September 13-19, 2006

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First Bite

Bistro des Copains

By Amanda Yskamp

"I don't eat anywhere I can't pronounce," someone recently snootily said at a party. She was talking about Occidental's newest restaurant, the Bistro des Copains. I hadn't been there yet, but I should have told said antisnob to get over it. It's so old-school, or should I say passé, to sneer at the French. Now that I've been, I'd assure her she doesn't have to get her mouth around the nasalized vowel (Copains is pronounced "co-painh," not like the dead grunge star) to get it around some seriously delicious, homey, Proven┴al food, à la Sonoma County, for not too much argent.

Bistro des Copains is the collaboration of two college buddies, Michel Augsburger and Cluney Stagg, hence the rough translation into "Buddies' Bistro." Along with chef de cuisine Melissa Gonyea, they celebrated their grand opening in Occidental on Bastille Day. (That's July 14 for you Francophobes.) By late August, it had lost its rough edges and taken on the luster of an anniversary-worthy restaurant. On our visit, we were welcomed by a friendly maitre d' amid décor like a Renoir, warm and honeyed.

We went on a Wednesday when oysters are a dollar, and so began with a dozen Kumamotos. They were fresh and sweet, with a dab of horseradish, delicious with or without the accompanying vinaigrette. To wash them down, we chose a wine flight, three three-ounce pours of similar wines ($10). These flights are increasingly popular at restaurants, and I can see why. It's fun to have your glasses arrayed in front of you in their little labeled circles for comparison and discussion.

Focused on Sonoma County and French wines, the wine list overall is interesting, varied and extremely reasonably priced. Next to arrive to our table, as part of the tasting menu (price varies), was a summer vegetable soupe au pistou (French for "pesto"). It featured a light but flavorful broth full of carrots, tomatoes, potatoes and barley interlaced with basil. The beet salad ($6.75) one guest ordered was quite good, but not what she'd expected, with the beets unsliced, just roasted and arranged on the plate.

Our entrées were nearly perfect. Julia Child said one can measure the excellence of a restaurant by its treatment of the humble roast chicken. Copains' roasted Rosie ($17) sang the restaurant's praises. Neither grandstanding nor retiring, it evoked one's childhood kitchen (no wonder it's named Grandmother's chicken): tender, juicy, with judicious salt. Magret de canard ($17.50), duck breast with green peppercorn sauce, was luscious and rich; la pissaladière ($10), a pizza with caramelized onions, goat cheese, black olives and anchovies upon request (we did) was a perfect mingling of sweet and salty, with a serviceable crust; boeuf en Danube à la Provençale ($17)--beef braised in wine--was savory, if a little fatty.

Be sure to save room for dessert ($6-$7). They were uniformly impressive and comforting, and on the night we were there, they included a fruit galette with seasonal local fruit and buttery crust, pot de crème--a bowl of creamy regression--and flourless hazelnut chocolate gateau, a molten mound of amour.

Mmm is mmm in any language.

Bistro des Copains, 3782 Bohemian Hwy., Occidental. Open for dinner nightly; lunch, Saturday-Sunday. 707.874.2436.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.