The sun is setting on a warm day well into April. I'm eating solo, seated outside on one of the quietest corners downtown, where there are so few cars after 5 p.m. you'd think the roads were closed.
I haven't been here in many months, and I'm hoping Bistro Michel has found its footing and honed its identity since my early, awkward visits.
A woman strolls by with her dog and sits at a table. A waiter brings water – in a dog bowl, for the panting pooch.
In this setting on 14th Street at O, relaxed as it is just a block from Capitol Park and two blocks from busy 16th Street, it's easy to feel transformed. As Hemingway might have said, the city – our city – had accommodated itself to spring.
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I'm reading the New York Times, though as the evening wears on and I encounter the simple goodness and intelligence of the cooking and take stock of how this restaurant feels so different from everything around it, I begin to imagine it's the International Herald Tribune.
A man, slightly built and casually dressed, walks over to my table. He's the co-owner, Richard Macias. I mention that I rarely see books displayed in a restaurant, as they are here when you first walk through the door, and that I, too, enjoyed at least one of them: "Death on the Installment Plan."
I order the steak frites. We chat for a moment about France, about his interest in literature, and how, one thing leading to another, he took his savings to France in 1999, this kid from McClatchy High, and invested it in himself – at Le Cordon Bleu. The same culinary institution that taught Julia Child how to cook in French.
What a great place, this secluded little corner with this understated bistro, 1 year old this month, and many months removed from a bumpy start that made me question whether it even stood a chance. Like so many new restaurants, its first few months seemed to portend its own death, the fewer installments the better.
These days? I'm loving the vibe – quirky and quiet and, if I stretch my imagination just a tad, I feel like I could be at one of those understated bistros with the sidewalk seating in Paris. The food, soon to arrive, does not disabuse me of this notion.
The food is as faithful to the spirit of those French bistros as any place in town.
The steak, a cut from the shoulder called flat iron, is thick and square and perfectly medium-rare. But it's the french fries – les frites – that have me so, as the French might exclaim, exuberant.
These are, hands down, the best fries in the city. What's surprising is that this unheralded bistro will go to such great lengths to make them: The potatoes are peeled, then soaked in saltwater, then sliced (punched, as they say in the business), soaked in more saltwater overnight, rinsed, blanched in oil at 250 degrees, taken out and laid on a mat, then fried in oil at 350 degrees until they are crisp outside and tender inside. In the moment before the fries leave the kitchen, truffle oil and sea salt are added.
The ketchup? Even that stands out, its flavor balanced and brimming. This is housemade curry ketchup with a pinch of turmeric, the kind you see all over Belgium.
Telling you all this about a restaurant that's still something of a secret compels me to imagine it full of life, every table occupied with folks drinking good wine, the best of Belgium's beers and wiling away the evening over very good food.
With the caliber of the staff – smart, attentive and charming – and the quality of the food, Bistro Michel deserves that kind of devoted clientele.
Enough about the fries (though you must get them as a side dish if they don't come with your entree). The mussels are also delicieux. On a different night, dining inside with an old friend and colleague, the two of us couldn't get enough of these mussels, fresh and clean and in broth so full of flavor we couldn't resist using our bread to sop it up. Again, there are no shortcuts to something this good.
As Macias later told me, for every 5 pounds of mussels served in the dining room, the kitchen uses 10 pounds behind the scenes, cooking the mussels down for about two hours to make a stock, adding celery, onion, garlic and fennel along the way as the intensity builds and time creates its own natural balance. Don't overlook those pieces of celery poking out of the broth. By now, they have absorbed so much flavor and taken on a sweetness you won't recognize as celery.
But there's more. The chef adds a finishing touch at the last minute: He hits the broth with a bit of cream and, just as it begins to bubble, a shot of absinthe – yes, absinthe.
So, we're batting 1.000 and haven't even tried French bistro staples such as lambs tongue (in a salad), the escargot in a puff pastry with veal stock, wild mushrooms and toasted hazelnut; we eventually got to try the creamy goodness of the risotto with three kinds of mushrooms, a mild French cheese and finished with white truffle oil.
Brunch, too, is a winner. At Bistro Michel, we're outside again and digging into two beautiful dishes that leave us satisfied but still light on our feet.
The poached eggs for my "salmon Benedict" are beautiful, pillowy puffs of whiteness, placed on slices of crisp baguette and covered with a bright Hollandaise, with thin slices of cured salmon tucked in for more creamy, toothsome texture. This dish is completed with more nicely fried potatoes and a small salad. The "croque marquis" is also a winner – an open-faced sandwich featuring ham and sautéed spinach on a slice of pain au levain, all of it covered in an off-white mornay sauce. As our server explained, it is like a béchamel but with the addition of cheese.
It's worth noting that the quality of the eggs was obvious – when we pierced them with a fork, the yolks were as bright orange as a setting sun.
Bistro Michel is the brainchild of Macias and Alan Chan, longtime friends who have eaten their way across Europe and dreamed of bringing some of that style and exuberance for life back home. They've done it, with the help of a team Macias describes as "a group of ragtag restaurant professionals."
Macias doesn't actually do the cooking. After culinary school in Paris and a three-month externship in Provence, he realized he loved restaurants but he didn't love life in a demanding kitchen – with the low pay and yelling.
He went on to be a server at Waterboy and the now- defunct 55 Degrees. He's taken those lessons and applied them to Bistro Michel, with plenty of his own personality and sense of purpose.
The chef is Scott McNamara, a onetime chemist with a degree from the University of California, Davis, who abruptly changed careers and went to work in the kitchen at 55 Degrees, as sous chef, with the highly regarded executive chef Luc Dendievel.
Our servers were pros, too. Justin Marshall is a restaurant veteran and Tyler Kavicky got his start busing tables at the French Laundry in Yountville, one of the world's great restaurants. Ask them a question and you're likely to get a history lesson as well as a primer on food and how it's prepared.
A year ago, I wasn't so sure, but it was worth the wait. Bistro Michel stands out as something special – the kind of place that gives our city an identity all its own.
1501 14th St., Sacramento
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Saturday; dinner, 5 to 9 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 5-10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Full bar? Yes.
Vegetarian friendly? Somewhat.
Overall 3 stars (good)
With a commitment to the spirit of the classic French bistro but with a style all its own, Bistro Michel serves food that is simple yet intelligent – and always delicious.
Food 3 stars (good)
Beyond the french fries, or frites, which are the best we've tasted, the steak is a winner, and the mussels with their deep, flavorful broth are superb. Sunday brunch is also nicely done, with salmon Benedict and the open-faced sandwich called croque marquis. Service HHH (good)
The waiters here are not mere order-takers. They know their stuff and they know how to manage their tables with aplomb.
Ambience 3 stars (good)
In the right weather, I love the sidewalk tables. Inside is above average but limited in style. The sunroom is in purgatory. Until it's decided how best to use it, at least keep the glass ceiling free of debris.
Value 3 1/2 stars (very good)
With a nice happy hour and competitive food prices, the value here is appealing. The $14 mussels are a steal, and the $20 steak frites a nice deal. Salads are $8 to $10, and brunch is reasonable.
Noteworthy: Co-owner Richard Macias is a wine enthusiast who listens to the wishes of his customers. Thus, half the wine list features popular California varieties and half focuses on his sometimes exotic French favorites. I just wish my nice red wine had that hint of chill I like instead of the warm glass I was served. The beers are mostly Belgian, except for the Pabst Blue Ribbon.