Hurrah, another French restaurant. It's about time.
Not that they ever went away; they just dwindled in number over the past three decades. The downturn roughly coincided with the popularity of California cuisine, a hybrid of West Coast ingredients coupled with French technique. Unless a dedicated French chef was in residence, menus became an eclectic fusion.
Not that our culinary landscape has suffered; on the contrary, the dining options have never been better. Maybe the increase in French restaurants is filling a void, or because people are increasingly eating out. In 2015, for the first time, Americans spent more on dining out than in grocery stores. I hope it is due to a desire to experience one of the world's great cuisines. Whether it is rustic or elegant, bistro or haute cuisine, French fare is superb.
Take La Bohème, which debuted in November on California Avenue in Palo Alto, joining nearby Pastis French Bistro (the same owner is also behind La Bohème) in offering diners a choice of bistro food or a finer dining experience. La Bohème occupies the space that housed the defunct high-end hot-dog eatery Chez Franc.
The decor could be almost anywhere in France, with framed posters and oversized mirrors, crisp linens and wood chairs, a tidy bar area and Metro sign painted on subway tiles. Partner and chef Phillipe Leroy's fare isn't fussy; it's just good, thoughtfully prepared and carefully plated.
Moules frites ($16) is a great way to start any dinner. Though this was actually a dinner portion, I eschewed the accompanying fries and focused on the black bivalves. These mussels had muscles. Not that they were tough, just big bruisers that filled the mouth. The white wine garlic sauce they were steamed in was light and tasty and well worth spooning or sopping up with a baguette.
I was slightly disappointed in the salade Lyonnaise ($13). Traditionally, the salad has crisp lardons, and sometimes croutons, over bitter frisée lettuce, tossed in a warm vinaigrette and topped with a poached egg. The La Bohème version included sliced potatoes and substituted turkey bacon for lardons. The turkey bacon was diced, chewy and lacked flavor. Probably healthier, but the amount of lardons on a salade Lyonnaise doesn't amount to much anyway. The salad wasn't bad, just not what I had hoped.
Scallops St. Jacques ($24) was a rich composition of perfectly cooked scallops with a mushroom, brandy and cream sauce over a generous scoop of whipped potatoes. The aromas were subtle but heavenly, the flavors out of this world. This was real French cooking, with an artistry and refinement of taste.
The equally rich duck leg confit ($23) was plated with brandy apple sauce, a piping of mashed potatoes and ribbons of vegetables. Confit de canard is duck (usually the leg and thigh) that is cooked and then preserved in its own fat. This duck was meltingly tender, the skin still crisp, the flavors dreamy.
The ris de veau ($24), or sweetbreads, was lush, smooth, tender and enhanced with a brandy mushroom sauce. Sweetbreads, as you probably know, is organ meat from the thymus gland and pancreas. In this case, it was from veal, though pork and beef can also be used. Sweetbreads require lengthy preparation including soaking, blanching, chilling and trimming tougher outer membranes. It might not sound all that pleasant, but the results are out of this world.
For dessert, the individual Grand Marnier soufflé ($9) was très bon. Whistling hot, golden brown and puffed up over its baking dish, the ambrosial soufflé melted on the tongue, yet the flavors lingered in the mouth for some time.
The clafoutis ($9) was a dense, barely sweet, cake-like custard with baked-in cherries. I lingered over every bite.
While my La Bohème dinner experience was sophisticated, lunch was not as refined -- there were missteps in both kitchen and service. One day, the timing was off and I was delivered my entrée just seconds after I started the appetizer.
At lunch another day, I ordered the mussels and clams gratinée ($10) with garlic, parsley, butter and herbed bread crumbs. The mussels were OK, but the clams were shriveled and chewier than day-old bubble gum. There were other missteps too, perhaps trivial, but they added up.
What did work at lunch was the tasty salmon tartine La Norvegienne ($15). The mouthwatering, slightly smoky, house-marinated salmon was served with sour cream, dill and arugula. It's one of a variety of tartines, or open-faced sandwiches, that La Bohème offers.
La Bohème serves beer and wine with a reasonably priced, middle-of-the-road, all-French wine list. The wine glasses were a notch above.
The La Bohème dinner experience was cultured, with an attentive and accommodating waitstaff and expertly prepared dishes. The lunch experience needs refining, but overall, La Bohème brings an inspired joie de vivre to California Avenue. Bienvenue.
415 California Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Closed Monday; Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm and 5-9:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Brunch served Saturday and Sunday.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: beer and wine
Happy hour: no
Outdoor dining: streetside
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent