It all started late one recent afternoon when I was driving home from the northwest Trader Joe's, and a bright new sign for Bistro Chartreuse drew me into the restaurant formerly known as Le Beaujolais. (Well, actually, not so formerly, because the Le Beaujolais sign is still up; what you've got now at Oracle Road's San Marco Plaza are dueling restaurant marquees).
While I was scanning the menu, the maitre d' explained that Bistro Chartreuse is the reincarnation of the Landmark Café, which had been given one month's notice (!) to vacate the premises that it had occupied in the Casas Adobe shopping center for more than 11 years. And--talk about adding insult to injury--the owners weren't even allowed to keep the Landmark name, because it belonged to the restaurant whose lease they had taken over yea those many years ago.
Since I'd always been fond of the Landmark's traditional French comfort food and the restaurant had acquired its new home a month and a half ago--long enough for pros like the owners to work out any kinks, I figured--I booked a table.
I arrived the next day at a dining room that was depressingly empty for a Friday evening at 7--perhaps understandably, because the space had gone unoccupied for almost eight months and the current tenant was, for all intents and purposes, an unknown. The setting was cheerful, however, with sunny chartreuse walls (inspired by the chef/owner's fondness for a certain monkish liqueur) shading into soft apricot and melon tones.
And the service started out attentively. As soon as my friends showed up, an immediate attempt was made to take our drink order. I say "attempt" because, to our surprise, none of the choices included anything more potent than caffeine. Apparently, because of the name change snafu, the Landmark had to reapply for a liquor license, which had not yet arrived.
Now this was news we could have used--in advance. We would have jumped at the chance to enjoy dinner out with a fine bottle of wine, acquired at liquor store, not restaurant, prices--and served corkage-fee free. But once we'd settled into conversation--not to mention removed all extraneous items of clothing because the dining room temperature was not exactly low--none of us felt much like getting up and going out on booze patrol. (Oh, and did I mention it was raining?)
But Linda drew the short straw, and returned quickly with one of her favorite whites. We began feeling better, even though being subjected to the standard wine-tasting ritual was a little weird. (True, the wine could have gone bad, but it's not like we could have sent it back.) Still, we wouldn't have minded that oddity if a more important oenophile ritual--the one where the server keeps coming around during dinner and refilling the wine glasses--had been observed.
But that was later. Things were looking up now, as the appetizers arrived promptly--and deliciously. The lobster crepes ($8.95) were swathed in a lovely creamy sauce and filled with lots of succulent, fresh-tasting seafood. The crab cakes--two huge ones in a single order--were similarly well prepared, meaty and spiced with a delicate blend of star anise, ginger and fennel.
The main courses, on the other hand, turned out to be a mixed bag. The bacon that my scallops ($18.95) were wrapped in was soggy, and the ginger served with it was, partially, in bitter root form--as I discovered during a surprising bite-back bite into a mystery item on my plate. Linda's vegetarian entree of portobello mushrooms ($13.95) was pretty much just expensive fungus topped with uninspired cheddar-like cheese--a dish, as she said, that she could have easily have made at home.
Of the three entrees, Daniela's halibut special ($17.95) was the best--a large, moist piece of fish without a hint of fishiness (why is it that a prime criterion for fish success is that it not taste like what it is?). But the side dish for all three dinners, which had been billed as risotto, wasn't. It was, rather, your basic Uncle Ben-type white rice, and a pretty clumpy batch at that.
We were next offered coffee and, to the restaurant's credit, it was very good; it's not easy to turn out a decent decaf. But it was followed by that old end-of-the-meal signal, "Will there be anything else?"--with nary an offer of dessert.
I've never been shy when it comes to sweets, and I'd recalled that the Landmark had consistently won the Taste of Chocolate competition, so I asked after them. A small dessert array was duly whisked out, including an adorable white-and-dark chocolate piano which, we were told in response to a question about its exact origins, was made "somewhere else." We opted for the two desserts that had been prepared on the premises, a light-chocolate mousse ($4.50) and a spice bread pudding ($4.50). The bread pudding was fine, but not nearly as transcendent as the mousse (hey, it's not easy to better perfection).
And so, like I said, this is a story with a semi-sweet ending. But that's not sweet enough Let's hope that by the time its liquor license is in place--another five weeks or so--Bistro Chartreuse will be closer to being ready for prime time. Meanwhile, inquiring minds still want to know: Where did that miniature piano come from? After all, if you arrive bearing gifts of small chocolate musical instruments, you're bound to be welcome at every dinner table in town.
Bistro Chartreuse. 5931 N. Oracle Road. 575-9277. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch menu 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Full bar (in about five weeks). All major credit cards. Menu items: $5.95-$12.95 (lunch) and $6.95-$19.95 (dinner).