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La Folie

Contemporary French on Russian Hill

Even the most discerning American eaters tend to drop their guards when it comes to French food. If the host has a French accent, we’ll spend the rest of the meal awash in nostalgia for our spring semester abroad in Paris. How else to explain the packed bistros and brasseries serving caricatures of French classics?

After 20 years, La Folie -- Chef Roland Passot’s impeccable contemporary French restaurant in Russian Hill -- still casts its spell honestly, with exacting technique, fine ingredients, and professional service. And Passot displays his versatility by opening the new lounge next door, which gives you a glimpse of the feast happening in the more formal dining room or simply provides a more casual option for everyday.

The relatively small formal dining room evokes more midtown Manhattan than Paris flea market. Light wood details, long curtains, and mirrors provide a neutral backdrop for the theatrical food.

It’s not hard to believe that Passot, one of San Francisco’s most skilled and admired chefs, formally trained in Lyon. And after a few bites, you’ll understand that while he’s respectful of his country’s traditions, he’s not beholden to them. Escargot show up with a parsley and marrow gratin and Pernod lemon butter, not smothered in garlic and butter.

In this way, Passot consistently applies his light-handed French technique to local ingredients, creating luxurious yet playful dishes, like foie gras torchon with glazed squab and a lively apricot gastrique. And when we dined there this spring, a roasted ramps soup with crispy sweetbreads and lobster was bright, rich, and woodsy -- the perfect opener to our meal.

Diners may choose three, four, or five courses for $75, $85, and $95, respectively. On our first visit, we ordered five courses, expecting modest portions. But portions are large for this kind of food, and by the fourth course, we were full and exhausted. Three courses will probably serve the average diner well.

The hostess is warm and sophisticated, and the waiters are serious and earnest, with none of the breeziness common to other San Francisco restaurants. Chef Passot frequently strolls through the dining room greeting the patrons who skew towards late-middle age, and seem mostly to be celebrating special occasions, or just the fact that they can afford to eat such exquisite food.

Contemporary French
Russian Hill

Reservations Essential? YES.