It is impossible to walk into Bisou Bistro, an unimposing restaurant at the edge of the Castro, and not notice the red velvet. A long banquette that runs underneath the upstairs gallery is swathed in the stuff; cherry red velvet wraps seat cushions, the wall and the lowered ceiling in its intimate embrace. It is cozy here, nooked below the gallery, a perfect spot for canoodling. Tables upstairs, above the swaddled alcove, are treasured for their privacy and their bird’s-eye view of the downstairs bar and tables.
Once seated and the specifics of the local scenery gathered, the eye wanders to the menu. Open since 2010, Bisou recently re-did its menu but kept a keen focus on the modern bistro fare that made it a treasured neighborhood restaurant. Executive Chef Nicolas Ronan was raised in France, just outside Paris, and excels at extracting subtle flavors from the freshest of ingredients, many of them sourced from his Napa Kitchen Garden in Pope Valley.
Served on a wooden board, salade NKG had instant eye appeal. Microfennel, kale and orange added interest but it was the crunch of salsify chips that etched the salad into memory. Rainbow root treat salad, too, reconsiders the familiar textures that are hallmarks of most salads. Soft baby turnips gave way to firmer Chioggia beets and the surprise of chilled Brussels sprouts atop a rutabaga purée. These are salads reconsidered.
Though Ronan clearly relishes the challenge of engaging a diner’s senses while recalibrating their expectations, he can easily veer back to French bistro classics. Boeuf Bourguignon carried all the vigor of its ancient brethren. Glistening a deep brown from its extended bath in wine and veal demi-glace, beef cheeks were meltingly tender and richly flavored. Mashed potatoes, served alongside, were made from fingerlings and enriched with enough butter to be respectable. Steak frites comes with a trio of classics sauces (Bercy, Béarnaise, and port shallot) that would make a grandmother weep.
But it is Ronan’s modern dishes that link California to France and anchor Bisou to the present. Noix de Saint Jacques was tiny Bay scallops seared with a hint of vadouvan but it was the golden pea shoot sauce that elevated the dish into a fresh, new place.
“Kobe” steak tartare whipped together tableside, tasted deeply of the animal and the place it was raised – clean and fresh with a distinct minerality and smooth finish – and was updated with Tabasco and a quail egg.
Desserts are served with a flourish. A simple lemon meringue becomes a Dreamsicle in Ronan’s hands, the layers of orange, toasted white chocolate mousse and salted caramel garnished with a spun sugar umbrella. Brown butter spice cake becomes peach creamed, the roasted peach and ginger Chantilly cream warming a maple whiskey glaze.
Ronan, known as the Kissing Chef (“bisou” is French for “kiss”), recently published an eponymously titled cookbook and is rapidly expanding the Bisou realm. In addition to the recently opened Napa Kitchen Garden, the Bisou Group opened the Northern California Bistronomy Center next to the garden and SNS-Café, an Italian coffee provider, and will open Beso, a Spanish tapas restaurant in the Castro, in short order. The Bay Area, it seems, has marked the Kissing Chef with its own imprimateur: success.