A native of Paris, Executive Chef Christian Nam-Hee sharpened his knife skills and his palate at l'Ecole de Paris des M?tiers de la Table. Today he lets his know-how blossom and wander in the kitchen of Bijou Restaurant & Bar, blending the culinary traditions of his homeland with the flavors found in northern California's seasonal organic ingredients. From his pans and cutting boards spring forth sweet-potato frites, quail stuffed with napa cabbage, and other dishes that embody the menu's inventive fusion spirit. To complement such an aesthetically poignant dining experience, the space itself?designed by DesignPlus's Pia Thomas?remains sleek and focused. The centerpiece is the bar, which glows a dreamy, iridescent amber that's complemented by ring chandeliers and absorbed by Italian leather chairs, a lounge area's plush velvet cushions, and tabletop black holes.
Most people don't expect to identify their career path at the age of five. Jared Gallagher, Chez TJ's executive chef, is not most people. A second-generation chef, Jared started working in his father's kitchen at the age of five, and he knew he wanted to stay there. A sous chef at 19 and an executive chef by the age of 21, Chef Gallagher pursued a passion for French food by training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and London, an experience he parlayed into a stint in the kitchen of acclaimed chef Michele Bras. Jared was also raised to appreciate farming, fishing, and hunting, and Chez TJ—a Michelin Guide-rated establishment—reflects his early communion with nature. Each morning, Jared walks through the restaurant's 30'x50' edible garden, combing through beds of currant tomatoes, zucchini, leeks, arugula, and other fresh produce for ingredients to use on the custom, chef-prepared menu du jour. When possible, Chez TJ also relies on local farms and markets to supply their meat and other ingredients. Housed in an elegant Victorian home originally built in 1894, Chez TJ boasts four distinct, cozy dining rooms that can be closed off for more intimate occasions. Guests are also free to roam through the garden to enjoy the scenery or brush up on their pollination skills.
Chef Laurent Guillaume, who has helped open hotels and restaurants in Paris, brings years of culinary expertise to Chouquet’s menu and adorns time-tested continental fare with surprising New World elements. Attentive servers emerge from the kitchen carrying escargot and niçoise salads, cruising past sleek stools at a bar accented by swirls of natural wood grain and designed by Dominique Maxime Genauzeau. On the patio, diners soak up the sun or choose least-favorite clouds for a sky writer to edit out. The dining room's sand-hued walls and burnt-orange accents resound with the sounds of glasses clinking together, bearing more than 70 wines from Europe, South America, and the Pacific Northwest and a rotating selection of draft beers from France and the United States.
When to Go: The signature tasting menu, which can include as many as 25 courses, is served Tuesday through Saturday. Of course, they also offer a shorter and less expensive 7–10 course tasting menu Tuesday through Thursday.
How to Navigate the Menu: Think of it as a poem rather than an outline of dishes and ingredients. For instance, a menu description such as “mellow serenades of colors licorice and orange” is rendered on the plate as sea urchin torchon with caviar and yuzu. Ask your server or a nearby English professor to help you translate.
The Gist: The seasonal French dishes here are as far reaching as they are inventive. Chefs combine locally sourced, seasonal produce with a dash of molecular gastronomy and a generous smattering of artful presentation.
Who’s Cooking: Versailles-native Dominique Crenn views the culinary arts as exactly that—an art. Her expressive flair has paid off—she won Iron Chef America, earned the title of Esquire’s “chef of the year” in 2008, and secured a place in history as Indonesia’s first-ever female executive chef.
While You’re In the Neighborhood Before: Pick up a pair of vintage-inspired earrings to debut at dinner at Fawn(3108 Fillmore Street), a quaint women’s boutique. After: Cut a rug or two at Comet Club (3111 Fillmore Street) before commemorating the evening with pictures in their photo booth.
The Ingredients: Executive Chef Arthur Wall hunts down the freshest in-season and local ingredients he can find, including oysters and cheeses. The everchanging selection of available items inspires Mr. Wall to constantly update his menu, as well as prepare a new prix fixe offering every day.
When to Go: On Tuesday, when the restaurant lets patrons bring in bottles of wine with no corkage fee.
Vibe: Paul Reidinger of the San Francisco Bay Guardian wrote “Garçon! might be one of the most Parisian-looking restaurants in the city, with its vintage Dubonnet posters and individual lamps on each table.”
Coq au vin: Traditional french dish of chicken cooked in red wine.
While You’re in the Neighborhood
Before: Take in the aromas of more than 400 herbs, essential oils, and flower essences at The Scarlet Sage Herb Company (1173 Valencia St).
After: See some live theatre at The Marsh (1062 Valencia St).
If You Can’t Make It, Try This: Gaspar Brasserie (185 Sutter St), where you can dine on French cuisine beneath a crystal chandalier.
Who’s Cooking: Chef-owner Traci Des Jardins. Her French-California cuisine has earned her multiple James Beard awards and even earned her a spot on season three of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters.
The Vibe: Jardiniere occupies a landmark building in the Civic Center neighborhood, and features a warm two-story interior that rests beneath an inverted champagne glass dome with twinkling, bubble-like lights.
When to Go: Monday nights offer the best bang for your buck with themed prix fixe dinners that include wine pairings.
While You're Waiting: Sip on a cocktail in the J Lounge. Here, you can get a taste of the restaurant’s elegance and, if you’re very hungry, its food—the lounge menu includes dishes such as warm bread salad with artichokes and crescenza.
Confit: a French term used to describe food that has been cooked in oil, syrup, or—in the case of some meat—its own fat, and then preserved.
If You Can’t Make It, Try This: Stop by one of chef Des Jardins’ other establishments, including Public House (24 Willie Mays Plaza, AT&T Park) and Mijita Cocina Mexicana, which has two prime locations.