Chez Maman West, San Francisco CA
Happy Bastille Day! July 14 is French National Day, or La Fête Nationale, commemorating the beginnings of modern day France. To honor the country, we are going all-out French today. It required a drive to San Francisco, but traffic wasn’t bad and the weather was beautiful. Our two destinations of a restaurant and a bakery were across the street from each other, so we enjoyed a leisurely brunch/lunch without the pressure of driving across the city. Chez Maman West of Hayes Valley, the youngest member of the Chez Maman family including Chez Papa and Papito, has a broad menu almost entirely French-inspired, save a section of fresh Mexican dishes. The basics of French cuisine are, well, to follow the basics; simple ingredients, cooked with exemplary technique by a knowledgeable chef. Today we were enamored by the food from Chef Russell Cab’s kitchen.
We split an appetizer of baked Camembert as evenly as we could, but it was difficult because we both liked it a lot. The extremely creamy and gooey cheese was baked with some of the rind, so there was an earthiness and musk to the flavor. It was balanced by the subtle sweetness of the buttery roasted garlic and mixed greens with a light vinaigrette. The toast points for scooping up the cheese were crispy but not rock-hard, thankfully, or else the effort of eating would have overcome the balance of textures.
Oeuf cocotte, or “egg in a pot,” is a poached egg dish with cream, and August wanted to try Chez Maman’s version with meaty smoked salmon and goat cheese. Neither salmon nor goat cheese are pleasing to Zach, but he had to admit that the smokiness here drew him in. That which helped his palate further was the mildness of the goat cheese; more pungent, and it would have overtaken the plate. The rich yolk melded with the cream to enhance the smooth, creamy flavor of the tender egg, which was complemented so well by the salmon and goat cheese. Balance is a prominent theme in French cooking – some ingredients work together only when combined in the right amounts.
If you are a truffle fan, you cannot pass up the mac and cheese. Likewise, if you’re a mac and cheese fan looking for something different, this will hit the spot For the price, you’ll be amazed at the quantity of truffle oil and thick truffle shavings mixed with al dente noodles and Gruyere cheese. Gooey, creamy, savory, and earthy, it was not a pretty looking plate but it was “pretty for your mouth,” as per Zach. The truffle flavor was strong, but the dash of nutmeg did not go unnoticed as it balanced the intense truffle.
The savoyarde crepe had Swiss and Raclette cheese, fingerling potatoes, prosciutto, and cornichons; a sharp salad with tomato tapenade offered contrasting green flavor. Zach enjoyed the mildly tangy cheeses, particularly the Raclette which to him was like an extremely mild blue cheese. The term Raclette originates in the French racler, “to scrape”; this cheese is used for melting, and traditionally one would scrape the melted cheese off of a wedge after it had been heated by an open fire. The potatoes were slightly sweet and tender in this crepe, while the thick prosciutto provided texture, something to chew, and a salty element to work with the potatoes and cheese. Made with a buckwheat crepe, this plate is both gluten-free and delicious.
We didn’t think we were going to get two desserts when we first came into the restaurant, but hey, it’s Bastille Day! The cinnamon pain perdu, a favorite here, was served with marinated raspberries and strawberries, apple syrup, and chantilly. The base of the dessert was essentially French toast, with a thin crispy crust that resulted from grilling the bread. The apple syrup gave a teensy bit of tart, while the mild sweetness of the chantilly smoothed out the bright fruits. The crème brûlée had a rich, velvety texture and vanilla flavor with visible vanilla bean scrapings under the candy crunch top. It was not overly sweet, and August thought it tasted close to homemade vanilla marshmallows.
What makes certain dining experiences more memorable are the chance encounters with charismatic others, be they restaurant staff or fellow patrons, and today we had the pleasure of meeting two of each. Manager David was conversational and generous in his kindness. Server Sophia is young but waits like a seasoned professional, so to find out that it was only her second day on the floor was surprising! At the table next to us were Roger and Jordan, who told us about Check, Please! Bay Area. Coincidentally, we got home just in time to catch an episode of it on PBS! So we owe a big merci to all who had a part in memorializing our meal, not just for the food but for the connections made as well.