It was far easier to drive or walk a short distance to the neighborhood French restaurant and leave the technique to a trained chef. French restaurants were everywhere, casual to formal, rustic to fine dining. Most are gone now, swept away by changing tastes and the onslaught of appealing ethnic alternatives. Even French cuisine has veered away from its classical roots in favor of faster preparation with simpler ingredients.
Le Petit Bistro in Mountain View has managed to elude change and maintain its traditional heritage. No high-tech here, no nouvelle cuisine, no molecular reconfiguration of food, no kale. Guest checks are still hand-written.
It's old-school but not outmoded, with an exacting code of beliefs that owner/chef Jean-Michel Peuvrelle has carried with him throughout his life. Born in Pas-de-Calais in the northern tip of France, Peuvrelle is the son of a charcutier (butcher). He apprenticed in Strasbourg while earning a degree in accounting.
"It takes more more than being a good chef to run a restaurant," Peuvrelle said.
His family relocated, first to Dallas, then to the Bay Area where they owned four different French restaurants from 1976 to 1989. When his parents retired, Jean-Michel opened his own restaurant.
Now in his 24th year at Le Petit Bistro, Peuvrelle still cooks the old-fashioned way, six days per week. Veal, duck and fish stocks, made fresh daily, simmer for up to six hours; complex sauces are born, tasted, adjusted and allowed to marry in well-seasoned pots for hours.
While the kitchen is fastidious, the dining room is casual. The decor is simple, spotless and homey. Daily specials are hand-written on a whiteboard near the front door. On a recent visit, the waitress told us to take a look before being seated. The specials were neither printed nor repeated.
The menu was simple enough, five appetizers including bisque de homard ($10) an intensely flavored lobster bisque. Did I say simple? The bisque was made with leeks, fennel bulb, tomatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, parsley, vermouth, pastis, fresh herbs and a sprinkle of chili-pepper flakes. The stock was slowly cooked for three hours then strained. A roux was made to thicken the bisque along with cream and a splash of cognac. The results were delicious, with a depth of flavor that left the palate craving more.
The mousse de foie de canard ($10) was from a family recipe. The slightly grainy, fresh-tasting duck pate was served with celery root, carrots, tomato, lettuce and olives. This was not foie gras, but pate made from un-inflated duck livers.
Dinner entrees included coq au vin, duck, beef, coquille St. Jacques and a vegetarian puff-pastry dish.
The black pepper-sauteed lamb chop au jus ($29) with Provencal herbs was sauced with a veal-stock reduction, shallots and sun-dried tomatoes. Green beans, carrots and potato rounded the plate. While the chops were an unusual cut, the meat was fork-tender and the sauce layered with flavors.
Medallions de porc aux champignons ($19) in a mushroom demi-glace was also sauced with a veal reduction, mushrooms and a flurry of other ingredients. The meat was high on the flav-o-meter, and the sauce made me reach for the baguette to mop up every drop.
The traditional desserts were all house-made. The mousse au chocolat ($7) was made with rich Belgian chocolate and cream — and, that night, a splash of cognac.
The warm tarte tatin ($7) was caramelized apple pie with a squiggle of stiffly whipped cream on the side. Chef Peuvrelle told me later the apples had been too squishy that evening. The flavors didn't suffer. It was a comforting dish to conclude the meal.
The wine list had more than four dozen options, few pricey, and all were geared to complement the food. I particularly liked seeing aperitifs of Lillet, Dubonnet and sherry: drinks we used to drink, or saw our parents drink (sigh).
Le Petit Bistro is an old-fashioned but not antiquated dining experience. Classic, refined flavors from thoughtful preparation, using enduring techniques, have kept enthusiastic diners returning for nearly a quarter of a century. Vive la France.
Le Petit Bistro
1405 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View
Hours: Tue.-Sun. 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: wine and beer
Outdoor dining: no
Private parties: yes
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent
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