With his twinkly eyes and infectious smile, Roland Passot, the chef-owner of La Folie, proves that a fancy French meal doesn’t have to be stuffy.
When La Folie opened 20 years ago, his gracious Texan wife Jamie handled the door, his gentle brother Georges poured the wine, and the restaurant felt like a family affair in the tradition of aspiring small places in France. Though Passot changed the decor of his cozy dining room three times — from harlequin to puffy clouds on a blue ceiling, to Manhattan boite with vertical mirrors — and reworked the menu, the most important facet of La Folie remains constant. Passot cheerfully continues behind the stoves every night. La Folie is still his baby.
Now he has opened La Folie Lounge, a smart, sexy secret for cocktails and stylish bites, in a separate storefront next door to the restaurant. Though the lounge already has its own regulars, Passot sees it as a starter La Folie, enticing new diners to try the full, high-flying French experience. He knows that a plate of warm, bite-sized cheese puffs or a slice of foie gras can make someone hungry for more.
Passot offers plenty where that comes from on his ambitious La Folie menu, where diners can create their own multicourse meal, from $75 for three courses, up to $95 for five.
A thick round of Hudson Valley foie gras torchon, buttery, delicately sweet, spread on a small, hot brioche, is essential French eating. My favorite dish on the menu, a pig foot, sweetbread and lobster terrine, evokes the lusty cooking of Lyons where Passot grew up. This warm, barely molded pile of morsels, unified by the animal intimacy of their textures, breaks apart into a sharp, mustardy lentil salad, smoky with bacon, lightened with frisee.
After unctuous first courses, consider a thick, moist hunk of Arctic char, halfway between salmon and trout, perched on a velvety fondue of sweet corn that works so well with it.
The main course I liked best of all. A truffle-crusted veal loin wrapped around sweetbreads on a plate of favas, chanterelles and baby carrots in classic madeira sauce, came as part of La Folie’s $85 five-course autumn tasting menu. The autumn menu’s first course is also a knockout, a frothy cup of foie gras soup, silky and voluptuous with a huge seared slice of foie with juicy baby turnips next to it. Choosing the autumn menu not only takes the anguish out of ordering, it shows off the kitchen at its best on top of being an haute dining deal.
If I had my wish, the waiters wouldn’t repeat the multitudinous contents of each dish as it is placed on the table, and the menu needs a little editing. Not every dish earns its place. Frogs’ legs are soggy and overgarlicked. Snails, promisingly tucked into a marrow bone, just taste like snails, and too many dishes use truffle oil. Diners don’t really need so many choices, and it must be difficult for the kitchen to execute the complicated plates.
Yet, somehow, it does. In a town that loves local and casual, the decidedly French and optionally dressy La Folie works because of Passot’s personal flair and his generosity with luxury ingredients. Spending a special evening at La Folie is hardly folly at all.
Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 2316 Polk St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 776-5577; www.lafolie.com
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Price range: Autumn tasting menu, $85; three courses, $75; four courses $85; five courses $95
Recommended dishes: Foie gras soup; pig foot, sweetbread and lobster terrine; foie gras torchon; truffle-crusted veal loin; late summer berry millefeuille; petit four
Credit cards: All major