French food tends to have the stereotype of being pretentious, formal, and expensive. But the owner of the newly opened Cuisinett in San Carlos, Geofforey Raby, and former Executive Chef of Menlo Park’s shuttered Marche, Guillaume Bienaime, want you to believe otherwise.
“The kind of food we serve here is the kind my Mom would make,” says Raby. “I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 15 in Lille, France. I’ve learned that there’s importance to making people happy. But there’s a fine line between being attentive and being annoying. I wanted to create a casual, family-friendly restaurant with beautiful, simple design and great quality French food at a good price.”
They call it “French Comfort Food,” and their main focus is to change the common perception that French cuisine is stuffy and complex. Think Pasta Pomodoro or Crepevine. “We wanted things to be understandable and uncomplicated. We’re not doing extravagant plating here. We want you to have the food you order from cashier to table in 10 minutes without compromising quality and taste.”
Enter Chef Bienaime. The two met in May through a mutual contact in the restaurant industry. Chef Bienaime spent over seven years at the acclaimed Marche, two of those years heading up the kitchen before it closed earlier this year. So why would his next project involve a casual restaurant that doesn’t even have waiters?
“For me, it’s an opportunity to do something new. There are some very old school menu items like Coq Au Vin that are very difficult to cook quickly. So it was a challenge for me to do something more contemporary with these dishes while maintaining their classic quality. The more I got into it, the more I believed in the concept,” recalls the Chef.
“Marche went through a bunch of phases. It started as a casual concept and got more and more complicated through the years. So when it closed, I had the desire to approach more people with my food,” says Chef Bienaime. “What I love about cooking is how it makes people happy. I’d rather make more people happy than less.”
Despite being open for a relatively short amount of time, the Chef’s confidence in his dishes shows. They’re solidly delicious and are expertly, albeit simply, prepared.
Diners can chose from a variety of side dishes like french fries, sautéed spinach, or buttery peas and carrots. The specialty of the house is their Roasted Chicken, which you can have with a mushroom or mustard cream sauce, or in the style of Coq au Vin. It doesn’t disappoint with its moist meat and buttery flavor. The sauces are rich, distinct, and tasty without overpowering the chicken’s flavor.
The most popular dish on my multiple visits, however, seemed to be the Moules Frites (Mussels with Fries) with shallots, white wine and herbs. The Chef uses Mediterranean mussels which are bigger, plumper, juicier and sweeter, and were cooked to perfection. There wasn’t a rubbery mussel in the bunch. And the accompanying french fries were perfectly golden crisp and tender inside. This was a straightforward yet wonderfully executed dish.
For vegetarians, their Ratatouille is quite good and is served with a simple salad of mixed greens. The buttery Parmesan breadcrumbs on top contrast nicely with the nutty, toasty flavor and the mix of yellow and red bell peppers, various squash and eggplant make for a hearty dish.
“French food isn’t just centered in Paris bistros, so we’ve divided France up into 6 regions. Now people can see the different varieties of food there are in France,” says Raby.
With the restaurant now open and the menu developed, Chef Bienaime doesn’t plan on being in the kitchen on a daily basis. However he’s constantly adjusting the existing menu and plans to add more items for children. In the future, he will serve as culinary consultant and head of operations.
It’s their hope to create multiple locations over the next few years. And in the shorter term, Chef Bienaime is hoping to entertain the idea of having some special 6-course reservation only dinners for about $100 per person on Sundays, since they’re not usually open that day. They’ll also be offering a Family Meal for four people that’ll include a whole roasted chicken, choice of sauce, two sides and a baguette for under $30 that people can take to go.
“Guillaume is about serving fantastic food, I’m about helping to creating the experience,” says Raby. “It’s like Starbucks. There have always been coffeehouses, but Starbucks they worked on the experience. To a certain extent, that’s what I want to do with French food and make it and experience that’s accessible.”
And Chef Bienaime agrees. “I believe more and more in the concept every day.”
*Cross posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.