If clothes make the man, then does the bistro make the neighborhood, or the other way around? This is a trick question, because the answer is: both. Part of the magic of any bistro is its neighborhood, which becomes part of the experience. And the obverse in a city of neighborhoods like ours, no neighborhood is quite complete without a bistro.
For neighborhood atmospherics, it’s hard to match the cloud village that floats on the back-country streets behind Grace Cathedral. A cable-car line, a shop or two, a run of handsome townhomes with a certain Parisian feel and a twinkling cityscape in the background and, at the edge of things, a bistro, a quite convincing one, Rue Saint Jacques.
Don’t bother looking for a street named Saint Jacques, because you won’t find one although you will find an authentic-looking Paris street sign in the restaurant’s front window. Don’t bother looking, either, for the strangely enchanting Uzbek restaurant called On Jackson, which until about four years ago could be found on Jackson, at Taylor. It’s in that snug corner spot that we find Eric Lanvert’s Rue Saint Jacques, with an appealing paint treatment (like butter washed with cognac), a distinct upgrade in furniture quality from Uzbek days (including rather Arts-and-Craftsy-looking chairs), and, of course, some first-rate French cooking.
By "French cooking" I don’t mean the haughty, haute kind with all the rich, intricate sauces, but the earthy kind, the bistro kind. Rue Saint Jacques’ menu is mostly an exercise in this sort of heartiness, carried off with considerable style. The dishes rely on a timeless appeal and are very much the ones you’d find in countless neighborhood bistros in Paris. They also rely on high-quality (often organic ingredients) and thoughtful, though not fancy, preparation.
For those of us who love the prix-fixe, Rue Saint Jacques is as good as it gets. A flat fee of $35 buys you three courses: any starter, any main dish, and any dessert. Some of the more luxe possibilities, such as lobster risotto and the very formidable cassoulet, do carry a surcharge, but these are the exceptions. The sans surcharge appetizers are not exactly shabby anyway; a gently beefy beef tartare is made from freshly ground Niman Ranch filet mignon and subtly spiced up with a bit of mustard, while charcuterie is presented as a duo of rich, housemade pâté slices, one of duck, another (and coarser, country-style) of pork. Meaty, chewy snails are served Catalan-style, in a chunky sauce of sausage, bacon, and melted cherry tomatoes in an earthenware crock.
The French onion soup is the color of espresso: a sign that the onions have been patiently and repeatedly caramelized for maximum intensity of flavor before being sealed under a cap of melted cheese. A pistou-style soup of winter vegetables, including cabbage, carrots, turnips, and white beans, is paler pleasantly pale, really, though roasting the roots might have added some depth and weight. I did wonder about the addition of the out-of-season basil, which lacked its midsummer pepperiness.
The main courses, like their opening acts, are mostly familiar. Skirt steak (from Niman Ranch) is pan-roasted, sliced, slathered with a sauce of caramelized shallots, and plated with a stack of wonderfully slender, crisp herbed frites. Breast of local duck is roasted (to medium and perhaps then some), sliced, fanned over a bed of wild rice, and sauced with an ambrosial blend of cognac and green peppercorns.
The cassoulet is so heavy-duty that it reaches the table in a cast-iron skillet, complete with handle that must be oriented in an acceptable direction so as not to catch a passing thigh and send the whole thing flying. Within the skillet we find (in addition to a wealth of white beans lightly crusted with bread crumbs), confits of lamb and duck leg (the duck still on the bone), along with an entire boudin blanc and chunks of fatback. You pay an extra $7 for the cassoulet (or $26.75 à la carte), but the dish could easily feed two hungry people.
The one offering I hadn’t seen before was mijoté de porc, described by the menu card as "slow-cooked pork belly with a ragout of vegetables." Since pork belly is the source of bacon, I was expecting something rather fatty, in fact problematically fatty, but what turned up instead resembled a pot roast: chunks of tender meat in a thick, dark, slightly sweet sauce laced with wild mushrooms.
Rue Saint Jacques’ desserts are very much in the bistro mainstream and include a solid chocolate mousse and a creditable vanilla bean crème brûlée. The unconventional choice is probably the strawberry soup, which drew my eye in part because of its unexpectedness and in part because I hoped, after some heavy going through the savory courses, that it would be relatively light, despite the promise of Chantilly cream.
Dessert soups I’ve had in the past have been served in broad bowls, like regular soup, but this one arrived in a parfait glass: a base layer of soup, not too sweet and quite chunky, almost like runny preserves, with a thick cap of Chantilly cream, which is basically sweetened whipped cream. The boundary between the layers quickly became blurred, and the cream more or less self-folded into the soup, with a luxurious result.
The service staff is swift, professional, and proper, in the best French tradition. They do not fawn or make chitchat, but if something goes wrong your order slip temporarily ends up on the kitchen floor, say, causing a delay you’re likely to be comped a glass of wine or a shareable dish, and maybe even some excellent port to finish. Or was that Banyuls?
RUE SAINT JACQUES
Dinner: Tues.Sun., 5:3010 p.m.
1098 Jackson, SF
Wine and beer