BY LENA KAZER
Settling into the quaint, cozy atmosphere, Chez Maman West is a charming French bistro, inspired by the French countryside. Owner, Jocelyn Bulow, is a charismatic restauranteur who arrived in San Francisco in 1991 with a concept for French cooking unlike anything the city had seen before. Uninterested in the expensive, over-the-top persona that French food has come to be known for cities all over the world, Jocelyn decided to go back to the basics, designing his menu and ambiance to portray a softer side of French cooking, namely the comfort and simplicity of the southern countryside.
Jocelyn explained that French fine dining is often overdone and overpriced. “I’m all about simplicity. I love to go there for a once in a longtime experience, but I think it’s too much what they’re trying to do with traditional French cuisine. People want to be able to go somewhere with well-made food, but it takes you to that country.”
Inspired by warmth of family and friends that are synonymous with cooking in the South of France, Jocelyn drew plans for small spaces suitable to the warm, family-oriented side of French culture not often seen by those without airfare. And so, he began setting up restaurants across San Francisco as much about experiencing French culture as they are about enjoying fabulous food.
Jocelyn opened his first restaurant in San Francisco, Chez Papa Bistrot, in 2002. With large windows, outdoor seating, and a charming blue-and-white awning, Chez Papa Bistrot emulated the titillating, neighborhood-friendly eatery Jocelyn dreamt of bringing to the City by the Bay. True to his “keep things simple” philosophy, the restaurant is boutique-like in size and demeanor; alluring, with a menu offering traditional French cuisine made simple with fresh, local California ingredients. From classic baked escargot to fresh yet savory beef tartare, even the delicacies are adorned minimally to highlight the flavors, but avoid overpowering and overcomplicating the dish.
Chez Papa quickly won the hearts of San Franciscan foodies, drawing them in with the authenticity of both the menu and the staff, most of who are as native to Southern France as the dishes themselves. The ambiance Jocelyn has created in these small eateries is astonishing, the effect transportive. The soft murmur of French and the rustic, warm façade bring restaurant-goers to Provence, and they always seem to want to go back.
Jocelyn opened his second restaurant, Chez Maman, in Potrero Hills, and a second location under the name Chez Maman West in Hayes Valley soon after. Chez Maman West was also modeled as a French bistro, but the menu exhibits a greater diversity of dishes designed for the dynamic palate of San Franciscans. Notable additions include the remarkable macaroni and cheese, simple in concept but perfect in bread-crumb-topped execution, and samples from Papito, Jocelyn’s recent venture into Mexican cuisine.
Jocelyn explained that “San Franciscans are sophisticated, they understand croque monsieur, croque madame. They know foods from other cultures, so we keep it simple but we also offer many other choices on the menu so they’re never bored.” He wanted Chez Maman West to provide for everyone: those seeking an entrée of lamb brochettes or simply craving some oysters mariniere with a glass of crisp rosé. Such is Jocelyn’s signature; extraordinary items combined with a few fresh ingredients to take the flavors to a new level.
Our favorites from Chez Maman West:
1. Boeuf Tartare – A classic French aperitif, Chez Maman West combines raw beef with Dijon mustard, capers, shallots, and quail egg. The dish is served with toasted bread points for dipping that spread out from the plate like rays of sun. The dish was inventive and incredibly fresh, a perfect start to become acquainted with the lovely traditions and quality of ingredients at Chez Maman West.
2. Les Moules (oysters) Mariniere – Adorned with parsley, lemon, garlic, and white wine, the flavors are subtle but dynamic, complementing seafood without obscuring the natural taste. Oysters are served in a quaint black pail and recommended to be enjoyed with fries.
3. Assiete de Marguez (spicy lamb sausage) with harissa – Sausages had a smoky flavor that complimented the spiciness of the lamb, a delicious divergence from primarily light flavors of the aforementioned dishes. Red and yellow dipping sauces were divine.
Try the above with a glass of the Rosé Rive Sud, a light and happy glass to match the sweetness of an afternoon.
Chez Maman West in Hayes Valley is located on: 401 Gough St., San Francisco, CA 94102
Chez Maman in Potrero Hills is located on: 1453 18th St., San Francisco, CA 94107