Le Marais began as a bakery of salt-kissed levains, and the sort of pretty, polished French pastries one sees at better bakeries in Paris. Recently, owner Patrick Ascaso started a bistro next door. The café tables are converted, young baristas are gone, and, as the sun goes down, a quiet dinner service ramps up.
It’s something of a hidden gem, even on busy Chestnut Street, now that the bistro has undergone a change of chefs, to Max Snyder, who makes artful, restrained food that allows seasonal ingredients to shine in a rarefied light.
Yet it’s still bistro food, and, for its rarefied beauty, Le Marais’ changing menu is comforting, with an unstudied flounce that allows me to dig in without too much ooh-ing and aah-ing. Snyder’s years at Quince and Coi, where he mastered the art of simplicity, show. The seasonal soup, made with Long of Naples squash, hinted at caramel sweetness. Toasted pepitas completed the effect, offering a faintly bitter edge of something that had truly been caramelized. Fried sage leaves perfumed the surface buttery cream, whose velvet-like consistency was interrupted by teasing little round, smooth squash balls that rolled across my tongue. It was a large, filling bowl — fun, filled with 3-D polka dots of squash — that didn’t miss a single dramatic opportunity.
The salad of wild greens and Yali pear was a study in wintery, icy crispness. Instead of going for a sweeter, eager-to-please palette of flavors, Snyder went for one that required the eater to seek out and revel in something different. Walnuts, deeply toasted to a fragile texture, leant a basso profundo note to the lighter, crisp leaves at the heart of of chicory and frisee. Freckles of finely minced fried onion gave it warmth and brought the whole together. I found myself seeking out these little fried onions. Sometimes I was treated to a fragrant pause by a pinch of fennel frond with its seeds intact, or a bit of parsley. The effect was utterly satisfying and kept my interest until I’d eaten every bit of it.
The halibut en papillote exhibited a Zen-like beauty, with its simple snow-white and verdant green colors and pure flavors. Rough-cut ribbons of fresh sorrel complemented delicate and juicy halibut, and small, whole baby Tokyo turnips, mineral and mildly sweet. Even the minor enhancement of creme fraiche on the plate was subdued. A couple leaves of nutty fried kale and mustard gave the dish a bit of sparkle; it was a pleasure to look at as well as to eat.
I liked the service — pleasantly reserved, formally-trained but informal in manner. On quieter nights, the pace can be extremely fast — dishes whisked away and replaced by others with little time to breathe between — but I was served graciously.
Wines are more than fine. I didn’t have a glass I didn’t enjoy.
Like music on vinyl that prompts listeners to prick up their ears to hear the quieter sounds, Snyder’s food prompted me to cut out all distractions and simply focus on discerning the subtler flavors. It’s a wonderful thing to experience — a meal that drew me forward like Scheherazade in “One Thousand and One Nights,” engaging me with each morsel on the plate.
Le Marais Bistro
Location: 2066 Chestnut St. (near Steiner Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 359-9801, www.lemaraisbistro.com
Hours: 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Suggested dishes: Naples squash soup ($9), Yali pear and wild leaves salad ($9), halibut en papillote ($26).
Credit cards: All major