Bonaparte assistant manager Gary Mannone and server Brooke Thurman, looking out on their Pier Plaza patio. Photo by Ralph Doyle

Cafe Bonaparte expands across Pier Plaza, and across the ocean with Bonaparte Bistro

Last week we had houseguests, who sounded delighted when I told them we were going to a new Hermosa restaurant that was quite promising. “What’s the cuisine?” asked my friend Lou.” When I told him it was a French bistro, he looked concerned. “I don’t have a jacket or collared shirt,” he said with an anxious note in his voice. I told him he didn’t need one, but he was unconvinced. He eventually settled on what he referred to as the record producer look: jeans, tee shirt, and a blazer borrowed from my closet.

The outdoor seating at Bonaparte Bistro. Photo by Richard Foss

I wore a sport coat to keep him company, though I was pretty sure we’d be the only ones at Bonaparte Bistro to dress up. Sure enough, everyone else was comfortably in shorts and tee shirts. I think Lou knows that dinner at any place called a bistro doesn’t require business casual, but old habits die hard.

The Bonaparte Bistro evolved from Greenspot, the California cuisine restaurant that was bought by the owner of the nearby Bonaparte Cafe. They’re still serving some items from that menu, plus French classics and a few Franco-Arabic specialties. That last part isn’t as odd as it might sound, because French cuisine has had centuries of interaction with North Africa, and a large Arabic immigrant population keeps those ties strong.

The most obvious example of that heritage is the chickpea hummus with freshly made pita bread, an appetizer so eye-catching that whenever a server brings out an order, it turns heads at adjacent tables. The bread is topped with herbs and sesame and almost the size of a soccer ball. It deflates with a puff of steam as soon as someone breaks into it. For a few golden minutes it’s crispy and a little nutty, and entirely wonderful, and it’s still good even after it softens. In the shadow of the bread is the chickpea hummus, made not the creamy, moist Lebanese style, but the slightly stiffer Moroccan style, with more flavors of cumin, turmeric, and coriander. It’s easy to get so involved in enjoying that bread that you might still have hummus left when it’s gone. Crudites of carrots and celery are provided for that eventuality.

The freshly made pita at Bonaparte Bistro towers over the hummus and crudites. Photo by Richard Foss

The other starters I’ve tried are the Niçoise salad and the anis salad, two French classics. The former is a specialty of Nice and is made in many ways, with the only ingredients common to them being green beans, tuna, hard boiled eggs, potato, onion, and olives. The salad is often composed on a platter to show off all the ingredients, but here it’s layered with leafy greens and green beans at the base, topped with potatoes and olives, neatly crowned with tuna, a mild lemon dressing, and chopped parsley. It’s designed to show off the freshness of simple ingredients, so the proportions are critical, and unfortunately in this one they were a bit off. There was very little of the dressing, so the greens were dry, which could have been amended by a dash of olive oil. and a bit of fleur de sel. or other good salt. If the restaurant is going to keep making the salad this way, both might be offered on the side.

The Niçoise salad at Bonaparte Bistro is the traditional fisherman’s meal of leafy greens, green beans, potatoes, and olives topped with tuna. Photo by Richard Foss

There was no such problem with the anis salad, which had crunchy raw fennel, romaine hearts, onion, smoked salmon, and chopped tomato topped with the same vinaigrette and a dusting of herbs and lemon zest. The fennel and smoked fish each had a different kind of slightly sharp flavor that stood out from the slightly bitter romaine, and somehow it all came together. I would have liked the smoked fish to be cut a bit smaller, but that’s a minor quibble. Some people dislike raw fennel, but if you’ve ever enjoyed it, you’ll find this delightful.

In three visits I’ve tried entrees of the Italian sausage pizza, classic steak frites, rigatoni marinara, almond trout, and the couscous royal. The pizza and rigatoni were mainstays at Greenspot and deserved to be carried over. Making good pizza right by the beach is never a bad idea, and this was fine indeed, the crust medium-thin and crisp with a little chew, the sauce delicate enough to flatter the ingredients without overwhelming them. The rigatoni too was all about simplicity, the sauce mild and fruity with just the right touch of garlic and parmesan.

The steak frites and trout almondine are classic bistro dishes, hearty and richly flavored items that delighted the 19th century Parisian middle class. In France a rump steak would be typical, a cut that is flavorful but can be tough, but Americans generally prefer the more tender ribeye, as served here. There was plenty of meat and very little fat on this one, and though it arrived past the medium rare I requested, it was tender and flavorful. The peppercorn sauce made the dish creamy with a hint of brandy sweetness, and just the right amount of whole peppercorns, which had been soaked to make them soft and mild enough to be eaten whole. The fries were American-style rather than the twice-cooked Belgian variety you might see in France, and were useful to mop up that sauce. I would have preferred a bit of fresh aioli on the side, as they’d be served in Europe, but unfortunately none was offered.

I’m not sure where they caught the trout that had been fileted

The Trout with almonds at Bonaparte Bistro. Photo by Richard Foss

and served in a lemon cream sauce with capers and almonds, but it must have been a fearsome beast. The portion was as delicious as it was generously proportioned, and with the roasted potatoes and green beans that came on the side, it was a very full meal. Even so, it was dwarfed by the couscous royale, a mound of semolina grains topped with vegetables, chicken, and beef chunks in a rich brown gravy. This was a very French interpretation of couscous, more like a beef daube stew, and some grilled chicken over a couscous with a hint of Moroccan seasoning, but it was excellent. I suggest you get this along with a salad as a meal for two, because I took half of mine home for the next day.

The portions on meals were so large that at both meals we only had room to split a cheesecake from their short list, which was good but also raised a question. Why does a restaurant that shares ownership with the bakery just across the plaza not have a wider selection of desserts? A light chocolate pastry or fruit tart would have been more appealing after a full meal.

Bonaparte Bistro has a short, by-the-glass wine list that is surprisingly more American than French. The Opolo Summit Greek Cabernet was an excellent pairing with the steak, and the Copain Chardonnay was excellent with the trout. The list is sufficient for what they do here – bistros in France are everyday restaurants rather than drinking destinations, so they’re culturally correct.

Bonaparte Bistro is very reasonably priced for both the quality and quantity of the food and the plaza location, with all entrees priced below $30. That makes this a very affordable bit of France by the Pacific, and an everyday destination for those who love a little French in their California experience.

Bonaparte Bistro is at 30 Pier Avenue in Hermosa. Street parking and pay lots nearby. Wheelchair access good. Patio or indoor dining. Open Mon. through Fri., 10:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. Beer and wine served. Corkage $25. (424) 383-1100. ER


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