Figaro's duet

Singing the praises of two French guys and their Queen Anne bistro.

Some restaurants surround diners with theatrical props. Others are minimalist shrines. Figaro Bistro at the foot of Queen Anne is closer to the latter, but not for lack of imagination. Figaro doesn't try too hard at not trying too hard (even though it's named after a tenacious character in a story by Beaumarchais who was famous for trying hard). Figaro Bistro 11 Roy, 284-6465

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major credit cards; local checks Figaro is real—a real French bistro, not just a restaurant posing as one. The evidence: Walls are just the right shade of cream, the royal blue ceilings high but not unnervingly so, the tables unfussy in their white linens. Waiters are unobtrusive. The wine list is affordable. And, you can smoke at the bar (an enormous ventilation hood erases it from the air). Most important: The owners are two French guys in their early thirties, Laurent Gabrel and Philippe Bollache. Gabrel, a Parisian, trained in Versailles and worked in Paris and the Riviera. Bollache grew up in Auberge, outside Lyon, working in his family's restaurant. Bistro food—glass upon glass of wine, fat steak frites, a pack of Gauloises on the side—runs in their veins, like fast food runs in the blood of America's young men. Which is why, when the two of them enthusiastically described their menu as "typical bistro, a very simple cuisine accessible to a lot of people, casual, not expensive," I smiled. French children take mandatory school classes in bread appreciation. To such a people, Coquille St. Jacques (sautéed scallops in leek cream sauce) probably does seem casual. Though it's only two months old, Figaro already has regulars. Queen Anners and Seattle Center patrons who have discovered the warm fragrant egginess of the tarte a l'onion (onion quiche, $5.95), who have grown addicted to the hearty house-made paté ($6.95), who have eaten the tender spinach salad with duck confit ($6.95) and shivered, with pleasure, every time. My first meal—on a Tuesday, when most Seattle kitchens roll over and play dead—was the salmon papillote ($13.95). The flaky fish is baked in an enormous bubble of parchment paper, with white wine and vegetable slivers, and served with saffron-scented rice. Understated and just so. The veal Normandy ($13.95) offers sautéed veal medallions and potatoes atop a pool of Calvados sauce; the tang of apple brandy infused the tender meat. On my second visit, I felt bold enough to throw down the gauntlet by ordering bouillabaisse ($14.95). Having never met a bouillabaisse I liked in this town, I thought I was setting them up. This was one of those times I could savor being wrong. The broth is delicate but full, layered with the sweetnesses of whitefish stock, leeks, onion, tomato, and saffron. Fish and shellfish float among chopped onion. Croutons spread with a spicy, garlicky rouille are balanced on the edge of the bowl. Gabrel says he calls the dish "bouillabaisse au fruits de mer" because "no one can make the real bouillabaisse" outside of Provence. "The fish they use, St. Peter fish, is very expensive and hard to find." Gabrel and Bollache want to represent regional variations in the bistro style: seafood á la Brittany, the pasta dishes of Provence, the creamy, buttery sauces of Normandy. Paris is represented by steak frites; I love this dish anytime, anywhere. At Figaro it's topped with a generous melting pat of herb garlic butter and sided with crisp, dry fries. No nonsense. The Coquille St. Jacques ($13.95) and the coq au vin ($13.95) are both studies in controlled richness and intensity. The first is a pale dish of white and tan: seared scallops serve as chewy counterpoint to angel hair pasta; the sweet brine of the scallops is echoed by the oyster mushrooms in the leek cream sauce. The coq au vin is flush with a Cabernet Sauvignon sauce that is made smoky with mushroom; Gabrel says the finishing secret is a duck demiglace. The meat is pulled, boneless, served with whipped potatoes and pearl onions. Usually a winter dish, the coq au vin will remain on the menu past the end the year, when Gabrel and Bollache plan to add winter dishes like cassoulet and boeuf bourguignon. In true French style, everything—charcuterie and desserts included—is done in house, with the help of sous chef Adam Hoffman. Because of this personal attention to detail, there are certain dishes that each member of the kitchen is especially proud of. Gabrel has a fondness for the magret de canard, duck breast seared in a sweet sauce of creme de cassis and black currant. Bollache boasts about the onion soup, made from a secret family recipe. They both recommend the mussels du chef ($6.95)—mussels in Pernod cream sauce—and the sous chef's chocolate cake. Dessert options also include profiteroles, lemon tart, crème brûlée, and chocolate mousse ($4.50-$5.25). Of course, there is tarte Tatin. Figaro's take on this classic French apple tart is lovely: The apples are as tender as pudding, their piquancy balanced by the caramelized sauce. The wine list has a nice array of well-priced options by the bottle; selections by the glass are limited. To be honest, though, I didn't look hard past the Sancerre—which, if you don't know what you want in a wine, is always just right.

 
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