South of Market or alongside the Seine?

South Park Café has been serving up sensational French for over 20 years

South Park is a hidden patch of greenery in the middle of industrial SoMa, an oval of lawn with leafy trees and wooden benches rimmed by a narrow, curving, one-way street. The enclave is one of the most charming spots in The City, and South Park Café, an area fixture for 21 years, adds to its appeal.

When I sit at one of South Park Café’s postage-stamp tables with a glass of rhone and a pigs’ ear salad, I am practically beamed to the Left Bank of Paris. No location in San Francisco could be more perfect for a French bistro.

French doors open completely onto the sidewalk and the leafy park. Inside, a zinc bar with stools beckons provocatively. Wooden banquettes fill the other side of the long narrow room. A chalkboard at the front lists daily specials and wines, with a wooden magazine rack beneath it providing the likes of The New York Review of Books and Frenchcooking magazines.

Chef-owner Ward Little bought the place 12 years ago. He had previously knocked around kitchens in France and New York, and he understood exactly what the menu at this place should be. He always stays behind the stove, making it happen.

Dinner begins with chewy, rustic French baguettes, a crock of sweet-smelling butter and a bowl of salt. I knew from that moment that South Park Cafe would deliver the goods.

Have the signature “Pig Salad” ($10), a pile of frisée tossed with divinely crunchy bits of pork and slivered apple in a mustardy vinaigrette.

The other pig salad, a slab of pig’s foot terrine encrusted in golden bread crumbs perched on the mustardy frisée ($8) is awfully good too, an instant trip to backstreet bouchons in Lyon. And, bless his heart, chef Little cooks up one of my favorites — a thick slice of butter-tender beef tongue slathered in egg and caper sauce with a molded piquant potato and avocado salad on the side ($9).

For dinner, you can’t do better — anywhere — than moist-fleshed, golden brown rabbit on the bone, served in a flat bowl with creamy mashed potatoes, crusty zucchini slices, and resonant pan gravy ($22). The guys I eat with always go for a classic grilled hanger steak, perfectly cooked medium rare and draped in a buttery red wine sauce, on a plate piled with French fries ($19). If you’ve ordered a non-pig first course, you can have wild boar ragout with an intriguing gamey edge as a second course, spooned over giant rigatoni ($20).

I like the $32 prix fixe, which allows you any first course, any main course and dessert. Why would anyone pass up desserts with choices such as an excitingly bitter espresso ice cream draped with warm chocolate and caramel sauces and whipped cream; spritely melon sorbet with melting almond tuilles; or three crisp profiteroles stuffed with Grand Marnier ice cream and drizzled with Sharffen Berger cocoa sauce?

If you’ve never discovered this secret neighborhood or its fine bistro, the experience will be a revelation. If, like me, you hadn’t eaten at South Park Cafe in years, you will rejoice. Chef Little keeps his French bistro fresh by staying so true to form.

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South Park CafÉ

Location: 108 South Park (between 2nd and 3rd streets, Bryant and Brannan), San Francisco

Contact: Call (415) 495-7275

Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m.

Price range: Starters $7 to $10; main courses $17 to $22

Recommended dishes: Pig’s ear terrine, Pigs’ ear salad, poached beef tongue; sautéed rabbit with bacon; wild boar stew

Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa

Reservations: Accepted at dinner

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