A visit to Chapeau is like a vacation in Paris 

When Phillippe Gardelle opened his little French bistro Chapeau! 10 years ago, he took the jobs of host, sommelier and waiter for himself. With his French connections, and some luck, he was able to attract talented chefs who happened to be in between gigs at big-time restaurants.

Chapeau! became known as a place where you could dine on sophisticated French food and wine yet pay neighborhood prices. It was always packed.

But the star chefs who so blithely dropped in, dropped out, leaving Gardelle with an inconsistent kitchen. He finally couldn’t stand it and decided to take over the stoves himself. He had never cooked before. The result? Gardelle has as much natural aptitude behind the stove as he does leading the front of the house. The food is terrific and the prices unbeatable.

Most diners choose the ample $35 three course prix fixe with lots of choices, though you can get everything a la carte.

I like to start with a perfect salade landaise, a towering pile of pale, curly frisee woven with shavings of smoked duck breast and bits of crunchy potato chip in a creamy mustard-y dressing. One cold night, a classic onion soup, naturally sweet, with a dark caramel broth and cheesy crouton, hit the spot.

Velvety sweetbreads were lightened with a ragout of wild mushrooms, carrots and turnips. A stunning molded vegetable "napoleon" with goat cheese, drizzled with basil oil and aged balsamic, tasted like a breath of summer.

A big hunk of handsomely browned monkfish, firm, slightly chewy, almost lobster-like, sat on top of a buttery butternut squash risotto with a cleansing pouf of micro greens and a rakish Parmesan tuille (a cracker so thin, it’s full of holes). A spoonful of reduced shellfish broth — not too strong, just in balance — finished the dish with panache.

Deep-flavored cassoulet arrived in an earthenware casserole straight from the oven, a bubbling ragout of white beans long cooked with duck confit, lamb shoulder and hunks of garlicky Toulouse sausage, topped with golden bread crumbs. Once it cooled, each bite was different.

For dessert, there are sparkly sorbets, a tropical fruit salad with vanilla custard and ice-cream filled profiteroles draped in warm chocolate sauce.

Gardelle has compiled one of the best wine lists in town with four pages of exceptional, mostly French bottles priced around $35.

I loved the whole experience — cramped, Parisian and personal. Gardelle must connect with his customers. He’s in the dining room in his chef’s whites as much as he’s in the kitchen. Luckily he has an excellent crew, people who have worked with him since opening.

Afterward, Gardelle told me that he taught himself to cook by imagining dishes, and then figuring out how to execute them. He clearly aims for big, full flavor, always in balance, and chic presentation.

Though he and wife Ellen, who works in the dining room, have two children at a French-American school, he still tutors them in French. He says that he wants them to understand the poetry and nuance of the language, just as he wants his customers to get the soul of French food and wine. He’s a passionate guy and you feel the emotion behind this restaurant. As a self-taught artist, he’s driven to please both his patrons and himself. We’re the lucky ones.

Restaurant Info

CHAPEAU!

Location: 1408 Clement St., San Francisco

Contact: (415) 750-9787

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Price range: $24 three course early bird, $35 three course prix fixe, or starters $9 to $10.50, main courses $18.50 to $28

Recommended dishes: Salade landaise, onion soup, vegetable napoleon, cassoulet, monkfish, profiteroles

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Advised

Patricia Unterman’s new "San Francisco Food Lover’s Pocket Guide" is now available at bookstores. Contact pattiu@concentric.net.


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Patricia Unterman

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