La Petite Grocery is named for a still earlier incarnation of the historic corner building. Over the past year, it has transformed into a restaurant refurbished with creams, whites and reds that has the city-chic, country-quaint feeling of fine china on a gingham tablecloth. Drapes shroud the front windows, and yet the high ceiling, lily-of-the-valley chandeliers and wall mirrors lend a lightness, an openness, to the subdivided space. Wines from a brief, confident list chill in a stone bowl, the focal point of the main dining room; servers meet there frequently like birds dipping into a bath.
In an adjoining but not totally separate room, the dark wooden bar accepts what diners the reservation book cannot. Women filled every seat on a recent evening, their Louis Vuitton handbags, Vanity Fair magazines and bellinis made with organic peach juice crowding the bar top.
This setting is reminiscent of before you can place it, warm dinner rolls arrive, rigid outside, steam and wheat inside. Yes, the similarities are striking -- obscured windows, open spaces, ultra-skilled servers, great dining bar, hot rolls; put plainly, La Petite Grocery is a lot like Peristyle. The resemblances grow more pronounced as meals progress. Chef and part-owner Anton Schulte was Anne Kearney's chef de cuisine (Kearney and husband Tom Sand sold Peristyle to Chef Tom Wolfe in June); Schulte's wife, Diane, the unflappable dining room director, is another Peristyle alum. Schulte also cooked for Joel Dondis of Joel catering, the new restaurant's main investor. (Full disclosure: Before becoming a full-time writer, I worked in kitchens, including a spell for Dondis in 1999 and 2000.)
Like Kearney's Peristyle, La Petite Grocery is a modern American bistro. The menu reflects a contemporary American school of culinary thought rooted in French technique and capitalizing upon first-rate ingredients. The warm, wilted spinach salad topped with a poached egg is a composition that's long been popular in trend-setting, produce-obsessed San Francisco. A caramelized onion, mushroom duxelle and goat cheese tart built upon a raft of puff pastry and surrounded by a shimmer of fragrant basil oil is a sweet cousin to Peristyle's pissaladiere.
As at Peristyle, the hook of most entrees is their remarkable reduction sauces. There's grilled pork loin with choucroute in a caramelly Riesling-cider reduction; veal flank steak with naturally pepper-scented French lentils and a beefy tomato-Dijon demi-glace; and roasted chicken with a chicken-intensive truffle reduction. I imagine there's a diligent saucier in the kitchen periodically skimming a spoon over burbling liquids. He cuts the heat on a sauce only when it takes a count to three-one-thousand for a syrupy drip to fall back into the pan.
Though Schulte is a graduate of Delgado's culinary program, his cooking exhibits little regional influence beyond the utilization of locally procured raw materials, such as seafood. He mixes, but doesn't muddle, this summer's succulent lump blue crab with artichoke, chives and a dab of aioli. He treated grilled mangrove snapper one evening to a crown of roasted Vidalia onions and a pureed throne of tomato-thyme vinaigrette. Snappish shrimp, also in peak season, luxuriate with fennel, sun-dried tomatoes and preserved lemon amongst leaves of torn egg pasta.
Schulte is mindful of the seasons without obsessing over them. Two could-be signatures are, in fact, seasonless: sliced lamb loin massaged with fresh herbs and black pepper, and served with dense capsules of rosemary-ricotta gnocchi; and a dark chocolate soup that could make pure Belgian Callebaut quiver like a sissy.
Documenting La Petite Grocery's even stride at just six months is not to suggest there's no room for fine-tuning -- the best restaurant is an unstable environment for perfection. Still, when certain dishes didn't generate eulogistic responses at my tables, it was usually a result of personal preference, not kitchen blundering.
It would be a mistake, however, to expect a revolution from Schulte's kitchen. The chef's sensibility, though contemporary, is geared more toward the timeless than the progressive. He pairs a juicy, auburn-skinned half-chicken with zucchini ribbons (a homely vegetable no matter how you slice it) and well-buttered mashed potatoes. The dish's truffle reduction is an elegant chicken gravy, a dressed-up Sunday dinner sauce that echoes the restaurant's urbane picnic vibrations.
I encountered just three real slips over the course of as many visits. A disjointed appetizer incorporating fried oysters and a dry sweet potato "ragout" had no chorus to unite its disparate components. Dull cucumbers and tomatoes made a chilled soup that had all the summer savor of an ice cube. Pound cake topped with anemic peaches was nearly as lean, but not nearly as lush, as angel food. All in all, La Petite Grocery is properly ambitious for its central Uptown location, and for prices that are equitable considering the return. Remember it when the city's lazy cream sauces get you down, or when you'd like to watch the world pass on the happening side of the window.