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Bountiful Basque

Hugging the corner on an unassuming street in SOMA, Fringale serves refined Basque fare with little fanfare. Made a foodie haven during the dot-com era by local star Chef Gerald Hirigoyen (Piperade, Bocadillos), the small bistro is now helmed by Parisian-trained Chef Thierry Clement (Le Charm, Elizabeth Daniel, Frisson). Understated delights appeal to the senses, from the silent swing of the front door to the satisfying heft of the knife and the bone-deep contentment at the end of a memorable meal.

An intimate, blonde wood interior radiates out from a modern, semicircular bar. The atmosphere is pleasant bordering on serious, tipping away from the gimmicky trendiness that tends to plague establishments south of Market. Savvy elder diners turn up at 5:30 and 6pm, a sign that Fringale possesses something of a classic status shared, for example, by mainstays like Hayes Street Grill and Zuni.

On a recent visit, dinner began with a gorgeous marinated salmon salad with watercress, warm potatoes, and carrots ($11) that arrived halfway through the first glass of champagne, a Domaine J. Laurens Cremant de Limoux ($8.50). A lovely ruddy pink, the salmon was as buttery as if it were smoked, with a cleaner, lighter aftertaste courtesy of a hint of cumin.

In the pause between courses it came to our attention that the crinkly paper cover over the standard issue white tablecloth was disconcertingly reminiscent of the paper towel-style cover on a doctor's table. Worse yet, it seemed to imply that spilling food was the norm among the patrons. We prefer to be given the benefit of the doubt along with an uncovered tablecloth.

In the nick of time, the entrees arrived, and hidden in the center of the seafood and shellfish "basquaise" ($16) was a mound of succulent spinach that filled out the flavors of the clams, mussels, prawns, and calamari. A pleasing contrast was the New York steak with red wine butter and pommes frites ($21): a flavorful, simple, more frankly American selection.

Lanky, personable Chef Clement seemed genuinely pleased when we sang the praises of the warm chocolate gourmand ($6), the best we've ever had. From the first bite when the fork came away gooey, it was heavenly. Sadly, the tart tatin de poire aux aromates (that's a spiced pear tart with star anise for all you non-Francophiles) paled in comparison. A glass of Blandy's Madiera ($9) rounded out the meal with a smooth, rich finish. It was almost heavy without quite tipping the scales into complete gluttonous sloth; instead, we left feeling pleasantly decadent.

The service was friendly, attentive and unobtrusive. None of the servers wanted to be our new best friends, which was a relief. We dined in peace, despite the relative closeness of tables filled with straight-from-work downtown professionals and couples. Colleagues have offered mixed reviews of Fringale over the last 7-8 years, ranging from accounts of ecstatically perfect charred-rare steaks to tales of the underwhelming. It remains a go-to destination for small-scale French bistro dining in a mild, charming setting.