If every neighborhood needs a neighborhood bistro, then every neighborhood bistro needs a neighborhood. And is there a neighborhood in the city more charmingly neighborhoody than Cole Valley, the little hamlet tucked in a cleft of the hills near UCSF and fitted out with every romantic accoutrement, from a railway station (Muni's N-Judah line stops at Cole and Carl after emerging from a mysterious tunnel) to a sunlit boulangerie with well-worn floorboards? The neighborhood's village center is, like that of neighboring Noe Valley, replete with amenities, including a hardware store and a plethora of interesting restaurants (from a hamburger stand to a sushi bar), but a certain serenity has survived; there are fewer baby strollers and fewer speeding SUVs careering around corners with frenzied drivers shrieking into cell phones than over the hill. While 24th Street, over the last decade, has acquired a Marina patina, or mania, Cole Valley remains one of the most Parisian of the city's enclaves, a village and city at once.
And it has one of the most Parisian of the city's many neighborhood French bistros: Zazie, which opened in 1992 and changed hands two years ago, with no apparent drop in atmospherics or quality of food. My overwhelming impression of the restaurant a decade ago was one of narrowness, as if I might stretch out my arms and touch the walls on either side ("the restaurant equivalent of a galley kitchen" was my long-ago phrase). Of course it isn't really that narrow; snug is more like it, but then, the tendency of memory is to exaggerate. The dining room, with its pair of window alcoves, accommodates about 20 tables of varying sizes, while in the back, past the bar, is a door that opens onto a secret garden, raised and enclosed. The enclosure is softened by bougainvillea and hundreds of little white lights, like stars, while a forest of gas heaters keeps the winter chill at bay even in the evening. If there is one respect in which it's clearly better to be a French bistro here than in Paris, it has to do with the feasibility of dining under the heavens in January.
Our winters might be milder than those of northern France, but even mild winter weather has its chilly edge, and if you're eating outdoors, you're going to want some reinforcement beyond what the heaters can provide. As luck would have it, Zazie's menu is full of discreetly muscular treats, including a first-rate French onion soup ($6), made with a deeply tasty beef stock sweetened by the slow cooking of the onions and capped by a pad of melted Gruyère cheese, and a chicken liver pâté spread on toasted levain and notable for its whipped-butter consistency.
The pâté appeared, for us, as the first act of a three-course, $19.50 prix fixe. You have your choice from among several though not all of the menu's starters, main courses, and desserts; the permissible terrain is marked off with little asterisks. In a bow to the small-plate-tapas-sharing vogue, the restaurant also offers a $16 starter-sampler platter whose constituents you choose from an approved group. Since I was in the company of a beet lover, we went for the full-scale salade betterave ($8), a gorgeous still-life bundling of red and gold beet coins, avocado wedges, fennel shavings, and mixed greens, the whole thing lightly showered with a vinaigrette of white balsamic and flecks of gorgonzola. Although beets are beautiful to look at, like glistening jewels, I will never love their slightly geutf8ous texture, and the grace of this salad was the presence of everything besides the beets themselves.
Not all the food is French, though most of it is, and the non-Gallic stuff can show a French touch. There is a Zazie burger, as well as a not-tiny crock of macaroni and cheese ($4, and a deal) in which the presence of béchamel (un-American, in a good way) was revealed by a whiff of nutmeg.
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