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Neighborhood Gem

Seasonal, local Bistro Aix

Zuckerman Farms asparagus soup. Photo: susan dyer reynolds

This month we’re introducing a new column dedicated to neighborhood gems: those rare spots that have not only survived but thrived in a restaurant scene rife with high costs, staffing issues and, frankly, saturation. While new hotspots open almost daily, more than half will close within the first year. It’s easy to attract customers when you’re the new kid on the block, not so much when you’re on last month’s Eater heat map.

EXPERIENCED CHEF-OWNER

What does it take to keep your doors open for 10, 15, or even 25 years? It’s an elusive cocktail of luck, location, timing, and, of course, food. At most restaurants, the person who cooks the food can make the difference between short-lived hype and neighborhood gem. Chef-owner

Jonathan Beard trained over a decade before opening Bistro Aix in 1996, receiving a Grand Diplome from the Cordon Bleu in Paris, a graduate degree in hospitality from Cornell University, and a degree from ICIF, an Italian cooking program from Torino, Italy. He cooked his way through Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Paris, Rome, and New York.

COZY BACK PATIO

Bistro Aix closed for nine months in 2009 for a major remodeling that made a wood-fired grill the star of the partly open kitchen.

The back enclosed patio houses a nearly 100-year-old olive tree that stretches elegantly toward a skylight, which adds some brightness to the cozy space. Tables are made from one felled tree with rippled edges and smooth, roomy tops. Smartly upholstered panels along the walls keep the noise down so you can actually converse.

When visiting recently, we arrived early enough to enjoy the sun filtering across the space and stayed late enough to take in the candlelit elegance. Seats were filled with a nice mix of families with small children, young professionals, and mature couples who knew the wait staff well. The front of the house has an exuberant brasserie-type style with a long bar and large windows overlooking Steiner Street. Even if you just stop in for a glass of wine or beer, chances are you won’t be able to resist the scents of chicken skin and pizza crust crisping in that focal oak-burning oven.

MEDITERRANEAN-INSPIRED MENU

Named after Aix-en-Provence in the South of France, the menu is Mediterranean-inspired, featuring seasonal ingredients from local farmers and fishermen. While “seasonal, local” has become ubiquitous, Bistro Aix was an early adopter back in 1996.

My friend and I each selected a starter to share. Her pick: a salad of crisp asparagus and fennel with goat cheese and mint aioli ($10). I’m not a fan of raw fennel, or goat cheese, or mint, so I never would have chosen this salad, but I enjoyed it (except for the fennel, which I nudged to her side of the plate). Because asparagus is just coming into season, I stuck with the theme and ordered the Zuckerman Farm asparagus soup ($8), which was leafy green in color with grassy notes and a lightness that belied its velvety texture.

For my entrée, I chose perhaps my favorite pasta of all time, spaghetti pomodoro, a deceptively simple dish easily ruined by imbalanced ingredients or improper noodle preparation. At Bistro Aix, the spaghettini with San Marzano tomatoes, Genovese basil, and garlic ($13) is sublime, a perfect mélange of al dente pasta, sweet yet bright tomato flavor, and just the right amount of basil and garlic (both which, if not used judiciously, can be overwhelming) topped with freshly grated Parmesan. My friend also chose pasta — angel hair with Dungeness crab, hedgehog mushrooms, garlic, and chili ($23). The delicate crab shined through, the mushrooms added texture and earthiness, and the chili provided a little kick.

We saw the cracker thin-crust pizzas delivered to a neighboring table, one with tomato, mozzarella, fontina, and Parmesan ($13), the other with garlic, broccoli rabe, and burrata ($16), and we both agreed to try them next visit. If you’re really hungry, they offer the omnipresent $15 burger as well as heartier steak, chicken, fish, and lamb dishes accompanied by sides like potato gratin, baby spinach or kale, and French fries.

The wine list reflects the chef’s love of grower/producer, naturally made product with an emphasis on France and California. They also have an excellent rosé selection, which they proudly served long before rosé became all the rage.

Bistro Aix: 3340 Steiner St. (at Chestnut), 415-202-0100, bistroaix.com; Mon.-Thu. 5:30–10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30–11 p.m.

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