Related Articles: Restaurants, All

French Kiss

Fringale Offers a Posh Take on the Traditional Bistro

Neighborhood bistro: the term conjures up a warm hearthglow vision of jovial conversation and fine food served with a knowing glance. The chef-owner knows the customers' gossip just as well as a pent-up housewife knows the haps on Days of Our Lives. Only in Europe? Perhaps. In San Francisco, the microclimate does not make the neighborhood, and one is pressed to find a sense of community in any particular establishment. Sure, you get to know the guy who runs the corner store, you trade quips with the coffee shop staff, but when and where do the people break bread together if not in their own homes? If they have a few bucks to rub together, they might hit a small, friendly, top-flight neighborhood bistro, where the symbiotic relationship between management and clientele is as apparent as it gets.

To look at the made-up elder society ladies who breeze in and play kissy-face with the very French waitstaff at Fringale, you'd think they had driven for miles and miles from their deluxe accomodations in Nob Hill to reach Fringale's cute Victorian corner. For what reason would they click their Via Spiga heels right past their own neighborhood bistros to come all this way, across Market, through the upper strip of the Tenderloin, into what is, effectively, still a flat plain box-upon-box landscape of mini-industrial facilities?

Because celebrity chef/owner/author Gerald Hirigoyen greets patrons warmly at the door, the professorial waiters happily play kissy-face with regulars, and the accoutrements of good service are all present in the gleaming half-light of sunset. Though the atmosphere seems a little stuffy at first, what truly exists within Fringale is in fact a light camaraderie centered at the small, curved hearth of the amply-stocked bar, where Chef Hirigoyen sets his perch to orchestrate the workings of the kitchen, bar, and dining room.

After a sampling of the full bar, a half-bottle of Dry Creek Fumé Blanc is great with the first course. Try the deeply smoked salmon dressed with fresh young pastis-scented leaves, red onion, cucumber, a lightly vinegary dressing, then move on to a lovely carpaccio of beef w/ capers, lemon, olive oil, chives, and pepper.

Most entree prices hover at the fifteen dollar mark. One of the best of these is the pork tenderloin confit with shredded cabbage, deeply browned apples, and caramelized onions. If you've read any Tom Robbins novels, you're familiar with the mantra, "Yum." This dish is the edible version.

The Fringale steak is sublime; now that I have had it, I crave this thing. Charred-rare steak with frites delicieux, french string beans for eating with your tiny french fingers, red wine butter to spread meltingly atop a vast plain of beef. The heart of the steak is blood rare and silky, silky-good and buttery, in perfect harmony with the crunchy exterior of crispy grill-char which encases a tender, browned inner layer. Storybook Zinfandel is a fantastic match for this simple masterpiece.

If dessert calls, answer by ordering the Gateau Basque with a custard cream middle, creme anglaise, and fresh strawberries; a glass of madeira is the right counterpart to this simple, pleasing dish. If an after-dinner scotch is your thing, try the frozen coffee sabayon, very bitter, an exact match with a dram of Talisker.