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Wine Service at Chez Papa (SF)

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Wine Service at Chez Papa (SF)

Melanie Wong | Aug 23, 2004 05:20 AM

A few months ago, I asked for recommendations for steak frites to accompany Bordeaux.
([BROKEN LINK REMOVED]) Thursday, we ended up at Chez Papa for dinner and finally sent that bottle to wine heaven.

A $20 per bottle corkage fee is usually beyond my comfort level. Yet, in this instance the wine service provided by Mathieu at Chez Papa was worth it. We had the bottle on the table when he first stopped to see if we had any questions about the menu. When he carefully tipped it to look at the label, I asked him if the house had Bordeaux glasses. He said that they did…for this wine…and removed the stemware that was on the table.

Mathieu returned with a pair of Riedel Bordeaux stems, another small wine glass, a decanter, and a water glass. He carefully removed the cork, keeping the bottle upright to not disturb the sediment, and placed it on the table for inspection. Then he poured a little of the wine in the small wine glass for me to sniff and confirm that the wine was sound. He used this bit of wine to rinse the inside of the decanter (avvinare), however he did not rinse the two stems. By the light of the votive candle from the table placed on the upended water glass to elevate it, he gently and slowly eased the wine into the decanter watching for the edge of the sediment. He managed to do all this at tableside in a very crowded spot. Then he placed the bottle on the ledge behind my shoulder and left the decanter on the table without pouring the wine.

My dinner companion and I wondered if he would return soon to pour for us. Then we figured Mathieu wanted the wine to open up more in the decanter. Since we both like to gauge the development from start to finish, we poured a bit for ourselves just to get comfortable with the wine’s promise. Soon Mathieu reappeared at tableside, suggesting that we wait longer to drink it. We noted his concern and said we would start now but would wait to pour his sample until he thought it was ready to his taste.

When the wine began to unfold and show its sweetness, I motioned to Mathieu that he might want to try it now and had him pour a sample for himself. He tasted it, felt it needed more time, and suggested that the next visit we should pull the cork at home before bringing it in to give the wine more breathing time.

We continued to sip it and watch its progress. At the point that we were remarking to each other that it had grown in volume and expression, Mathieu was back at the table to tell us it was at a very good point. He was monitoring the wine’s progress as closely as we were!

Foodwise, it was hard for us to stay focused on steak when we saw the menu’s list of appetizers, and even harder when we eyed the delicious-looking plates being served around us. We vowed we’d be back to order just small plates. We did share one appetizer, the stuffed provencal vegetables. A mushroom, section of courgette, and a red pepper were filled with seasoned ground lamb and pancetta and topped with some melted cheese. A drizzle of pistou on the bottom of the plate added another dimension of flavor. The tender arugula base gave us enough greenery to feel virtuous. This was definitely a winner.

I had the steak frites, made with ribeye and served with ratatouille. The well-seasoned steak was rare, as I’d ordered it. However, since it wasn’t a very thick cut, the outside was sort of grayish and not as charred and crusty as I would have liked to develop the flavors and textures more fully. The accompanying green peppercorn sauce was delicious with it. Even though the steak knives look formidable here, mine wasn’t very sharp and I had trouble cutting my steak.

My companion had the filet with foie gras sauce. The filet stacked on a base of potato gratin looked quite diminutive compared to the abundance of my steak and pile of frites. Yet, that pool of foie gras sauce coating the plate provided a world of extraordinary flavor and texture. Sliding a taste of the crispy fried parsnip shavings swathed in the foie gras sauce into my mouth, he said, “you’re not going to believe this sauce.” If we hadn’t been in a public place, I’m sure I would have licked every trace of the delectable sauce off his fingertips. In the end his plate was swabbed clean of every drop.

For dessert, we shared the chocolate soufflé topped with whipped crème fraiche. It was deep and chocolate-y but on the dry side, and while I found the carmel sauce too sweet, it need the moisture.

While my criticisms above may not sound like it, I enjoyed the food a lot and will be returning. The place was as noisy and cramped as others have reported, especially in the middle of the bench where we were seated. But even though it was crazy busy, the food service was seamless with extra plates, new utensils, and drinking water appearing when needed. There was a huge crowd waiting outside for tables, but I never felt rushed. This was my first time at Chez Papa, and I can understand why it’s so popular.

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