Pastis is one of the most authentic French dining experiences around
I thought I'd eaten in this pocket-sized bistro before. Was it in Montmartre, or was it near the Place des Vosges? Could it have been in Aix-en-Provence? Lyon? It really didn't matter. Pastis Bistro, on California Avenue in Palo Alto, is an unpretentious French bistro at home anywhere.
Pastis is possibly the most authentic casual French restaurant experience in the area. The premise is simple: five salads, seven small plates, seven main plates, four desserts with nightly specials, an affordable wine list, and an enthusiastic and attentive waitstaff that infuses character and life into the restaurant.
The space is diminutive, a dozen or so tables with a few more seats streetside, weather permitting. The walls are mustardy pale with mirrors above a long banquette giving the illusion of more spacious quarters. Pendant lights dangle quietly from the ceiling. Sturdy wood framing defines the tiny bar area as well as menu boards and mirrors.
Owned by Bernard Cartal and nephew Max Roucoule, Pastis debuted in late December in the space vacated by Joanie's Cafe. Cartal, who owns Joanie's as well, had moved it a few doors up the street and expanded.
"There are no good French bistros in the area. We wanted to do one," Roucoule said. "There used to be many French restaurants in Palo Alto, not so many any more."
Ably manning the kitchen is Jose "Andre" Hernandez, who was the original chef at Cartal's Cafe Brioche 16 years ago. He was cooking in Los Angeles when he heard Cartal was opening a French bistro and wanted to be part of it. "Much of our staff worked at Joanie's or Cafe Brioche for years," Roucoule added.
I had no misgivings over any dish I ordered. Portions were large, with the ingredients fresh and pacing perfect. The menu was straightforward, with relaxed, homey comfort food in the French manner. By that I mean several mussel dishes plus fish, poultry and beef. There were more green salads than one finds in similar bistros in France, but less offal.
That is, except for the salade au foie de volaille ($13). It featured warm chicken livers and crispy pancetta over a cradle of spinach dressed with shallot-champagne dressing. In France, of course, the liver would have been glorious foie gras, but no need to get into that discussion here.
Pastis makes one of my favorite salads: frisee aux lardons ($11) with poached egg in a shallot dressing. Lardons, in case you've forgotten, are small pieces of pork about the size of a jellybean, used to season salads and savory dishes. They are made from salt-cured pork (pancetta) and crisped accordingly. Some local restaurants substitute bacon, but it isn't quite the same thing. The Pastis salad was mouthwatering.
We tried only one of the mussels dishes, moules gorgonzola ($14.95). It was a seemingly odd combination, shellfish and blue cheese, but the gorgonzola component was a light cream sauce with just enough pungency to give it oomph.
The coquilles St. Jacques au gratin ($11) was still bubbling in the shell-shaped plate when it was served. The bay scallops had been sauteed in white wine, butter and herbs, and topped with toasted garlic breadcrumbs. Talk about comfort food.
At lunch one day, the excellent quiche Lorraine ($11.95) came with a salad, but the waiter wisely asked if I preferred French fries after noting I had ordered a salad for starters. The quiche crust was flaky and supple with a hint of sweetness to balance the saltiness of the bacon and cheese.
Of the main dishes, the delectable poulet a la moutarde ($17.95) was fork-tender chicken breast in a creamy grain mustard sauce with mushrooms, whipped potatoes and ratatouille.
The hachis parmentier ($16) was sliced braised beef casserole topped with cheese. That night, the plate came with a pile of crisp lettuce dressed in olive oil. While satisfying, it was my least favorite dish. Not bad in any way, just less inspired. Better was the bavette l'echalotte ($19.95): grilled flank steak smothered in sweet caramelized shallots.
Desserts were all excellent. The warm blackberry crumble ($8) was served in a top-crusted ramekin oozing with vanilla ice cream. The tarte tartin ($8), also with ice cream, was delicately sweet-tasting and syrupy, and hadn't been over baked.
Pastis is a vibrant addition to the California Avenue corridor. It's French all right, from the waitstaff to the decor. And the food is bistro-worthy: tasty, filling and well-prepared, with prices that don't offend. Reservations are highly recommended.
447 California Ave., Palo Alto
Lunch: Tue.-Fri. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Tue.-Sat. 5-9:30 p.m. Brunch: Sat.-Sun. 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: wine and beer
Outdoor dining: streetside tables
Private parties: no
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: very good