Hello, mon amour. You know how much I adore you, don't you? Oui, I am feeling romantique tonight. Let's go get a bite--I want to drink too much red wine and make eyes at you. Besides, you make me hungry. I know the cutest little place, it's right on a corner in Duboce Triangle. Yes, the pretty neighborhood with all the tree-lined streets and wide sidewalks to amble along--let's walk there. What's the bistro called? Oh, it's ~L'ARDOISE~. Yes, that's how you say it: lard-whaaz. It means blackboard in French. You love it when I speak French to you, non?
If a place was going to make you say je t'aime to someone special this fall, or perhaps inspire an affair, L'Ardoise just might be the spot. This très charmant bistro is from chef-owner Thierry Clement, who was previously the executive chef at Fringale in SoMa. I love it when someone goes out on their own, and ends up with a hit on their hands. My sister and I dined here on a Tuesday, and the place was packed by 7pm with happy diners. Granted, it's small, er, very cozy, so it does fill up quick. You'll ideally want to make a reservation, because there isn't any room where you can wait inside if you're trying to score a table (or if the couple who has your table hasn't stopped being all lovey-dovey and paid their bill and gotten a room already).
The candlelit dining room is full of red tones, with wood banquettes and accents, and the carpeted floor helps absorb the buzz. The lighting is a bit dim for my taste because I really like to look at and admire my food before I scarf it, but it does make for a flattering, sexy atmosphere.
The bistro-style menu is unpretentious and quite affordable, including the trio of can't-miss tiger prawn raviole ($10) that come in a buttery herb sauce vierge, with a touch of dill. Granted, the ravioli's "pasta" was actually a won ton wrapper, but they are delicate and delectable nonetheless. (Let's just say the shotgun kitchen doesn't look like the ideal place to make a bunch of homemade pasta.) I was also sold on the butter lettuce salad ($8), crisp and cool whole leaves dressed in a unique smoked olive oil vinaigrette with shavings of petit Basque cheese--so nicely balanced.
Many can't imagine a French bistro without escargots; the snails here ($11) come in little hollowed-out potatoes, with a garlicky parsley sauce. They were a bit chewy--not quite the plump, succulent kind I've been spoiled with before (and prefer), but the execution was flavorful and homey.
There was no way I was passing up the much-lauded duck leg confit ($19) for an entrée. Smart move (check out the big brain on Brad!), because the rich and crispy duck formed a "wow, sorry, I can't share my dinner with you" kind of bite when paired with its accompaniment of nicely dressed greens, and decadent pommes landaises, a potato execution that is puuuure evil (raise pinkie finger to your mouth). These spud coins are fried in duck fat, and are accessorized with pieces of bacon for good measure. Uh huh. Shame I have never encountered this execution before, then again, it could be a blessing we didn't meet until now. Don't fret--you can get the pommes landaises as a side dish, too.
We also tried the ratatouille ($5) as a side, served in a mini red Le Crueset crock that is chock full of sweet squash, eggplant, onion, and plenty o' herbs--it's like snacking in a summery French garden.
I wasn't as smitten with the almond-crusted barramundi ($18), napped in a savory lobster bisque reduction with a bed of mushrooms--it was overall a bit mushy, and the plate didn't have the dynamic flavors and textures like the duck confit dish did. I feel like it needs a small side dish to keep your palate interested. I grew slightly jealous of the neighboring table's plate of steak frites ($18), which a friend of mine simply raves about. I shall return!
There are a few clunker items on the menu that are personal pet peeves of mine, like the filet mignon that lists white truffle oil as an ingredient, or the out-of-season asparagus with the halibut. Small quibbles for me, non-issues for others.
You can finish up with a cheese course (read the blackboard), which I was tempted to eat instead of the classic desserts I have grown fatiguée of seeing (crème brûlée, bread pudding, chocolate fondant, all $7). But in the end, it's a good thing we didn't miss the lovely apple tarte tatin, with apple that was neither mushy nor too crisp nor too sweet--it was just right. The chocolate fondant the kitchen sent out was also a fitting finish, a well-executed warm and smooth flourless chocolate cake, but the raspberry coulis was too cloying--I would have been thrilled with some simple crème anglaise instead to highlight the dusky chocolate flavors instead of overwhelming them.
Let's just say it--the French servers here are as hot as they are efficient. Friendly too. The meal moved along at a nice clip, and they take care of all the details. Example: when you go to the bathroom (where you can inscribe some graffiti or prose on the blackboard), you return to find your napkin folded. And they don't stand there and look at you helplessly when there's not enough room to place everything down on your table--they make room. Merci, garçon.
The wine list is affordable and spans enough choices to pair well with the hearty food--mostly French with a few wine country choices, and a smattering of other international selections. It's also organized by varietal, so if you're not up on your French wines, you won't sit there looking like a nitwit (a phenomenon that some wine lists seem to inspire).
The place definitely draws a hodgepodge of diners, from a slew of gay and straight couples all out on dates, ranging from 20-somethings to older, while singles are perched at the bar overlooking the miniscule kitchen. The place isn't all rosebuds and hushed voices--it has some definite verve and liveliness. In fact, the music was a little funny--I think someone's iPod had gone awry, spitting out Serge Gainsbourg one moment, and then some D'angelo-esque smoove jams that didn't quite fit the Frenchie vibe. The menu jumps around a little bit that way as well. But in the end, this is exactly the comforting kind of food and place I'll want during these upcoming chilly and damp months. À bientôt!
151 Noe St.
Cross: Henry St.
San Francisco, CA 94144