“You’re not getting older, you’re getting better” is one of those things you say to someone who’s getting older and not better and is sensitive to the decline because of yet another birthday. (Birthdays beyond the 30th are at best memento mori, at worst a cumulative curse. After 30, one should count them by 10s.) Yet y-n-g-o-y-g-b is not just a mollifying phrase to be found on a Hallmark card; sometimes it is actually true. Many of the grander wines improve with age, up to a point, and so does the occasional well-conceived restaurant, particularly if the restaurant is a bistro.
“Bistro” is a much-abused term in our gastronomic idiom. Its meaning has been pulled and stretched to cover all manner of restaurants, bound together perhaps by just the faint suggestion of casual hipness. But even in America, where language is treated as cavalierly as food additives and war, words do retain core meanings, and the core meaning of bistro remains French. A proper bistro is quintessentially a neighborhood restaurant, well established and appealingly scuffed, with a brief menu of mostly traditional (French) dishes at moderate prices.
Le Charm is a proper bistro, though it is in San Francisco, not Paris, and when it was opened in 1994 by Alain Delangle and Lina Yew, its neighborhood was a little iffy. The SoMa of that time was already beginning to don its new Loftland identity, but the donning was uneven, and large swaths of the area were still grubby and gritty enough to make opening a nice restaurant a bold proposition. These days … well, SoMa is far more residential than a decade ago, and in that sense le Charm, the neighborhood restaurant, now has a neighborhood to belong to and neighbors to serve.
The wait has been kind to the restaurant. Although the space was recently remodeled, it has a look of woody permanence, with golden oak trim, cinnamon-colored walls, and a trellised garden set with tables. My basic impression, from years ago, was clatter, but while the restaurant now is hardly quiet, steps seem to have been taken to curb the noise. The floor is carpeted, and this alone makes a big difference.
Le Charm has been, from the beginning, a prix fixe haven, and while today’s bill of fare is fitted out with a full complement of à la carte choices, the prix fixe — $28 at dinner for three courses — continues to fascinate. Usually I succumb to this fascination, since the latter menu is full of the sort of earthy standards that make French food approachable and even lovable, from onion soup to blanquette de veau, and the fixed price means you need not worry about the bill, unless you go nuts with the wine. (Le Charm’s wine list is brisk, moderately priced, and surprisingly tilted toward California bottlings.)
But I do not always succumb, particularly when in dessert-forswearing mode, as we all must be from time to time. I was, moreover, interested in the mosaique ($8), an à la carte offering that turned out to be a kind of chilled vegetable terrine, wrapped in a skin of leek and cut into large, roughly triangular flaps. The terrine consisted of snow peas, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, and shiitake mushrooms, while the leek skin was tender enough to be cut with an ordinary knife.
I also wanted lentils, and that meant the boudin blanc au foie gras ($19), stubby lengths of mild white sausage cut on the bias and given a Stonehenge arrangement around a moody hillock of Puy lentils, with interpolations of peeled, seeded tomato quarters.
Across the table, another story was unfolding, a $28 tale in three chapters that opened with a salad of cubed red beets set in tatsoi greens (decent, but more about looks than taste) and ended with an orange crème brûlée topped with slices of mandarin orange. In between there was a plot twist: the restaurant’s justly famous chicken-liver salad substituted for a selection from the standard, and weightier, main courses, with a corresponding discount of a few bucks. (I was surprised to see the possibility of duck confit passed over by someone I had long understood to be an insatiable duck-confitista.)
The chicken-liver salad — buttery chunks of meat with the mildest breath of liver flavor, scattered like boulders across a meadow of mixed greens — might work a bit better at lunch, when less heft is desirable, at least for those who need to remain conscious for the remainder of the workday. (A friendly warning here: the garden, in good weather, provides an al fresco experience you might have some trouble pulling yourself away from.) I was disappointed to find no croque monsieur on the midday menu, but quiche lorraine ($9.50), an egg tart stuffed with ham and cheese, wasn’t a bad substitute and was also served whole: a disk the size of one of those personal pizzas you can get at Roundtable.
Tart lovers of the sweet tooth variety will appreciate the tarte tatin, which at $4 is something of a steal and is also excellent — not the usual state of affairs for restaurant tartes tatins, too many of which have runny caramel and mushy apples. Le Charm’s version features shapely hemispheres of firm fruit, bronzed and slightly translucent, as if formed from amber, along with viscous caramel and flaky pastry. The formula is simple, really (tarte tatin is much easier to make than ordinary, American-style apple pie), yet a well-made one never fails to charm. SFBG
Dinner: Tues.–Thurs., 5:30–9:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.; Sun., 5–9 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.
315 Fifth St., SF
Beer and wine