Restaurant Review: Artisan Bistro

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The bistro began in the 1880’s as a small restaurant serving simple meals in a modest setting. Paintings by Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Renoir and others verify it as a place for relaxation and companionship. The former is history; the latter is still valid.

Artisan Bistro began (sort of – keep reading) at San Ramon Valley High School but has yet to be painted by an Impressionist (or anyone else, for that matter). However, it has been reviewed favorably since it opened on March 10, 2009. Here’s how it got there…

Unlike Paul Simon in Kodachrome, now 33-year-old John Marquez doesn’t “think back on all the crap he learned in high school.” Nope. He took a food class, started cooking for the high school students and was so good that he was moved to the teachers’ lounge (evidently an unheralded gourmet hot-spot, the SRV teachers’ lounge). Off he went.

DVC’s culinary program, ”Bridges” in Danville, ”Blackhawk Grille.” By age 22, he was in Las Vegas, working lunches at “Lutece” (Venetian) and dinners at wonderful “Picasso” (Bellagio). After a couple of years, he returned to San Francisco, as one of the talented youngsters being mentored by Daniel Patterson at “Elizabeth Daniel.” After that closed in 2005, Thomas Keller invited him to New York to help open “Per Se” and then brought him back to California for “The French Laundry’s” reopening. He migrated again when Patterson opened “Coi”. Alors, it was time for his restaurant…

His vision for Artisan Bistro is uncomplicated: so-called “California cuisine”, but with the French influence and techniques learned in his culinary peregrinations (though, alas, light on traditionally creamy sauces). He relies on organic ingredients, adapts constantly to seasonal availability and spurns anything frozen.

He literally has his hands on all aspects of his cuisine. He butchers the lamb, poultry, fish and rabbit, journeys to farmers’ markets in Berkeley and Oakland, and has persuaded suppliers of The French Laundry and Coi to come to the East Bay for the first time. It creates a greater expense but, in his kitchen, it yields a more tasty result.

From all this comes the likes of ox-tail (blended with chopped truffles and potato, pressed overnight, cut in a square and then seared, topped with a poached egg), John Dory (one of my favorite fishes — in a bouillabaisse consomme, served with sautéed artichoke, kale, cranberry beans and an herb vinaigrette), veal chop (without a sauce to overwhelm the veal’s flavor), multi-colored beet salad (with goat cheese and walnuts), tangy and light gazpacho (learned from Julian Serrano, served with Dungeness crab and avocado), a substantial corn chowder (one actually tastes the corn), and poached pear (in a huckleberry sauce, with cardamom ice cream). And more.

Dinner preludes range from $8- 9.00 (soups) to $15-17.00 (smoked salmon or foie gras). Dinner prices ($20-30.00) are moderate for such quality. The wine list is diverse in price and variety, with corkage of $18.00 if one wants to go it alone. The menu changes at 6-8 week intervals (he is receptive to staff suggestions, but “97%” are his creations) — and he has made the adventurous decision to have different menus for lunch and dinner.

He also manages to support charitable events, for example, last August he prepared a seven-course dinner, with wine pairings, for The Khaled Hosseini Foundation’s humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. In short, he is so busy that he has to wonder if he should have chosen the more leisurely life of a lawyer.

Open every day, except Monday, for lunch (brunch on weekends) and dinner, Artisan Bistro is an ideal size: 58 inside and 50 in the attractive, covered patio. If the front parking is full, one can park easily in the spacious lot in the rear. Reservations are encouraged (For reservations, please call (925) 962-0882). Here’s an idea: On request, Marquez will design a tasting menu for you and your guests. Think that would be a treat? Go to 1005 Brown Avenue, Lafayette – the long-time site of “Café Barbara” – and find out for yourself.

Filed Under: Lifestyle

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