If you want to understand food, especially fine dining, you need to understand the food in France – the way it is grown and gathered and cooked and eaten, the importance of food in everyday life, and the simple satisfaction of a meal enjoyed without hurry or worry.
Oh, how we wish some of that would rub off over here, where food is still so relatively cheap and disposable – we waste it, rush it, buy it in bulk and often devour it on the way to doing something else.
It doesn't have to be that way, of course, and lucky for us there is a husband-wife team that can give us a glimpse of the French way of living and eating without our having to pack a suitcase or update a passport.
For this, you merely have to head for Granite Bay, that enclave known for big houses, narrow roads and, to those lucky enough to have stumbled upon it, the rustic cuisine of rural France.
Here, you will find everything from escargot nestled onto mushroom caps sautéed in garlic butter, to a classic rack of lamb with a Dijon mustard crust, and, for Sunday brunch, a variety of crepes savory or sweet, omelets handled with great care, and a croissant as light and flaky as anything we can remember.
A visit to Bistro La Petite France is like stepping into a quaint little bistro in one of those little villages where all the rooftops are the same color, dogs sleep outside storefronts, grizzled old men ride rickety bicyclettes, and the pursuit of food and wine is a focal point of daily life.
That lifestyle is elusive for many of us, but it is there for the taking at this modest restaurant with only 32 seats on Auburn Folsom Road.
Bistro La Petite France is really the story of French food and drink as told by Christophe and Claudine Ehrhart, accent and all. If you had a casting call for a movie about a French bistro, you might get Christophe and Claudine to say "bonsoir" and "soupe du jour" before asking, "When can you start?"
This cozy little place is both an education and an antidote. The cooking here is all from scratch, employing the time-honored techniques and ingredients of French cuisine. It's the simple life, through and through.
Some of the eggs come from the family chicken coop in Loomis. The steaks are marinated not for hours but for days. Recently, a customer came in to barter with the chef – giving him 800 Meyer lemons in exchange for a jar of the bistro's superb salad dressing (I was one of the beneficiaries of this exchange – I had a lemon "Jell-O" dessert topped with white chocolate mousse).
In the dining area, Claudine exudes the charm, warmth and ease of French hospitality, greeting newcomers and chatting with regulars, running through the menu, taking orders and serving food without any hint of stress or strain. It is low-key, homespun and genuine.
Halfway through our first visit, after walking in from the chilly night air and finding ourselves in this little slice of French cinema, we looked over at Christophe cooking in the open kitchen, glanced at his wife conversing with a couple in the corner, sized up the shelves of French wine on the wall next to our table, then summed up this bistro succinctly: He's cute, she's cute, it's cute.
But this is a bistro, not a theme park. The food has to be good or all the charm and Alsatian accents won't save it. Fortunately for fans of bistro cooking, the food here is at once simple, sophisticated and unpretentious.
The three-course prix-fixe menu is an excellent way to get a sense of the place. One Saturday, for $30 we got lobster bisque, pork belly with lentils and vegetables, and a raspberry-hazelnut tart. All of it was spot on and loaded with flavor.
The parsleyed rack of lamb (carré d'agneau persille provençale), with a side of frites at Claudine's suggestion, was delicious, too. We've been to restaurants with food so bland we wondered if anyone in the kitchen was tasting the food before it was sent out.
That is not the case here. The meats, the sauces, the soups, the salads: All are alive with balanced taste, including the lamb, which is pan-seared, coated in fresh bread crumbs and seasoned with rosemary, garlic and thyme. To show at its best in terms of flavor and tenderness, you'll want it medium-rare. Ask for it medium-well or even well done and that gasp you'll hear from the kitchen is the chef having a heart attack.
It's worth noting that Christophe conducts regular cooking classes in the bistro, focusing on classic French recipes and techniques. For $85, you cook, you learn, you laugh, you eat.
"It's very simple things," Christophe told me when we chatted later about the ingredients. "Cooking it the right way makes a huge difference."
The secret to what we call french fries? Christophe insists they must be cooked twice, using Yukon gold potatoes and good oil. First they are blanched at a lower temperature, then cooled, then fried at 375 degrees until they are cooked through. These frites are light yet crisp, and seasoned simply with salt and pepper.
The steak dinner on another visit was outstanding – this oversized slab of a rib-eye that was so full of flavor, with a little char on the edges from the flames dancing at the 800-degree grill. This 16-ounce showstopper is finished in the oven, then plated and served with a peppercorn sauce. If you want to understand the dichotomy of this style of cooking – how simple it seems, but how elusive it may be in the hands of a lesser cook – this steak will be a revelation.
Sweetbreads are not for everyone, and that became apparent when we ordered them. Claudine hesitated. Then she asked if we knew what they were. A customer recently ordered them and was, Claudine noted with a smile, "not happy" to discover they were neither sweet nor bread.
The thymus gland of a young cow is a delicacy for good reason, and our chef in Granite Bay knows how to highlight that beautiful texture and subtle flavor. It's a three-day process from start to finish – soaking them in water, then milk, then boiling and cooling, cleaning off the fat, making a mirepoix and creating a stock with veal and white wine, then cooking the sweetbreads until tender, letting them rest while thickening and reducing the stock.
The size of this bistro is not an accident. Christophe and Claudine don't want to cut corners and they don't want to do so much that the quality suffers. Limiting the seating to 32 diners ensures a certain standard and an unhurried pace. The wine list has evolved, based on customer demand – they want their wine French in a French bistro.
If you stop by and are in a rush or are on your way someplace else to do something else, you haven't learned the central lesson that is so evident here: This is the focal point, the meal is your evening and, for the time being, nothing else matters but the experience before you.
BISTRO LA PETITE FRANCE
8230 Auburn Folsom Road, Granite Bay
(916) 786-9502, www.bistrolapetitefrance.net
Hours: Breakfast: 8-11 a.m. Wednesday to Saturday; lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday; dinner 6-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday.
Full bar? Beer and wine
Takeout? Yes, but not recommended for dinner.
Vegetarian friendly? Limited.
Overall: 3 stars (good)
With plenty of charm and authentic cooking, this little bistro in Granite Bay will transport you to the French countryside by the time you take your seat and order your meal.
Food: 3 stars (good)
The mustard-crusted rack of lamb, the escargots with mushroom caps, the massive steak dinner and the veal sweetbreads in a cognac sauce all are good bets. The desserts are made in house and also are quite good. The three-course prix-fixe dinner for $30 is a solid deal. The wine list focuses on affordable, well-rounded French bottles.
Service: 4 stars (excellent)
The hospitality is warm and inviting, and the server is also the co-owner, complete with French accent and a low-key, personable touch.
Ambience: 3 stars (good)
It's small and cozy, though some may find the tables too close. Just pretend you are in France and roll with it. The patio in the back is great for brunch in the springtime.
Value: 3 stars (good)
It's not cheap, but most diners won't be disappointed when they factor in the quality of the cooking and the portion sizes. Entrees range from the low to high $20s. Wine prices are also reasonable. The charisma and excellent manners you encounter: priceless.
Noteworthy: Want to learn more about French cooking? Sign up for a class with owner-chef Christophe Ehrhart for $85, including a meal after your spell in the kitchen.