Cuisinett: French Cuisine Gets Casual

Cuisinett interior
Cuisinett interior

French food tends to have the stereotype of being pretentious, formal, and expensive. But the owner of the newly opened Cuisinett in San Carlos, Geofforey Raby, and former Executive Chef of Menlo Park’s shuttered Marche, Guillaume Bienaime, want you to believe otherwise.

“The kind of food we serve here is the kind my Mom would make,” says Raby. “I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15 in Lille, France. I’ve learned that there’s importance to making people happy. But there’s a fine line between being attentive and being annoying. I wanted to create a casual, family-friendly restaurant with beautiful, simple design and great quality French food at a good price.”

Coq au Vin
Coq au Vin with Buttery Peas, Carrots and Pearl Onions

They call it “French Comfort Food,” and their main focus is to change the common perception that French cuisine is stuffy and complex. Think Pasta Pomodoro or Crepevine. “We wanted things to be understandable and uncomplicated. We’re not doing extravagant plating here. We want you to have the food you order from cashier to table in 10 minutes without compromising quality and taste.”

Enter Chef Bienaime. The two met in May through a mutual contact in the restaurant industry. Chef Bienaime spent over seven years at the acclaimed Marche, two of those years heading up the kitchen before it closed earlier this year. So why would his next project involve a casual restaurant that doesn’t even have waiters?

“For me, it’s an opportunity to do something new. There are some very old school menu items like Coq Au Vin that are very difficult to cook quickly. So it was a challenge for me to do something more contemporary with these dishes while maintaining their classic quality. The more I got into it, the more I believed in the concept,” recalls the Chef.

“Marche went through a bunch of phases. It started as a casual concept and got more and more complicated through the years. So when it closed, I had the desire to approach more people with my food,” says Chef Bienaime. “What I love about cooking is how it makes people happy. I’d rather make more people happy than less.”

Despite being open for a relatively short amount of time, the Chef’s confidence in his dishes shows. They’re solidly delicious and are expertly, albeit simply, prepared.

Diners can chose from a variety of side dishes like french fries, sautéed spinach, or buttery peas and carrots. The specialty of the house is their Roasted Chicken, which you can have with a mushroom or mustard cream sauce, or in the style of Coq au Vin. It doesn’t disappoint with its moist meat and buttery flavor. The sauces are rich, distinct, and tasty without overpowering the chicken’s flavor.

Moules

Moules Frites
Moules Frites w/White Wine, Shallots and Herbs

The most popular dish on my multiple visits, however, seemed to be the Moules Frites (Mussels with Fries) with shallots, white wine and herbs. The Chef uses Mediterranean mussels which are bigger, plumper, juicier and sweeter, and were cooked to perfection. There wasn’t a rubbery mussel in the bunch. And the accompanying french fries were perfectly golden crisp and tender inside. This was a straightforward yet wonderfully executed dish.

Ratatouille
Ratatouille

For vegetarians, their Ratatouille is quite good and is served with a simple salad of mixed greens. The buttery Parmesan breadcrumbs on top contrast nicely with the nutty, toasty flavor and the mix of yellow and red bell peppers, various squash and eggplant make for a hearty dish.

“French food isn’t just centered in Paris bistros, so we’ve divided France up into 6 regions. Now people can see the different varieties of food there are in France,” says Raby.

With the restaurant now open and the menu developed, Chef Bienaime doesn’t plan on being in the kitchen on a daily basis. However he’s constantly adjusting the existing menu and plans to add more items for children. In the future, he will serve as culinary consultant and head of operations.

It’s their hope to create multiple locations over the next few years. And in the shorter term, Chef Bienaime is hoping to entertain the idea of having some special 6-course reservation only dinners for about $100 per person on Sundays, since they’re not usually open that day. They’ll also be offering a Family Meal for four people that’ll include a whole roasted chicken, choice of sauce, two sides and a baguette for under $30 that people can take to go.

“Guillaume is about serving fantastic food, I’m about helping to creating the experience,” says Raby. “It’s like Starbucks. There have always been coffeehouses, but Starbucks they worked on the experience. To a certain extent, that’s what I want to do with French food and make it and experience that’s accessible.”

And Chef Bienaime agrees. “I believe more and more in the concept every day.”

Cuisinett
1105 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos
(650) 453-3390
Mon-Sun, 11am-9pm, Lunch & Dinner Service
Dine-in or Takeout available
Facebook: Cuisinett
Twitter: @cuisinett

Cuisinett: French Comfort Food on Urbanspoon

*Cross posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

A Classic Yet Modern French Bistro: Chez Papa Resto

Sometimes it’s hard to find a classic French meal. In a town where every new restaurant is trying to outdo the other, simplicity can be hard to find.

But the folks at Chez Papa Resto have it down pat. Yes, the portions might be a little bigger than those you’d find in Paris, but I’m not complaining. The decor here is also very San Francisco with deep colored walls, modern and sophisticated decor and rich purple drapes. But the food and service is very French, meaning the staff knows their stuff. But let’s not mistake that for pretentious. This is not that kind of place. The crowd is very hip San Francisco.

This is true right from the get-go. The waiter was friendly, accommodating, and slick, but not sleazy. We ordered the Prix Fixe menu, which included the Butternut Squash Soup, Steak Frites and Profiteroles for dessert. See, I told you it was classic French!

Butternut Squash Soup

Everything was just as you would expect. It was delicious, richly flavored, yet never too bold that the flavors were overpowering or in your face. It was a perfectly smooth and fresh soup, an expertly cooked piece of meat with delicious buttery garlic flavor and perfectly tasty fries, and the profiteroles were rich and delicious, but never too sweet.

The meal may have set me back a pretty penny, but it was an expertly crafted meal and a wonderful experience that took me back to Paris, so I’d say it’s worth it. Plus the fact that the location is so conveniently located close to San Francisco Center and the Mission and 5th Garage, certainly helps.

I had forgotten to take my credit card with me after we left the restaurant, so I returned shortly thereafter to retrieve it. The Manager who was also manning the host’s station was charming and funny. He even gave me a hug! And his heavy French accent was nothing short of adorable. The classic charming French man :). Even when I arrived, his dapper and nicely suited self was so accommodating, he asked if I liked my table or if he could do something to shade me from the sun that was shining in from the window in front of me.

All that attention to detail is what makes this place better than standard and different than just “simple”. It makes you appreciate the finer things that take a little extra effort. When someone cares about what they do, how they treat others and what they serve, it shows.

This is one of those places.

Chez Papa Resto on Urbanspoon

Hubert Keller’s Classic Flagship

Hubert Keller has gotten a lot of press lately with his top three finish on Top Chef Masters last year and the new Burger Bar in Union Square.  But it was Fleur de Lys that put him on the map before all else.

This restaurant is one of those places that’s quintessential San Francisco: classic, sophisticated, and intimate.  It’s known for its service and it definitely didn’t disappoint in that area.

The staff is obviously trained well since all the courses were placed perfectly, timed perfectly, and explained to you perfectly, all while being friendly and unintimidating.  That’s no small feat in this town.  I wish the food were as impeccable as the service, though.

I can’t exactly put my finger on it.  Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by all the different newer restaurants around town.  But nothing I had really “sang” to me.

We both had the 4-course menu, starting with the Foie Gras Pate w/Aspic, and the Dungeness Crab Salad with Roasted Beets and Goat Cheese.  These two dishes were the highlight of the entire meal.  The crab was fresh, sweet and meaty.  And the goat cheese was perfectly creamy and not gamey at all.  But the beets were boring.  And my Hubby is a freak for pate, so he loved his dish.

Then I had the Maine Scallops with Pinenuts, Potato and Sundried Tomatoes, while he had the Jumbo Prawns with Pork Belly pieces.  My scallops were tender, sweet and cooked perfectly.  But I found the sundried tomatoes way too bold for a delicate dish like this.  And the potato seemed oddly out of place on the plate.  I wanted to love this dish but it just didn’t work for me.

Meanwhile, his prawns and pork belly were all cooked well and melded together nicely, but the dish was almost a bit dry, both in texture and in pairing.  Again, off.

For our entrees, I got the Filet Mignon with Truffled Lobster Mac and Cheese.  The beef was cooked to tender perfection.  But the mac and cheese was slightly disappointing.  The lobster and truffles totally overpowered the dish, leaving it difficult for me to appreciate any cheese flavor.  And the texture was more gummy than creamy.  Another disappointing overall execution.

The hubby had the Buffalo Strip Steak with Lemongrass and Ginger.  It was all prepared nicely, but the strong Asian flavors seemed strangely out of place at a restaurant with French overtones.

I ended the meal with a cheese plate that had some very distinct elements.  There was a swiss from the Netherlands, a blue cheese from Australia, a French “cheddar”, and a local cheese that had the texture of brie.  None of it worked for me, surprisingly.  They were either way too mild or way too strong; nothing in between or memorable.  And I love cheese!  How could they have gone so wrong?  Frankly, some textural contrast like a good piece of toasted bread would’ve been nice.  And the golden raisins on the side were again, boring and unimaginative.

My Husband finished with a Grand Marnier Souffle that was huge.  He enjoyed it, but almost wished he’d ordered the Lemon Cheesecake instead.

All in all the appetizers and the amuse bouche of Cream of Asparagus and Cauliflower and Pumpkin Seed were the highlights of the meal.  Most everything else seemed outdated and boring, yet overly complicated.  I wanted to like this restaurant more, but the combinations on the plate just didn’t work.

But again, the service is perfect and that alone would make it a lovely celebration or date night restaurant.

Fleur de Lys on Urbanspoon