Since 2006, Dan Smith has been on an often Quixotic quest to turn his sprawling Sebastopol eatery, The French Garden, into a Michelin-starred destination restaurant.
With it’s own 30-acre bio-intensive farm, Smith’s ample financial backing and a dedicated local following, it’s always had potential for greatness. Its Achiles heel: The kitchen. A series of top-notch chefs have debuted impressive menus at FG, only to exit – sometimes within months - leaving kitchen staff scrambling. Departures have been so notable and so frequent that one recent toque was simply called Quince (or Fifteen in Spanish) in reference to the fallen chefs preceding him. He too, is now gone. Suffice to say Smith is as exacting with his kitchen as he is with his farm.
Undaunted by the turnover, Smith has soldiered forth, staunchly believing in the restaurant after many gave up on it. His patience, however, may finally be rewarded.
Current chef Patrick Quillec took over the kitchen in the summer of 2010. Like many of his predecessors, Quillec is a French chef both by birth and by trade. Hailing from a restaurant family from Brittany, he trained with several Parisian chefs and is a successful restaurateur in his own right, having opened a number of French bistros and cafes in the United States. Most importantly, he seems to get Smith’s vision for a true farm-to-table experience. Because having your own personal restaurant farm is great, but only if you know how to use it.
Lunch is classic bistro fare, impeccably executed: Charcuterie, daily soups, escargot, frites with lemon aioli, Salade Lyonnaise ($11), quiche, Coquilles Saint Jacques (scallops in cream sauce, $15), steak frites, burgers, Croque Monseiur and daily crepes. Up to six daily vegetables from the farm are featured as side dishes (chard, parsnip tempura, squash, or whatever is in season, $7 each). Flavors are light and bright, and presentation shows the kind of precision Quillec has in the kitchen and his fondness for Smith’s pristine produce. Little details, like warm bread served with honey butter (the honey is from the farm) add serious cred.
The evening dining room is a more upscale affair, though many of the dishes are the same, with the addition of a few heartier entrees — lamb shank, chicken breast and pork. Not everything hits the mark, but classic preparations including duck breast with lentils ($14) and whitefish in beurre blanc with risotto, French onion soup ($9) and squash and Boursin ravioli with crab and chanterelles ($15) are stunners. Seasonal desserts tart tatin with salted caramel sauce and creme fraiche ice cream or lemon tarts are equally impressive.
For more casual neighborhood dining, the bistro has upped its game with a hip cocktail menu, $4 happy hour tapas (tuna tartare tacos, hangar steak sliders), and a la carte dinner items served in the bar. On Sunday, the brunch menu ranges from apple crepes ($7) and eggs Benedict to burgers, leek soup and and brioche french toast ($10) with the added benefit of their own farm market stand outside. The outdoor patio can’t be beat on warm spring and summer days and frequent live music acts add to the ambiance.
Nine months in, it seems safe to say that Chef Quillec’s may finally bring Smith’s epic quest to a close, windmills conquered with a fork and knife — and on track for the critical success The French Garden always has been capable of achieving.
French Garden Restaurant, 8050 Bodega Ave, Sebastopol, 824-2030. Open Wednesday through Saturday 11:30am to 2;30pm, dinner 5-9:30pm. Full bar and bistro from 4:30, happy hour 4:30 to 6:30pm. Sunday brunch and farm market, 10am to 2pm. Children’s menus available.