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A Taste for Adventure : A Major Chef, a Cozy San Francisco Place; There’s Nothing Trite About the Tripe Either

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<i> Guest reviewer S. Irene Virbila, who lives in Berkeley, is food editor at San Francisco Focus magazine and a frequent contributor to the Wine Spectator</i>

Trout?” the diner repeats hesitantly, peering up at the very French maitre d’, a Harvey Keitel look-alike who has just announced the evening’s special. “Non, tripe ,” he enunciates carefully. At the next table, I perk up. This sounds promising. “The chef has worked hard on this dish,” he continues, not missing a beat. “It has cooked for over 14 hours; that means it simmered all night and part of today in red wine, until it is meltingly tender. It’s really very delicious.” Nods all around indicate the idea is being considered. Then the party orders: salmon, chicken, lamb, salmon. Not a single taker.

When my turn comes, I jump at it. The last time I saw tripe on a French menu, I was in Albi, a village in southwest France. I’ve barely sat down in this new San Francisco restaurant, yet I’m already rooting for Alain Rondelli’s kitchen. Here’s a chef who isn’t afraid to nudge the boundaries of what Americans will eat, and that in itself is heartening.

With its bare-bones decor and basic furnishings, the modest storefront in San Francisco’s fog-bound Richmond district seems like a good venue for a young chef just starting out. This Paris-born chef, however, boasts a resume that includes a year cooking for former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and six years as second in command to three-star chef Marc Meneau in Burgundy. In San Francisco, Rondelli brought Ernie’s, the city’s historic restaurant deluxe, back from the near-dead before launching his own place.

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In the world of chefdom, this usually means a glitzy downtown showcase. But running a big kitchen and keeping a boardroom of investors happy is not what Rondelli had in mind when he opened his namesake restaurant in June. His fantasy was realized in a small 44-seat neighborhood restaurant where he could spend most of his time actually doing what he loves most--cooking. Rondelli is behind the stove every night, except Monday, turning out some of the best and most adventurous French food in the city.

For starters, a soup of plump, green-lipped mussels has flavors as bright and sun-drenched as a Matisse painting. The orange-scented broth is streaked with saffron and laced with strips of orange zest as fine as angel-hair pasta. Red and gold cherry tomatoes are steeped in a cool tomato essence showered with cilantro and basil and served in a suave martini glass. Rondelli fashions artful little sandwiches out of a gorgeous plummy Madeira aspic wedged between slabs of silken foie gras and served with diminutive buttery brioche.

The tripe, when it comes, is indeed fabulous, not a bit slippery, soft as a down cushion. Cut in diamond shapes, it has soaked up all the color and flavor of the wine, making it a terrific match for a glass of the LeRoy Bourgogne rouge or the Rafanelli Cabernet.

The menu, which changes weekly, often features chicken that arrives in two startlingly different successive courses: First comes the moist, perfectly cooked breast with a garnish of dark figs in a vivid red wine sauce redolent of sweet spices, followed by the boned thigh confit in a delicious custardy clafoutis studded with fresh corn. A wide bar of impeccably fresh salmon is roasted at high heat to crisp the skin, leaving the flesh moist and fragile. A tarragon-infused potato puree and dusky chanterelles nicely set off the subtleties of the salmon. A thick piece of halibut is less interesting, dry and without much flavor; it is paired with a gluey rice cake punctuated with capers.

The dish I want all to myself is Rondelli’s glorious pot-au-feu , made not with the traditional beef but with more delicate and flavorful lamb. Strewn with root vegetables and scented with fresh oregano, it is a comforting bowl of rich, concentrated broth and three cuts of lamb: braised ribs, sauteed rare loin and a rustic crepinette (sausage patty wrapped in caul fat) with a marvelous texture and taste. It’s a dish that is built step by step: two days to make the sauce and two days to cut the meat for the sausage, infuse it with seasonings and wrap the little balls in the lacy fat.

The pot-au-feu came about because “it gets chilly in the Richmond district at night,” Rondelli says, “and I wanted to make a homey dish like something a grandmother would cook to warm you up when you come in from the cold.” Yet this is by no means typical French grandmother food or even old-fashioned bistro fare. It is French country cooking redefined, filtered through Rondelli’s imagination and experience. He likes to play with complex seasonings and infusions, laying down a background of flavors to support the main ingredient. For dessert, the pastry chef doesn’t overdo sweetness. The burgundy granita scooped into an almond-orange tuile flanked with fresh cherries or sliced nectarines, depending on the season, melts into a rough slush of intriguingly spiced wine. And the lovely warm chocolate cake with a core of molten chocolate and chunk of pecan praline on the side is simple and serious. But a black pepper tarte tatin in a billowy puff pastry doesn’t make it. The crumbled Roquefort on top only made me long for a cool, juicy pear.

At the end of the night, Rondelli emerges from his kitchen, makes a few phone calls and sits down at the end of the bar. He doesn’t do a star turn around the room in a fresh set of whites donned especially for the occasion. But as diners file out, he often lingers to chat and seems sincerely interested in how the evening went. I’m curious. How many orders of tripe did you sell tonight?

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He shrugs. A few. “We had a table of seven last night,” he recounts. “The waiter proposed the tripe, but ‘No, no, no’ from all of them. Later, we sent out an order before the dessert, just enough to share--and they loved it. I think my responsibility as a chef is also to educate people. One thing I’d like to put on the menu is veal kidneys wrapped in their own fat so they look like eggs. This is a great dish, but I’m not sure Americans are ready for it yet.” I can’t speak for anybody else, but sign me up.

Alain Rondelli, 126 Clement St ., San Francisco; (415) 387-0408. Open nightly for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Street parking. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $65 to $75. Six-course tasting menu, $45 per person.

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