February 21, 2011  |  food & drink, san francisco

I call Mickaël Audry, the chef of Cocotte (anciemment Hyde Street Bistro) in San Francisco a rising star. He laughs, of course, doubting and loving my words at the same time, but the truth remains — his food is excellent, and the ambiance of his charming restaurant on a San Francisco hill is authentically and beautifully French.

With his boyish looks and charismatic personality, Chef Audry is an ambassador for terroir style of cooking. He grew up in the Loire Valley countryside, Sancerre precisely, a town where the quality of the wine and food leaves deep markings on the human soul. His family grew their food and raised their animals, and he still remembers the pain he experienced the day he switched from home milk to industrial milk.

In the kitchen of Cocotte, he practices a simple philosophy —find the best possible products in the local markets and cook them in the shortest time possible to conserve their flavor.

Then, with a lot of conviction in his voice, he adds: “Moi, je suis terroir. Les bons produits, la bonne viande.” (“My style is terroir. Good produce, good meat.”) There is no doubt that his clients on Nob Hill love his cooking. One night he offered a Blanquette de veau special, and a client called him the following week to ask if he had that special again.

“A great dish,” he tells me, “is bursting with flavors — something acidic and something sweet, something crunchy and something smooth.”

À la carte of the moment one finds dishes like Twice baked aged cheddar cheese soufflé, Pork and pinot noir pâté served with toasted Levain bread, Black Mission figs and goat cheese tart, Sonoma Duck leg confit, Creekstone Rib-eye steak served with green peppercorn sauce et pommes frites, Seared Branzino sea bass with baby fennel, leeks and sorrel sauce, Lapin à la moutarde and much more.

Chef Audry also enjoys transforming traditional dishes into something simple, fresh and new. He gives me the example of La Poire Belle Hélène. “You can recreate the dish and the flavor by replacing the poached pair with pear purée. You destroy the concept, but you can recreate it in new ways.” He points out more examples on the menu, like the slightly seared Tartar Rossini, a variation of the traditional raw Tartare he serves with seared fois gras, onions, cornichons capers and mustard, and the tomato tart Tatin with a hint of crème fraîche on top.

For inspiration, he likes turn to the books of famous French chef, Michel Brin. He evokes to me the romantic image of the chef humbly scrolling the countryside for herbs for his dishes, and he admires his commitment to artisan products. Then, all of a sudden, the memory of the potato purée of his grandmother illuminates his face.

“She was adding sea salt to the potato purée, and when you tasted it, the salt pieces were cracking in your mouth. I miss it,” he says. He also misses la quiche lorraine of his mother and the thick pumpkin soup she made in the fall.

When I asked him how he sees the future of French cuisine, he tells me “as a come-back of traditional healthy dishes.”

“Now, people pay for quality. They demand chicken that tastes great; they want to protect the environment; they want the products to come from the local markets. Working in California is a challenge,” he continues, “because Californians have great taste and they are good critics. Their palate is developed; they have traveled all over the world. At the same time, they expect change. Everything in California is a trend. And maybe I am here for a trend as well, and then… I’ll start over somewhere else.”

  • Cocotte | Visit website
  • 1521 Hyde Street, San Francisco, CA
  • Reservations: (415) 292-4414
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