't think I'll even try.

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From the August 16-22, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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