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Epic Dining, Fall 2002

Chez Papa, Beach Chalet, Café Riggio, Le Colonial

Our tireless research teams have checked out a number of established chefs in new digs, and new chefs in establishments we dig already. From the neighborhood bistro to an expense account fantasyland, here's a froth-free survey of what's up.

Chez Papa
Chef Ola Fendert, loved locally for his exec chef work at Plouf, opened a cosmopolitan little corner bistro on Potrero Hill with Plouf cohorts Jocelyn Bulow and Marc-Henri Sempere earlier this year. The 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. Beer and wine only.

The Beach Chalet
Chef Jack Mitchell, a protégé of Bradley Ogden (Yankee Pier, Parcel 104, One Market) and veteran of the Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin, deemed 2002 the year to bring his culinary skills and beer-brewing prowess to the notoriously touristy Beach Chalet at Ocean Beach. We've always just gone for drinks and apps after a beach day, but we'd never really had a full meal there. So we showed up for some post-9pm dining on a Thursday to the strains of live surf rock, a well-attended weekly gig courtesy of the Shi-Tones (with members of the Mermen!). We waited happily at the bar for a window table, but wished the friendly staff had nixed the idea for us when we were rushed through our meal due to the kitchen's closing promptly at 10pm. Well-crafted beers in hand, we sampled the so-so chilled shellfish platter ($20 - we should have just gotten oysters), the perfectly sauced ahi tuna po-kee ($10 - it's so easy to overdo it with the sesame, and they don't), the completely amazing, not-at-all-creamy-or-heavy artichoke and spinach dip ($8), the underwhelming crab-stuffed rainbow trout ($16), and a solid T-Bone steak with blue cheese and a twice-baked potato ($22-ish). The verdict? We'll be going back as often as possible for Bloody Marys, beer, oysters, ahi, and that incredible artichoke-spinach dip. However, based on hype, we were expecting something a little more haute cuisine than high-end wedding banquet from the entrees. All the same, the owners are incredibly cool people, you couldn't dream up a better location, and live surf rock by the sea on Thursdays really can't be beat.

Café Riggio
We first encountered Chef Michael Baker a few years ago when he was fresh to the mainland from Hawaii, during his stint at Murray's Glasshouse (now Lehr's Glasshouse) on Sutter. Fans of his Pacific Rim fusion cuisine, we were intrigued to find out how he approaches traditional Italian food at his latest gig: Geary Blvd.'s Café Riggio, which is pretty much totally Italian. Good news. The sprawling, comfortable neighborhood restaurant has a gigantic menu ranging from traditional to modern, and everything we tried was great. Garlicky formaggio all' Argintera ($6), the house specialty of sauteed Caciocavallo cheese, arrives crackling in a cast iron pan - fun with one of the reasonably priced wines on the unpretentious wine list. We enjoyed the mussels in tomato broth ($8) and the spaghetti al pesto ($11), while the simple, elegant seared scallops with risotto satisfied the yearning for something more... Californian. Our server was just a darling, all smiles. All around, a nice place to have dinner with friends.

Le Colonial
Executive Chef Kellie Nguyen-Rabanit moves into position at Le Colonial from within, where she's been utilizing her Vietnamese heritage and formal culinary training to turn out consistently popular cuisine at this swanky Theater District throwback to the French colonial era in Vietnam. Love the outdoor patio and the cinematic interior design, even though it's a cookie-cutter of the Le Colonials in LA and NYC. Over cool cocktails and well-chosen wines, we recently enjoyed excellent service (only a shellfish fork missing here and there - nothing to freak out about) and frankly, pretty fabulous food. Of course, raw oysters with a minted ginger granita are a long-time favorite, and happily still on the menu. While her sizable cold salad of shaved banana blossoms, prawns, peanuts and ginger ($12) may satisfy more than stun, Rabanit's butter-tender lamb chops with toasted peanuts, scallion oil and peppered lime sauce ($33) had us lolling about in a meat-induced ecstasy that's all too rare. We've said in the past that Kokkari has the best lamb chops in town, but these may win. Suggestion for you. Create a mighty rumble: hit both joints in one night, ordering only lamb chops at each. See how it goes down. Our prediction: the winner will be you.