"Chez Daniel" means house of Daniel, even if nobody really has a house in a Folsom strip mall next to a martial arts studio.
The Chez Daniel experience, including what some might interpret as "attitude" mixed with charm, begins well before you arrive to enjoy the classic French cuisine, the clichéd French music and the polished but occasionally laggard service.
When you call to make a reservation, you are more than likely to hear the voice of Daniel Pont, the proprietor and chef who will turn 74 at the end of this month.
In the most elegant of French accents, Monsieur Pont will inform you that there is a dress code – no shorts or tank tops for men, for instance – and that he takes only cash or check.
No credit cards.
Remember cash? I don't.
So my experience included a disheartening detour to an ATM to withdraw $200. With a bottle of wine and a buttery escargot appetizer, that would be the tab for four for dinner.
On the issue of the dress code, I'm on Pont's side. A French gentleman like Pont is prone to interpret it as insulting when you saunter into his establishment wearing cargo shorts, flip-flops and an untucked dress shirt.
I asked Pont about this later, following my visits to his restaurant, where I encountered food ranging from disappointing to delightful and service from charming to alarming.
Pont is easy to provoke because he is so authentically proud. I let it slip that I, too, find it disheartening the way men dress around here. And of course, he one-upped me.
"I find it disgusting," he said. "It's sad that we have to tell people how to get dressed to go to a restaurant."
If you, too, are prone to hyperbole, feel free to replace "disheartening" with "disgusting" as we proceed.
When the four of us arrived for our latest visit, we stood inside the door for several minutes before we were greeted and shown to our table. In a restaurant this intimate, that's disheartening.
The host, the waiter, the wine steward, the chief bottle washer? It's all the same gentleman.
Dinner is $30 per person, including soup, salad, a main entree and a dessert assigned to you so Pont doesn't run out of one and have a surplus of another.
If you want fairness, you came to the wrong strip mall.
Part of the Chez Daniel experience is staring at your dessert and wishing there was such a thing as democracy.
At the outset, the four of us, all adults, were not allowed to select the same soup. Two of us got the vegetable soup, which was excellent, and two of us got the onion soup, which was ordinary.
The salad was plain and simple, uninspired, a little tired and not so tasty. The four of us nodded in agreement as we picked through the greenery: disheartening.
The food straddles the line between bistro fare and fine dining, but the courses are not elevated enough or original enough to work as a prix fixe experience.
The bottle of wine arrived slower than it should have because the poor waiter was waiting on other tables, greeting other guests and waltzing in and out of the kitchen with other people's food. He eventually uncorked our decent and reasonably priced bottle of 2004 Haut-Medoc, a red Bordeaux blend.
As we ate – and waited – we agreed that the $30 fixed price could easily be $50, given the quality of the cooking, if it came with the promise of hiring more people to do more things and, thus, provide a more seamless, sophisticated and engaged experience.
This won't happen here. Pont is famously meticulous and notoriously stubborn. Lines at his once-famous downtown soup-and-sandwich cafe, La Bonne Soupe, were sometimes up to two hours long. Pont was the only employee, meaning he would take the orders, ladle the soup, slice the baguettes, take the cash and repeat, over and over.
It was cute and charming and, to some, exasperating. But never disheartening.
Pont sold La Bonne Soupe in 2011 and stayed retired for about a half-hour.
At Chez Daniel most recently, I ordered the duck with green peppercorn. Our waiter returned moments later to announce that the "duck tonight is not up to the chef's standards" and that I was obligated to make another selection. I did: I asked for the substandard duck, but our waiter looked more disheartened than amused. I ordered the rack of lamb ($5 extra) with a crust seasoned to delicious effect with herbs de Provence. It was very good, especially the tender meat and the crisp, flavorful crust.
The pork tenderloin in a sauce with apples and cider was also nicely cooked and seasoned, though the portion was on the skimpy side. The braised rabbit in a rosemary-and-mustard sauce was substantial but a tad underwhelming flavor-wise. The prawns and scallops with a lobster-cognac sauce tasted merely OK and lacked focus, as if the chef really didn't know what he wanted to accomplish with the ingredients.
Each of our entrees included the same vegetables: asparagus (which was cold), green beans (which were underseasoned), au gratin potatoes (which were ragged yet tasty) and carrots. Creative flourishes and a variety of vegetable options would have elevated each of these dishes.
We asked for more bread – and didn't get it. We asked for more water – and didn't get it until we asked a third time.
For dessert, we didn't get to ask.
My companion who didn't care for crème brûlée, wound up with the crème brûlée. My girlfriend, who doesn't care for strawberries, got the strawberries and cream. There was only one dessert that stood out – the one nobody would have ordered – called ile flottante, or floating island, in which a large dollop of meringue is set atop crème anglais. It was excellent – delicate and subtle and practically enchanting.
Toward the end of dinner, the proprietor-chef stopped by our table to say hello and explain himself in that accent, which, retroactively, made everything taste better and seem smoother.
We paid the bill with cash and walked out, our Chez Daniel experience complete, for better or worse.
49 Natoma St., Folsom
Hours: 5 p.m. to closing Tuesday-Saturday
Beverage options: Beer and wine
Vegetarian friendly: No
Noise level: Quiet
Overall: Two 1/2 Stars (pretty good)
While the potential for an exceptional experience exists, Chez Daniel misses the mark by understaffing the restaurant, failing to offer enough variety of side dishes and unnecessarily controlling dessert selections simply for the convenience of the proprietor. The food is solid and consistent, but it's not good enough to carry the evening without managing other essential restaurant fundamentals.
Food: Three Stars(good)
The sauces showcase classic French preparations and the cooking is skillful, but the vegetables are repetitive and bland throughout the menu. Not enough variety or creativity to win over the discerning diner. Highlights include the salmon poached in Champagne or cour-bouillon and the rack of lamb Provencale. One glaring shortcoming: no option for vegetarians.
Service: Two Stars (fair)
One skillful but over- extended waiter just doesn't cut it. Thus, the evening drags unnecessarily.
Ambience: Two 1/2 Stars(pretty good)
It's cozy, quiet and well appointed, though a little generic, if not clichéd. The dress code is appreciated, even if the requirements (no flip-flops or shorts for men) are tame.
Value: Two 1/2 Stars (pretty good)
This is a tough category at Chez Daniel. The prices could easily be higher than the $30 for four courses, but that would require more employees, better service and more sophisticated side-dish options. Add all that up and you would have a better dining experience and get better value if the price was $50.