We were recently musing about the strength of European cuisine in San Francisco, particularly regional Italian, Spanish and even Austrian/German/Bavarian. But we struggled to name any go-to French restaurants: many are upscale Michelin-starred places like Atelier Crenn, La Folie or Fleur de Lys. Bouche was nice although we haven’t yet tried the new chef, and places like Cafe des Amis and Left Bank, while fine, are larger and more chain-like in their offering. It’s true that French techniques are used in many kitchens, but we were in search of a more classic and accessible French restaurant. Lucky for us, Nico opened in Pacific Heights last November, billing themselves as a modern bistro.
Husband and wife owners Nicolas and Andrea Delaroque turned a former furniture store into a 44-seat Parisian-style bistro with room for six more at the zinc wine bar. Born and raised in Paris, Nicolas Delaroque has a strong background in classic French cooking and an extensive Bay Area resume that includes stints at Sausalito’s Le Garage, Luce (under Atelier Crenn’s Dominique Crenn) and Manresa in Los Gatos. Delaroque is able to deliver high end cooking techniques in a more approachable form with great success, applying Northern-California sensibilities of using quality, market-driven ingredients. Note that this post covers two recent dinners.
On our first visit we had reservations, but as we prefer to sit at the bar, we asked if we could sit there instead. There was a little a bit of hesitation since they do not normally serve food at the bar, but they went ahead and granted our request. It turns out the kitchen only orders enough ingredients to accommodate a certain number of diners, but as we had reservations it wasn’t a problem. So we went ahead and started with a couple of glasses of sparkling Crémant Rosé made with a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon as a proper apéritif:
The menu is divided into five sections (Bites, Starters, Main Course, Cheese and Dessert) with about three to four items listed under each category. Since they are market-driven, many items on the menu change on a daily basis.
From the “Bites” section, we started with the really tasty Pork Rillette. Although we know that a rillette is preparation of meat similar to pâté, the server helpfully tried to explain it to us and noted that most diners were not familiar with it. In any case, the rillette itself was really rich and smooth, with thin slices of pickled purple cabbage adding just enough crunch and slight acidity to each bite. Our only complaint was that there weren’t enough of the lacy crouton “sails,” but they also provided bread on the side:
We also ordered the perfectly fried Croquettes from the bites section; they were deliciously filled with squash and goat cheese and topped with grated Parmesan:
On another day, the croquettes were made with salsify and topped with umami-rich seaweed flakes:
As offal eaters, we had to order the Lamb Tongue, accompanied by assorted roasted potatoes and artichokes, from the “Starter” section. We marveled how some of the potato slices resembled the tender lamb tongue in texture and mouthfeel. Mustard was well represented in grain form in the dressing and also as mizuna garnish:
Dungeness Crab and grapefruit segments were set on a bed of braised baby leeks and topped with transparent radish slices and micro greens. This dish was beautifully plated and had excellent flavor combinations:
General Manager and Wine Director Malcolm Brownson was ever present, chatting and socializing with most diners. Every item on the menu has a wine pairing that can be ordered with it. His curated list had several wines from regions in France and California, but not much from Northern Rhône, which surprised us. Based on his recommendation that we prefer the taste of terroir to fruit, he suggested the 2010 Antoine Petitprez Bourgogne from one of the newer generations of winemakers in Burgundy. It was good and paired well with most of our dinner; however, we can highly recommend the domestic Copain Tous Ensemble Syrah, which we had on our second visit:
On one visit we split the Beef main course which came with roasted sunchokes, potatoes and green garlic. It was a hearty dish that was elegantly prepared and served bleu (rare) enough to our liking:
On our subsequent visit, the beef wasn’t on the menu, but an awesomely prepared Duck with shallots, endive and yellow foot mushrooms was. The skin wasn’t as crispy as we would have liked, but the fat was properly rendered off the perfectly cooked breast meat:
We also had the very tender and tasty Pork tenderloin served with polenta, grilled cabbage and sweet rainbow carrot shavings:
They offer a selection of three cheeses which can be ordered individually or as a combination, which is usually comprised of a cow, sheep and goat milk cheese. We have come to the conclusion that this might just be the best cheese plate offered in the City, as their cheese monger is an expert at purchasing delicious French cheeses.
One night it was creamy Camembert (cow), smokey Fumaison (sheep) and Chabichou (goat) cheeses:
On the other evening, the selection was a really delicious Comté (cow), Pave de l’Aveyron (sheep) and Saint Estephe (cow) cheese:
Nico’s food is amazing and is truly defining what a modern bistro should be like. We would easily return just for the generous cheese plates. We can understand why they don’t normally allow diners to eat at the handsome wine bar. There is only one server manning the bar, pouring wine for the entire restaurant, so tending to diners could overwhelm the position. But we can honestly say that we preferred the service when we sat at the bar, as the service we received at the table was not as efficient.