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A Magnificent Potrero Hill Trio: Baraka, Chez Papa, and Chez Maman

In 2002, Chef Ola Fendert, loved locally for his exec chef work at Plouf on oh-so-European Belden Place, took his talents up the hill. He opened Chez Papa, a cosmopolitan little corner bistro, with Plouf partners Jocelyn Bulow and Marc-Henri Sempere. Months later and a few doors down, Bulow and Sempere opened pocket-sized Chez Maman, a casual-chic alternative for locals to stop in on their way home. Finally, a block away perched on the intersection of 18th and Connecticut, Chef Fendert joined Bulow, Richard Terzaghi, and Karine Bidaud to open the famed Spanish-Moroccan tapas restaurant Baraka. These three superstars give Potrero Hill a well-deserved reputation as a San Francisco culinary hotspot. Each combines world-class cuisine with a cozy, neighborhood sensibility.

Two trademarks of this distinctively charismatic restaurant trio are the warm décor and the expert service. The wait staff anticipates your every need: when you sip from your drink, your glass is immediately refilled; finished plates are quickly swept away; and the recommendations are spot on. The walls are painted with rich, vivid reds and oranges, and the rustic details combined with the gentle lighting create an inviting atmosphere ideal for catching up with old friends, impressing a new date, or sharing an intimate dinner.

Baraka's port-colored velvet curtain entryway adds drama to this little haven. As I entered, I pulled it back to reveal an enormously extravagant wrought-iron candle chandelier that warmly illuminated the content faces of a hip, diverse San Francisco crowd. Baraka is an ancient Moroccan saying for "blessed by the gods," which is how I'd describe the food. For starters, the warm goat cheese ($8) encrusted with crunchy pistachio, drizzled with honey, and served with toasted flat bread tastes otherworldly. The cucumber salad ($5.50) has an appealing crunch accentuated by the cumin-yogurt dressing, which adds a tangy and fresh bite.

Succulent scallops are sauteed, lined up, and sprinkled with a pinenut-currant vinaigrette ($10). The Monkfish tagine ($13) is a light alternative with clams, almonds, and saffron. Simplicity shines in plates like the grilled lamb kebab with salsa verde ($12) and Moroccan-style meatballs ($9). Don't leave without dessert, especially the unique apricot and pistachio torte; it was chewy and crunchy at the same time and not too sweet--it made my night. The airy beignets with orange jam are a popular dessert that my friend polished off with ease. Even if you're stuffed, order the Moroccan herbal mint tea just to see the intricate teapot that Richard and Karine brought back from their honeymoon in Morocco.

Recently, Chef Fendert handed the executive chef duties of Baraka to Dave Bazirgan, so that Fendert could focus his complete attention on the menu at Chez Papa. This small, lightly industrial space packs 38 diners, a few bar patrons, and about a dozen al fresco foodies for lunch and dinner every day. Hip to Chez Papa's buzz, citoyens travel citywide for French Provencal cuisine like lamb daube ($19), beef tartar ($9), and tart Tatin ($6). Sardined next to a neighboring deuce, we reveled in Marseilles-style mussels in a tomato-garlic broth ($8), roasted chicken with olives, lemon and red chard ($16), a gorgeous steak with pistou coulis ($24), and a mandatory side of shoestring frites with aioli ($4). There is a slight factory feel to the place, thanks to rapid turnover and quick service, so don't expect to linger over your Lillet on the rocks. Perfect for a quick, urbane meal before a night on the town.

If Baraka's specialty is Spanish-Moroccan small plates and Chez Papa's is French Provencal, then Chez Maman stands out for understated fare in a neighborhood atmosphere. If I lived in Potrero Hill, I'd stop by Chez Maman a few times a week--when cooking seems like an impossibility. The long, wood counter with 10 stools is perfect for the lone diner dropping in for a bite or for a casual catch-up brunch, lunch, or dinner with a friend. Two metal tables near the window seat larger parties of four or so, and on nice days there is sidewalk seating. They don't take reservations, but many opt for carry-out.

Although Chez Maman is renowned for its hamburgers and crepes, the menu is so diverse that as a wannabe regular, I wouldn't be able to choose a "usual." The food is rustic and fresh--like mom's cooking (if your mom were a classically stylish French phenom who also happened to whip up tasty meals). The endive salad is a knockout with caramelized walnuts and Roquefort cheese ($9)--a surprisingly good mix of sweet and sharp served in a wooden bowl. The chicken panini ($9), with pistou, aioli, and roasted peppers, is a delectable surprise that totally hits the spot. The burger, served with fried-just-right frites ($8.50), is grilled then baked with your choice of cheese (try the brie or Roquefort); it is a standout thanks to the not-too-hard-but-not-squishy bun that perfectly seals in the flavors. Seafood lovers will revel in entrees like the mussels ($12) and grilled mahi mahi with gigantic emergo beans ($15). Crepes, savory and sweet, are considered the specialty here. My friend loved the berries crepe, but I still fantasize about mine, oozing with bananas and Nutella.