French at the French Pace

Chez Simone

In the East Bay, you’re never more than a couple blocks from a French restaurant. Many even serve reasonably authentic French food, and quite a few employ French (or obsessively Francophile) staff. Still, it’s hard to get more Gallic than Chez Simone.

That’s because all those other pretenders run American restaurants, where dinner starts at 5:00 p.m. sharp and diners rule the roost. Waiters slow their scurrying just enough to avoid breaking a sweat, and every restaurateur dreams of turning her tables three times to maximize her profits.

By contrast, the French way of running a small restaurant appeals to anyone who ever worked in one. I’m not talking about Michelin three-stars, God forbid, where the line cooks are scheduled for 12-hour split shifts that start at 8:00 in the morning and end at midnight. No, I’d love to open a restaurant where I work just enough to make my living, sit down and talk to friends when they come in, and close up for a month in the height of tourist season.

That’s the kind of restaurant Simone Herault has operated for 23 years. Over the years, Chez Simone has disappeared into the woodwork, pushed aside by trendier places. It’s a shame, because Chez Simone is all kinds of cute, and the simple, ultraclassic French bistro fare it serves is back into fashion.

Hidden away just above the Piedmont strip, Chez Simone is on the second-floor landing of a U-shaped, brown-shingled building recessed from the street. There’s a yoga studio across the way. The landing surrounds an overgrown garden and is capped by a trellis verdant with wisteria. At night, the trellis twinkles with blue, white, and red fairy lights tied up amid the vines and trees.

On a sunny day, everyone who can sits outside at one of five tables. Inside, you feel like you’ve stepped into someone’s dining room. The gingham half-curtains and little cafe tables draped with faded squares of strawberry-print fabric are slightly tatty after years of use. Desserts and quiches await service on the ledge by the kitchen, and stews burble away in casseroles on the stove.

Simone looks like she should be running a cafe in some corner of Rouen or Toulouse. Round and red-cheeked, she putters around the kitchen cheerfully, chatting with the waiter and the regulars. At lunch she works alone, moving at a relaxed pace between the kitchen and tables. She’ll say something brusque that borders on rudeness. Then improbably, she’ll titter and burble something in Franglish, and you’ll realize she’s not being unpleasant, just French.

Chez Simone opens for lunch Tuesday through Sunday and for dinner Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Every day Simone rewrites the tiny menu on a plain piece of paper, and diners pass the paper around trying to decipher her Gallic scrawl. It describes variations on a set of themes — salads, quiches, omelets, crepes — laid out on another, more permanent-looking card. Bigger entrées such as beef Burgundy, cassoulet, osso buco, and coq au vin rotate on and off every couple of weeks. Simone hasn’t changed her format in 23 years “because the people, they like what I have.”

By and large, everything is pared down, French, and good. Most of the entrées come with a side salad or, at dinner, a choice of two soups or salad. Long, shaved strips of carrot ornament the ubiquitous butter-lettuce salad judiciously dressed with a well-balanced basil vinaigrette. “I make my own vinaigrette,” Simone told me on the phone. “I won’t give out the recipe.”

Slightly burned onions made one night’s French onion soup a little bitter, but it still tasted meaty without meat. Strings of melted Swiss thickly layering the bottom of the bowl came up with every spoonful. The only appetizer besides soup and salad — and other than the bread, the only thing not made in-house — is a thick, pink slab of pork-liver pàté flecked with mushrooms. It is served on an oval plate with cornichons and pickled onions, a huge dollop of sharp French mustard, and slices of baguette.

One nice, inauthentic touch is the menu’s selection of vegetarian appetizers and entrées. The crepes, omelets, and quiches all have veggie counterparts. One night we tried the long-stewed ratatouille entrée, a summery mélange of tomatoes, zucchini, onions, eggplant, and red bell pepper, sprinkled with parsley and served with white rice. At lunch a week later a vegetarian friend ordered the stuffed eggplant, which was basically ratatouille redux. Simone had cleverly combined leftover rice and ratatouille, added a bit of extra tomato paste and seasonings, and stuffed it all into a half eggplant. The extra time in the oven brought all the flavors together more tightly.

Two thick lamb chops, the pyramid-shaped kind, were pan-roasted to medium rare. A little parsley sprinkled on top was the only garnish, but a side of flavorful zucchini sautéed with chunks of garlic confit made up for the lack of sauce. The lamb came with carrot coins and pommes à la vapeur, both refreshingly not overcooked. The same sure touch with the vegetables made the huge salade niçoise — a mound of butter lettuce with boiled eggs, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, flaked poached salmon, and a shower of tiny black olives — a success.

I found one of Simone’s signature dishes, the seafood crepe, inedible. The fault wasn’t with the thick, eggy crepe itself, poured to order, but the tender bay scallops within — they were coated in a thick béchamel that reeked with unreduced old white wine.

“The Lorraine? She is not cooked,” said Simone when I ordered the quiche, another signature dish. But it came out of the oven just in time, so I got a large wedge anyway. Everyone should be lucky enough to taste quiche straight from the oven, when the cream-and-egg custard has barely set and tastes lighter and airier than mousse.

The wine list could use updating. Chez Simone keeps the price of house wine at French bargain-basement prices, but that means “chablis” and “bordeaux” — the jug kind. We found a more upscale ($4.50) French vintage in a tiny airplane-size bottle more drinkable. The restaurant could easily find a regular supplier of decent table wines and raise prices to $5 per glass. (The problem may be storage.) You’re better off ordering a glass of the French hard cider, sweet and faintly alcoholic.

For desserts, Simone again sticks to simple classics, such as chocolate mousse and tarte tatin. Find out whether the tarte tatin has been made that day — ours hadn’t. Though the apples had been caramelized nicely, the soggy pastry sapped the life out of it. My dining companions loved the wedge of blueberry and raspberry clafoutis. The baked dessert uses leftover crepe batter to hold together a landfill of berries. The passage of time and Simone’s skill have taken the cliché out of the chocolate mousse. Feeling the mousse deflating in my mouth and coating my tongue with lush, dark chocolate reminded me why I used to order it every chance I got. Even after 23 years, some things are perfect as they are.

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