Fine French dining in Bistro Aix’s sleek new space

For nine long months the Marina waited for Bistro Aix to reopen while chef/owner Jonathan Beard gave his 15-year-old restaurant a complete overhaul. He gutted the whole space, installed a custom built, wood fired grill and renovated the dining areas from top to bottom.

The new Bistro Aix looks marvelous — like its old self, but sleeker and sexier.

The once-drafty tented patio in the back now has permanent walls and a dramatic pyramidal glass ceiling, a le Louvre, plus handsome banquettes, chunky table tops made from slices of recycled redwood and cypress, and an 8-year-old olive tree growing right in the middle of the cement floor. A mirror strategically placed on one wall gives the illusion of looking through a window into greenery.

In the crowded front room, tables are wedged in around an L-shaped bar of salvaged marble. The noise level can soar.

Solo diners at the bar — me — can watch food cooking on the blazing fire in the mostly open kitchen.

The luscious dishes coming out of this tiny galley draw on Provence, northern California and northern Italy for inspiration.

Beard, a Cordon Bleu trained chef with tons of experience and pitch perfect palate, makes even the most often prepared dishes in this town taste fresh and fully realized, the best they can possibly be.

The often-changing menu reprises enough Bistro Aix classics to keep regulars happy, such as velvety house-cured salmon on super crunchy potato cakes ($9), propped on a green salad and drizzled with dill cream.

Pristine burrata, so creamy it is barely a cheese, is heaped on toasts, surrounded by baby spring vegetables, and splashed with buttery Ligurian olive oil ($12).

The new grill has space for a plancha, or griddle and whole Gulf shrimp ($14) sizzling on the hot cast iron, pick up the flavor of the fire.

Served in an earthenware dish that catches their juices, the big shrimp are naturally sweet, their heads full of suckable shrimp fat.

A chicken breast ($22) has never had crisper skin nor juicier flesh. The buttery snap peas that came with it were like nuggets of sweetness. Grilled rare ahi tuna ($23), seared and cut into slices, gets steak fixings: buttery potato puree, and ethereal fried spinach leaves that melt on your tongue.

A thick slice of roast leg of lamb ($22) perches on risotto, a signature preparation, studded with baby artichokes and enriched with natural lamb jus. The bouillabaise ($22) still features creamy halibut, fennel scented tomato broth and rich lashings of deep yellow rouille.

But the Cinderella dish, spaghettini with tomato sauce ($12), exemplifies the technical skill of this kitchen. The thin noodles are edgily al dente, barely coated in bright flavored tomato sauce, and perfumed with whole leaves of basil. Grana padano, milder and more buttery than parmigiano, add umami, savoriness. I have traveled across The City at 10:30 p.m. for this one.

For dessert, how can anyone resist spring strawberries ($8) in a sweet syrup, crowned with toasted sliced almonds and a dollop of crème fraîche?

Beard has always served some of the most lovable food in San Francisco — for the most reasonable prices. Now he’s got a hot little restaurant to match it.

Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

Bistro Aix

Location: 3340 Steiner St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 202-0100; www.bistroaix.com
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sundays
Price range: $6.50 to $23
Recommended dishes: Cured salmon on potato cakes, olive stuffed calamari, spaghettini in tomato sauce, leg of lamb with risotto, bouillabaise, strawberries with almonds, warm chocolate cake
Credit cards: Visa, Master Card
Reservations: Accepted

Bistro AixentertainmentFeaturesFood & DrinkFood and WineJonathan Beard

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