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Publication Date: Friday, October 25, 2002

The essence of bistro cooking The essence of bistro cooking (October 25, 2002)

French comfort food at Mountain View's Le Petit Bistro

By Robert Rich

Twelve years ago, my wife and I asked our Parisian housemate to recommend a French restaurant in the area. He directed us to Le Petit Bistro, a humble and unpretentious place just north of Shoreline on El Camino. He said it reminded him of his mother's home cooking. We have returned several times since then, and we reserve a warm place in our hearts for this friendly little restaurant.

Le Petit Bistro focuses on quality "grandm�re cuisine" ("grandma's cooking" -- French comfort food), bypassing the snobbery or trendy atmosphere that accompanies many French restaurants. With its simple d�cor and tranquil mood, attention turns to flavors and friendly conversation.

You'll often hear owner/chef Jean-Michel Peuvrelle chatting with regulars in his polite, low-pitched Calais accent. Peuvrelle opened Le Petit Bistro in 1989, and he still runs it with a few able helpers. His father even assists in the kitchen when he comes to visit each year.

Jean-Michel's parents owned two top French restaurants on the Peninsula, but he says he prefers a more casual setting. "I found that in a fancy place nobody can relax. With waiters in tuxedos and everyone so stiff, it feels like real work. Here it's friendly."

He told me with a smirk, "No grumpy people allowed."

The interior is simple. Olive green striped awnings span the small room to create a casual outdoorsy atmosphere, rendered slightly harsh by overhead light fixtures (Peuvrelle hopes to change the lighting soon, regretting his recent switch to energy efficient bulbs).

Framed photos and Monet prints add color to the white walls, but the food itself provides the most memorable sensory impressions. Every time we have eaten here, we have enjoyed the delicate sauces and fresh ingredients, simple presentation and generous portions. The attentive yet casual service helps us linger and relax.

Bistro staples

Our recent meal at Le Petit Bistro began with a classic onion soup gratin�e ($5.75) and a dish of mussels � la marini�re ($10.95). The onion soup arrived in the traditional crock, topped with a thick crouton and a browned layer of melted Gruy�re cheese. Translucent slowly cooked onions carried the earthy flavors of a light house-made beef stock. In this soft and subtle rendition, I detected none of the salty buildup common in onion soup.

The mussels arrived in their shells, over a dozen, bathed in a savory broth with shallots and a touch of garlic, reduced in white wine, thyme, herbes de Provence and butter. After piling up the empty shells, we couldn't resist the temptation to dip our bread into the remaining liquid. This for me is comfort food.

Some of the other hors d'oeurves on Le Petit Bistro's menu made us want to return soon. These included escargots ($8.95), abalone and scallops saut�ed in lemon sauce ($10.95), duck liver pat� ($8.95), and frog legs in garlic and butter ($12.95). Lobster bisque is a standard item ($6.50), as are a Caesar salad and green salad with Dijon vinaigrette ($5.75).

Coq au vin is a fixture on the menu of any French bistro, but the version we find in America differs by one crucial ingredient from the traditional Burgundian dish: "Coq" means rooster, whose tough dark meat requires slow cooking.

The resulting dish in France can be strikingly rich and heavy, with a sauce that includes some blood from the bird blended with slowly cooked onions, garlic, salt pork, old Auvergne wine and brandy.

American tastes veer toward lighter fare, and Le Petit Bistro's coq au vin chanturge ($17.95) adjusts accordingly, using breasts and thighs of small free-range chickens marinated in Burgundy wine. Braised slowly with shallots, mushrooms and bacon, the chicken falls off the bone, and caramelized flavors from the dark sauce linger on the palate.

While in France, coq au vin is often served as a stew in a deep dish, Le Petit Bistro serves the chicken on a plate of piped mashed potatoes, vegetables and a thinly sliced poached pear. This slightly less rustic presentation lends a genteel touch to a staple dish.

The half-duck with fruit sauce ($19.95) arrived with a similar presentation, including mashed potatoes, narrow cut carrots, green beans, and poached pear, with the odd addition of two banana slices. A subtle adaptation of duck � l'orange, the sweet-sour bigarade sauce included small pieces of poached pear (deep red from a wine marinade, spiced with a hint of clove) perfumed with orange zest and reduced in Grand Marnier.

A dash of vinegar in the sauce helped to balance and brighten the flavors. The roast duck itself had a crispy skin, and although it was a touch dry and straightforward, it married well to the sauce.

Other entr�es on the menu included Coquille St. Jacques ($21.95), fresh sea scallops served on a scallop shell with b�chamel sauce and Emmental cheese. The only vegetarian dish on the menu was the Feuillet�e de L�gumes au four ($18.95), placing portabello mushrooms and vegetables in a puff pastry with brie.

The New Zealand rack of lamb with herbes de Provence ($24.95) looked succulent as it passed our table, cooked medium rare with a deep pink color. Two seafood specials that night included fillet of sea bass in a tarragon yogurt sauce, and salmon Proven�al with minced fresh tomatoes and basil.

An international wine list

The one-page wine list included a smattering of varietals from around the globe, weighted toward quality midrange French wines. Prices started at $25 a bottle, averaging around $40 (although a number are available by the glass), with choices that would match any dish on the menu and most any occasion. The list even included one of my favorites, an affordable Monbazillac ($28) white dessert wine, which would pair beautifully to the Foie de Canard appetizer as well as to the excellent choice of desserts. The wine list frequently changes, and should soon offer more California wines.

We accompanied our meal with a glass of Chantefleur cabernet sauvignon ($7.50), which tasted surprisingly ripe and supple for a Pays d'Oc cabernet. Also available by the glass, the Barton & Gustier merlot had a lingering raisiny finish after a very dry beginning.

The '98 Michel Lynch Sauvignon Blanc ($25/bottle) from Bordeaux showed soft mineral overtones with woody complexity, much deeper than the grassy, grapefruity versions from California.

Desserts from scratch

Although we felt satiated from the large portions we had just eaten, we couldn't resist the desserts, all made at the restaurant and bargain priced at $5.75. We shared a fresh cr�pe stuffed with strawberries and chantilly cr�me (whipped sweet cr�me fra�che resembling mascarpone), drizzled with chocolate and dusted with powdered sugar.

The cr�pe was good, but it couldn't match the special dessert, a peach-almond tourte in a pool of cr�me Anglaise and thin slices of fresh peach. Warm and moist inside, with a gelatin glaze, this heavy slice of lightly perfumed cake left us swooning. Many larger restaurants can't bother to create their own desserts from scratch.

We could come to Le Petit Bistro for dessert only. In our past visits, the tiramisu has flattened us.

The dessert menu also includes cr�me brul�e, Grand Marnier cheesecake, chocolate mousse and tarte tatin (caramelized apple pie.) A special cheese plate included brie, morbier, gorgonzola and chevre.

Far from trendy, the soft-spoken honesty of Le Petit Bistro resembles its owner: reasonable, balanced, unpretentious and very French. Well grounded and traditional, its food speaks simply of comfort and quality. Herein lies the essence of good bistro cooking.

Le Petit Bistro, 1405 West El Camino Real, Mountain View
Phone: 650-964-3321 Dinner Tues - Sun, 5:30-10. Closed Monday.


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