By Tami Yu
San Francisco can never have too many French cafes and bistros. The latest darling addition to the famed Aqua restaurant group, Cafe de la Presse makes a much-needed comeback, and it is prepared to impress. With executive chef Laurent Manrique at the helm, how could we not be dazzled?
Located in Union Square, across the street from the Chinatown Gate, it truly is the perfect melting pot for a locale, placed amidst many international hotels and shops. The old-world interior reminds one of a scene of a typical bistro in Paris from the 1930s, with dark tobacco stained walls and framed vintage posters. This mini-time travel experience is absorbed as you nurse an espresso from the round marble tables. What's really exciting is that the management retained the international newsstand behind the bar. Copies of Le Monde, Paris Vogue, Le Figaro, etc. are all at your fingertips. All that is missing is a tabac or cigar station to make it really authentic, but I'm not complaining.
The best news? The menu is truly authentic bistro fare. Under Manrique's direction, French-trained chef Patrick Albert whipped out a wide range of dishes, from the Croque Monsieur sandwich ($8) to the tasty Coquilles St. Jacques a la Provencale ($21).The Tartes Flambees are the definite winners for the lunch menu. The blanched onions melded perfectly with the smooth creme fraiche, which balanced nicely with the savory bacon. Sardines a l'Huile ($10) is another winner. These house-marinated sardines will change your impression of the everyday sardine. Served with an array of dipping sauces such as garlic aioli and olive tapenade, your taste buds will thank you for trying this dish.
It gets better at dinner. The Confit de Canard ($21) was perfectly seasoned, and crisp. The roasted potatoes and wild mushrooms with the garlic-balsamic reduction sauce,were especially flavourful-creating a sweet and tangy contrast to the duck leg.
This is great comfort food, something one could share in front of a fireplace on a wintry evening. Manrique explains, "Duck Confit, a traditional dish from Southwestern France, has proven to be a great addition to our classic French bistro menu at Café de la Presse"¦and our guests love it!". A popular request, this is sure to become one of their signature entrees.
The classic Boeuf Bourgignon ($19) doesn't disappoint - it's rather well-executed for a classic bistro standby. The texture could be more-tender, but overall it's quite succulent and prepared nicely with red wine undertones. More reason to order this: the macaroni & cheese side dish is to die for. Everyone at the table kept reaching for the dish until it was empty. It's that good, with a light crisp crust and creamy cheese filling....they should really sell this as a separate entree.
For desseret: the Ile Flotante (Floating Island) was a perfect ending to the lovely feast, which was both sophisticated and comforting at the same time. A light, fluffy meringue floats prettily atop the Creme Anglaise sauce. It certainly teases the taste buds with the vanilla notes wafting across the room, tempting the other diners.
The international wine list is quite exceptional - the Tement Muskat from Austria was crisp and fruity ($5.50/glass). Another favorite was the Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne ($12.50/flute).
Hailing from France, Italy, Spain and Napa, the comprehensive list contains 11 wines by the glass, including aperitifs and dessert wines. Given the impressive selection, the mark-ups are reasonable. In all, it's a well-rounded selection that goes well with the cafe's bistro cuisine.
Cafe de la Presse:352 Grant Avenue (at Bush), San Francisco; (415) 399-5600. Open daily for breakfast 8 am - 2 pm, lunch 10 am - 5:30pm and dinner 5:30 pm - 10:30 pm. Reservations and credit cards accepted.