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Chez Papa Resto

The Swankier Sister of the Potrero Hill original

Opened in Spring 2008 by the team that brought us Plouf and Chez Maman, Chez Papa Resto is the swankier version of the original Chez Papa Bistrot in Potrero Hill. Located in the newly-renovated Mint Plaza, the resto's large outdoor patio injects some life to what was formerly a sketchy alleyway, and its flavorful burgers (of Chez Maman pedigree) have downtown office workers declaring it their favorite new lunch spot.

General manager Alexandre Prod'Hommei's philosophy of providing authentic Provencal cuisine still reigns at the new locale, but the menu has been tweaked to place a greater emphasis on share-able small plates. One of the most popular is the fried squash blossoms ($13), little purses stuffed with mozzarella, goat cheese, and pistou, France's version of pesto (although don't ever describe it that way to a Français). Steamed mussels ($16) come bathed in a creamy pastis-saffron broth, made slightly piquant by the addition of piment d'Espelette, the recently ubiquitous Basque chile pepper. Paired with a generous cone of crispy rosemary-speckled shoestring frites ($6), and pain epi to sop up the addictive broth, they make a great light dinner.

Entrees include a few refined dishes, such as Alaskan halibut under a cloud of foamy black truffle emulsion ($26), but executive chef David Bazirgan (formerly of Baraka and Elisabeth Daniel) mostly leans towards heartier fare, with an emphasis on braising and roasting to impart deep layers of flavor. The lamb daube ($22), a stew featuring Châteauneuf du Pape-marinated lamb (from southern France), was a good example of this: lush and fall-off-the-bone tender. The quality of one's braising wine does make a difference.

The roasted monkfish, calamari and clams ($25) were doused tableside with a bouillabaisse reduction and served with thin planes of Gruyere and a side of toast and rouille, a saffron-scented aioli. But by the end of the meal, all the robust flavors -- the brininess of the clams, the concentrated crabbiness of the bouillabaisse -- became overwhelmingly salty, especially when topped with cheese. Like the lamb daube, this heavily-seasoned entree needed to be balanced with frequent slurps of wine to refresh the palate. Perhaps that is what veteran sommelier George Aknin meant when he explained, in his preamble to the impressive wine list, that wine should be considered a "condiment" for the food.

While most restaurants don't anticipate your needs beyond the usual busing of plates and filling of water glasses, service at Chez Papa is thoughtful and generous. For example, the kitchen will split certain dishes when they know they will be shared; and diners are often offered complimentary extras like amuses bouches or muscat.

The resto's lounge-y Parisian interior is dark and sexy, providing a modern foil for the ornate Murano glass chandeliers. Unless Prod'Hommei had a very unusual boyhood, the glamorous vibe doesn't quite jive with his purported goal to "recreate and share these types of evenings I enjoyed as a child in South of France." But the slow-cooked food, hospitality and communal table (a tall sleek island, rather than a humble kitchen table) are a nod in that direction.

Unfortunately, it can sometimes feel like you're at the communal table even when you're not. Some of the tables are packed in tightly, and the noise level can get high. Also, many of the starters are on the small side, which affects their share-ability. A few are pretty dear to boot ($13 gets you two scallops or three stuffed zucchini blossoms), but they are intensely flavored and beautifully presented; so relish each exquisite bite -- and polish off the basket of pain epi.


French
near San Francisco Centre
$$$

Reservations Essential? Yes.