2121 Adams Avenue, University Heights
At Farm House Café, chef-owner Olivier Bioteau claims to serve “rustic French cooking.” That he does — if you remember that France is a country where “rustic” and “sophisticated” aren’t contradictory terms. (Paris has no lock on Michelin three-star restaurants — many of the greatest are out in the boonies, near smaller cities in the provinces.) And unlike what’s served at many bistros south of I-8, Bioteau’s cooking is genuinely French in technique and in spirit — exquisitely artisanal and wholly free of shoddy shortcuts and heavy, tourist-food clichés. Little wonder the staff of Tapenade (and Marine Room, 1500 Ocean, and Kensington Grill, among others) have been hanging out here on their off-hours. If you’ve ever been to France and eaten well, you’ll want to eat here. If you’ve never been, then you’ll want to eat here to discover what you’ve been missing.
The website menu told me who among my posse would want to eat here most: Marty and Dave habitually vacation in France (even in winter, when they do apartment-switching with Parisians fed up with snow), and they know the difference between French cuisine and le faque-French blague made for the Yankee hordes of August-in-Paris. So Farm House was a natural for them and vice versa.
The neighborhood is very nearly rustic itself, one of the sweet green corners of the center city, and the interior decor is classy-rural — a small bar on one side of a divider, the eating area on the other, with an array of wooden duck carvings along a ledge, but also glam sparkly light fixtures over the blond-wood tables. Music plays softly, but the bass rhythms can penetrate the room. A small patio in front, shaded by an awning, holds a few tables and chairs for fair-weather dining or al fresco coffees and desserts, which are killingly good — but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The menu changes frequently with the seasons, so by the time you read this, many of the dishes I ate may have left the stage, replaced by fresh players of equal panache. We began with potato and leek soup topped with Stilton whipped cream. Unlike the spudsy German rendition, or ultrarich chilled vichyssoise, this is more of a light leek soup with a little potato — warm green velvet, not too thick and perfectly salted. It seemed like a French grandmother’s equivalent of Jewish chicken soup. (French doctors probably tell their patients, “Take a bowl of leek-potato soup and call me in the morning.”)
The chicken liver mousse is extraordinary, a rare lesson in how to do it right — that is, rare. The interior is pink, not brown — the chef gently precooks the livers in a bain-marie rather than the more usual hurried sauté. Hence, the mousse’s texture is nearly as lush as foie gras. It comes with the standard garnishes of mustard, toasted baguette, a cornichon, and a few lightly pickled veggies.
We found a “salmon confit” less successful — a hunk of raw salmon, very silky but rather bland, bathed lightly in citrus olive oil with a charming little salad of fingerling potatoes and celery, plus frisée. It’s supposed to include rosemary cream, but that was missing that night. A better current choice would be a new dish of escargots given a lighter, fresher treatment than the standard Burgundian snail butter. (Several friends who ate at Farm House after I did have raved about it, and the chef’s proud of it, too.)
The restaurant’s website menu is quite out of date, and to my delight, the sea bass has changed from New Zealand bluenose to local corvina from the Sea of Cortez. It’s one of the finest, most flavorful fishes of this hemisphere, and Farm House gave it all the honors due it. Cooked tender, barely opaque, it was served with fennel root, roasted tomatoes, and fava beans in a very light cream sauce — just enough to disseminate the sweet notes of all the vegetables. Dave raved about how the tomato complemented the fish. Marty thrilled to the young favas (as I did). And the faint licorice notes of fennel situated the dish firmly in Provence, where fish and fennel go together like, uh, steak and frites.
The inevitable steak frites was a grilled flat-iron from the admirable Meyer Ranch, which provides humanely raised natural beef. Rare as ordered, it was as tender as a toddler’s thigh. It came with perfect double-fried frites (see Joy of Cooking for the recipe), a little ramekin of superfluous ketchup that tasted housemade, and a lump of butter mixed with blue cheese to melt on the top. “This isn’t rustic, it’s bistro,” said Dave. Marty’s riposte: “Is there any town in France that’s still so rustic it doesn’t have a bistro serving steak frites?”
Braised pork shoulder (the tastiest muscle-meat of the pig) was done simply and beautifully; it brought to mind a dish I still remember from the early days of Chez Panisse, when Alice Waters was newly inspired by the foods she’d tasted during her travels in the French countryside. The pork was tender and delicious, and a lovely porky jus surrounded a ragout of turnips, carrots, and a few turned potatoes. The turnips were shockingly good — I never knew that I could love that vegetable — their faintly sharp earthiness actually upstaging the potato balls. “This is really ‘rustic French cooking,’ ” said Marty. “It’s everything that’s good about the genre. Everything is simple, natural, in proportion. Even the meat dishes feel light.”
Go hog wild with the totally affordable wine list. The white Graves (Bordeaux) and the Macon (Burgundy) are both terrific; so is the Côtes du Rhône Village. Plenty of far-flung bottlings and California choices, but — with a French chef carefully choosing French wines, why be a smartass? Drink those Aussies at Bondi!
It’s worth saving a little appetite for dessert because chef Olivier is a master of sweets and a genius of imaginative chocolates — equal to our local Chuao, and potentially challenging even San Francisco’s legendary Michael Recchiuti.