Bistro basics: French fast food fuss-free and people-pleasing

Bistro basics: French fast food fuss-free and people-pleasingCHEF Philippe Chevalier has promised three bistro dishes for us to photograph, yet his kitchen at La Salamandre in Danville is spotless, no food in sight.

We point to our watches and fret. Chevalier smiles.

He opens the refrigerator, gets out a pan, turns on a burner. Within five minutes, he has plated an elegant bouillabaisse, a seafood stew and bistro favorite from the South of France.

Minutes later, he delivers a steaming pot of creamy cassoulet, followed by a decadent croque madame, a cheesy toasted ham sandwich topped with a fried egg.

"You see how we do it?" he says. "Everything is done ahead. The sauce, the broth, the preparations. That way, you make the food and then you sit down and eat it with your guests. You don't cook it one course at a time."

Chevalier likes to call bistro fare "French fast food -- good food served fast," but the real reason most people go to a bistro is to indulge in mounds of hearty, unpretentious food: cheesy vegetable or macaroni gratins dusted with breadcrumbs, succulent roast chicken, saucy plates of coq au vin, and homey lamb stew.

"Bistro is old country style," he says. "It's simple, classic, basic food that everyone likes. It's what your mother made for you. It's very tasty, but not too chic."

Bistros aren't new. They don't serve exotic foods. They don't try to impress. They don't fuss with the food to make it pretty. Their dress-down, utter lack of trendiness may be exactly why Americans are crowding into bistros across the United States.

Since the 1990s, dozens of bistros, large and small, have opened for business in the Bay Area: Absinthe and Boulevard in San Francisco; Left Bank in Menlo Park, San Mateo and Pleasant Hill; JoJo in Oakland.

Last year also brought a short tower of new cookbooks on the topic, two inspired by bistros that have become regional landmarks, Balthazar in New York and Hamersley's Bistro in Boston.

Since introducing Boston to such signature bistro dishes as braised short ribs, onion soup and steak frites about 15 years ago, Hamersley's has become nothing short of a destination. Weekend reservations must be made weeks in advance.

Exactly why Americans are so en-

amored with the casual comfort foods of France, says co-owner and chef Gordon Hamersley, is no mystery. Bistros are friendly, prices are modest and portions tend to be large.

"In my mind, bistro is the ultimate home cooking brought to a casual setting," he says. "It's familiar and it's fully satisfying."

The fact that American cuisine has deep roots in French techniques and flavors makes French bistro food all the more appealing to Americans.

"Most Americans cook with a French accent anyway, so it isn't likely that people will find bistro cooking terribly foreign."

For many, beef bourguignonne tastes a lot like mom's beef stew; cassoulet, like a thick bean soup. Tarte Tatin tastes similar to an extra-buttery apple pie, and chocolate mousse is like ultra-rich, extra-good chocolate pudding.

In his book, "Bistro Cooking At Home" (Broadway Books, $35), Hamersley says one thing he loves best about bistros is that they are much more relaxed than high-end restaurants. Food isn't "worshiped or fawned over."

"We love the lack of pomp and circumstance. I think that's what makes bistro cooking so much more fun for a chef. Chefs here are realizing that they can cook great food with great ingredients in a casual way."

Even though the American interpretation of "bistro" isn't always 100 percent authentic, Hamersley says most restaurants that call themselves bistros understand that the bistro-sized portion is essential.

"You don't go away hungry when you eat at a bistro. People expect large portions," he says. "I remember going into this bistro in France and ordering a plate of choucroute, a gigantic mound of sauerkraut with sausages. I looked at that plate and I knew I couldn't eat it all. Then this tiny French woman came in and ordered the same thing. I said to my wife, 'She will not be able to finish it.' But she did."

Since opening Hamersley's, Hamersley and his wife Fiona have expanded the restaurant from 49 to 100 seats, putting it more in the realm of a brasserie. But the menu, Hamersley says, remains pure bistro.

"What you'll notice about true bistros is there aren't that many choices, and many of them are predictable. You'll always have a steak frites (steak with french fries) and simple sauteed fish and a lardons salad (salad topped with a poached egg and bacon.)

"The lardons salad is very typical of the bistro style. You take something simple like salad, add some ingredients, and it is transformed it into something with a completely different attitude."

Without deviating from tradition, Hamersley's restaurant often introduces "new" dishes -- traditional dishes that are slightly tweaked.

"I'll do grilled mackerel, but I'll finsih it with lime and serve it with beets. Or I'll do a braised vegetable and serve it with a bit of lime vinaigrette," he says.

"For us, it's just a matter of putting a little of our own personality into the traditional dishes."

Despite the growing number of restaurants serving up bistro fare, plenty of people remain confused about what "bistro" really means, says Curt Clingman of JoJo Country French Cooking in Oakland.

"Some people find the word a little confusing, which is understandable, since it's used in so many different ways here in the United States," he says. In France, there is no such thing as a "bistro sandwich," nor would any restaurant large enough to have a hostess ever be called a bistro. Large restaurants that serve bistro fare, he notes, are actually brasseries.

"For us, bistro means authentic country French. Our goal is to have people walk in and to feel like they might be in a tiny restaurant in Paris or Bordeaux or Lyon."

In France, he says, bistros typically have a chalkboard menu. Service is casual because the entire restaurant is often staffed by two people who seat, cook, serve and clean up.

Even though Clingman and partner Mary Jo Thoresen are not French, the two opted to open a bistro not just because they love the cuisine, but also because they expected bistro food to become the next big culinary trend.

"We decided that Italian, although it will always remain the top cuisine ... isn't the only cuisine that people like to eat. We wanted to do something different and to sort of jump on the wave."

The opportunity to recreate French regional cuisine in California, he says, has been both fun and challenging.

"The reality is that because we are here in California, we become a California bistro in the sense that we use ingredients from here. We also cater our cooking somewhat to appeal to the California sensibilities."

Californians, he says, typically want to see less fat and a lot more vegetables on their plates.

"There is a huge difference between French and California cuisine when it comes to produce. In French bistros, produce is never the star. In France, if you ask if the dish includes vegetables, they will look at you and say, 'Of course! There are potatoes!'"

The other huge difference between California cuisine and French bistro dishes is the amount of time it takes to prepare the dishes. Although the food is quick to heat and serve, hours go into the preparation and pre-cooking of the seemingly simple dishes.

"For the bouillabaisse, you must start with the fish bones and the heads and cook them, cook them for two or three hours. There is no other way," he says.

For Chevalier, the recipes are not complicated. But twice a month, he is reminded of just how much goes into each dish -- when he teaches cooking classes at Andronico's in Danville.

"Simple does not mean easy," he says. "For every bistro dish, I have my mise en place. Everything is ready in advance," he says, motioning to dozens of trays and pots filled with beef stock, veal stock, fish stock, all cooked for hours with just the right balance of herbs and seasonings.

At La Salamadre, the menu includes both bistro and "haute cuisine" selections such as souffle, which must be prepared, baked and served to order.

Chevalier says he enjoys the variety, but he is always happy to see lots of bistro orders when the restaurant is full.

"The bistro way is so much easier."

Cassoulet du Chef

This dish of beans baked with a variety of meats is perfect for a weekend meal or dinner party. The cassoulet could be accompanied with a green salad, a Beaujolais or a strong, dry white wine. Courtesy of chef Philippe Chevalier of La Salamandre in Danville.2 pounds dried white beans (Great Northern or Navy)

1 onion, quartered, plus 3 onions chopped

4 bouquets garnis (in each: 2 parsley sprigs, 1 thyme sprig, 2 peppercorns and 1 bay leaf, tied in a cheesecloth bag)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 tablespoons (3 ounces) rendered goose or duck fat