Let me preface what I have to say here with a caveat: I have always been deeply skeptical about all aspects of French cuisine. Although my first restaurant line cook's job was in a "Continental" dinner house back in the day, some seed of doubt – a deep-seated native San Franciscan inferiority complex that stretches back probably to the Gold Rush era (ref: "Poodle Dog," Le Poul de Or) -- still resides in me. It's this pericious notion that the French really know the art of eating dinner and that by comparison we're all just a bunch of unwashed dogs at the table, gauche and feckless, that has put me off setting foot in a French restaurant for a long time. So many other great places to eat without the unordered side dish of attitude, no?
Well, brothers and sisters, I got over it tonight at Gamine. Oh boy did I ever get over.
This bistro, on a stretch of Union Street best known as the Valley of the Last White People in San Francisco (2223 Union St. X Fillmore, 415 771-7771), is the size of your average suburban living room. Depending on the configuration, it's between five and eight tables. In other words: Tight. And loud as bombs. Tonight, a Saturday night, was *real* tight. Because of a large birthday party group along one wall, the entire room was five tables. (There's also a very nice private room in back, which was probably too small to accommodate the birthday party.)
My family – four adults and a six-year-old – rarely agrees on anything. And we never agree on food. Yet we were unanimous in our take on Gamine: Great food, great wine, great service. The total experience. Grand slam memory. The $264 tab (including 20 percent tip, and a sufficient amount of quality wine) represented a very good value, by any measure. When we walked (waddled) out of there, we were *completely* satisfied. All was right with the world.
For starters: The excellent thin fries with garlic aioli; mussels in wine, garlic and butter; calamari with spicy aioli. Three home runs and we're just getting warmed up. (Figure two or two-and-a-half hours for dinner. So be sure you are in the company of people you actually like.) Of course, sopping up the sauce from the PEI mussels with the decent bread at the table was a highlight in itself. The PEI mussels aren't nearly as intense as the feral mussels we gather right off the San Mateo County coast, but they were delicious in their own right. As good as restaurant mussels get.
The entrees: My wife had the basic burger (served on a baguette that was just right, not too thick, not too chewy) with blue cheese. (On the burger – beef, fish or vegetarian -- there are four decadent cheese options, plus the option for bacon AND a poached egg, because so many people in the region don't get enough cholesterol.) Her take on it: Orgasmic. My mom's mussel entree (same prep, plus cream, shallots, etc.) also two thumbs up. My mom's boyfriend (one tough customer) proclaimed his salmon among the best ever. And my marinated lamb, heavy on the garlic and thyme, was perfect as well. The little girl had the spaghetti carbonara, old-school, with raw egg, and pronounced it delicious. (She was so stuffed with mussels, calamari, carbonara, etc. that she even passed on dessert, which is extremely rare for a six-year-old who has never met a cheese plate or chocolate mousse she didn't love.)
There is no great secret secret to what these folks are doing right. It's called a cow. There is cream. There is butter. There is a LOT of cream and butter in everything. Not rocket science. This stuff makes you feel good. Duh. Have another glass of wine. It's excellent, too.
To finish, Grandma and her boyfriend had a decadent creme brulee which they proclaimed "best ever" (both having spent substantial time in France). I finished by telling the owner, "just pick me out a nice glass of sparking wine." By this point, my trust in him on calling wines was 100 percent. When the guy who built the menu and the wine list is serving you, how much better can it get?
Gamine is a smart operation: These guys figured exactly what they wanted to achieve, then scaled everything to the millimeter to make sure they executed perfectly. There is no way in the world that this level of service could be delivered if they had 12, 15, 18 tables. It just doesn't scale up. The owner seated us. He chatted with our daughter and thoroughly charmed her. (This is not a place to bring little kids, by the way.) He called the wines exactly. (PLEASE do yourself a favor and let your server drive on wine selection. The owner's picks – a bottle of French sauvignon blanc for our first course, plus by-the-glass picks tailored for each of our entrees – were dead-on. And there's no way in the world we could have done as well navigating the list on our own.) In short, regardless how you feel about the French, if service matters to you, this is someplace you will appreciate. It's just a flat-out pleasure to see people who are so far beyond merely competent. The service at Gamine was masterful.
Nits to pick? Zero. Gamine was the total experience. And a good value to boot. No reservations for parties smaller than six. So be prepared to cool your heels up to 45 minutes on the weekend. Don't worry. Once you're inside, you're in very good hands and there's nothing to do but roll up your sleeves, loosen your tie, tip back in your chair, drink a glass of beautiful wine and thank God you live in a city that could support a little restaurant that's this good. Everything is going to work out just fine.