DepartmentsFood & Wine

Food & Wine: A New Epicurean Spin

By Anh-Minh Le

Chef Robbie Wilson’s workstation is prominently situated at Le Fantastique.

Drawing on influences from Japan and France, Le Fantastique is coming soon to San Francisco.

Restaurants are often labors of love for the teams behind them and Le Fantastique, opening mid- October in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, is no exception. Yet husband-and-wife Emily and Robbie Wilson’s sequel to Bird Dog in Palo Alto feels especially personal — from the focus on raw fish and white wine (which prompts his characterization of Le Fantastique as “a Japanese knife and a French wine glass”) to the eclectic tableware (think: platters with gilded edges and floral motifs procured from estate sales and wooden boards sourced from Etsy) to the vinyl records that provide the evening’s soundtrack (thanks to a reissue of a 1970s turntable and a handbuilt McIntosh sound system).

And then there’s the genesis of Le Fantastique. Prior to arriving in Palo Alto six years ago, Robbie was chef/partner of the historic Mattei’s Tavern in Santa Barbara Wine Country. While he and Emily were living there, typical get-togethers with close friend Chris Robles, a veteran of the food and wine industry, involved listening to music, from punk to jazz, while sipping Chablis and chardonnay as Robbie sliced raw fish. “This happened enough that Chris was like, ‘We should have a restaurant like this,’” Robbie recalls.

The concept had begun to take shape when Robles passed away from cancer in 2016. But he remains very much a part of Le Fantastique; his framed portrait presides over the wine bar. “We started this together,” says Robbie. “Chris will always be here.”

Le Fantastique’s menu commences with a dozen or so fish options. Depending on what the market offers, it might be alderwood smoked king salmon seasoned with espelette or fluke that has been aged for seven days mated with niçoise olives. “I just love raw fish,” says Robbie. “I could sit and eat Edomae-style sushi every day. I’m not a sushi chef, but I’m inspired by that.” With his workstation at the curved corner of the bar, guests can watch as he cuts the fish. (“It’ll be exciting for maybe two minutes,” he quips.)

Non-pescatarians will find plenty to dig into as well. “You could really just enjoy the bread and butter all night long,” says Emily. “That’s something that I would do.” Indeed, the bread, which Robbie describes as a cross between shokupan and sour white, is a specialty. Developed by pastry chef Joe Hou, formerly of Angler in San Francisco and Per Se in New York, the loaves are baked in ovens imported from Germany for this sole purpose and accompanied by butter cultured in-house. While delectable as-is, Robbie views the butter as a canvas that can be flavored with the likes of crab fat, seaweed from Marin or truffles.

A caviar presentation at Le Fantastique with crème fraiche and duck fat madeleines.

The menu, which will change frequently, also includes vegetables, such as his take on the French bar snack of radishes and butter. There are several caviar choices (expect the mini eclairs surmounted by osetra and smoked onion crème with maple to show up on your Instagram feed). Robbie’s version of tempura, which uses a batter made with Champagne and naturally compressed yeast that imparts a cheesy quality, provides a crispy cloak for vegetables (black carrots that have been slightly fermented, perhaps) and seafood (prawns and crab). A handful of additional “warm things,” as Robbie puts it — grilled seafood, dry-aged red meat and chicken breast poached in crème fraiche, for example — round out the savory items. For dessert, along with another treat or two, kakigori will be a mainstay, with rotating flavors for the traditional Japanese shaved ice concoction.

While Le Fantastique is white wine-centric, there are some red varietals, Champagne, beers from the Savoie region of France and low-alcohol drinks available. Espressos will also be on offer. With Robbie citing wine bars in Paris’ 11th arrondissement and listening bars in Japan among his influences, it’s no surprise that the music is as integral to Le Fantastique’s identity as the food and beverage. The felt-covered coffered ceiling, populated with globe lights, has integrated subwoofers. In the green-tiled restroom, music plays from a retro Panasonic boombox.

The restaurant is on the ground floor of a brandnew structure, meaning the Wilsons started with a shell of a space. To build out the interior, they enlisted Los Angeles-based Studio Ren Architecture, the same firm that worked on Bird Dog. Just inside the front doors is a standing-room-only area with a walnut counter that allows guests a spot to rest their wine glass or bread and butter. There’s also the nearby bar, whose base features a mural by Eddie Colla and James Swinson. Robbie envisions this as a place to pop in before or after a meal in the neighborhood (Nightbird and Rich Table are a couple of his Hayes Valley favorites).

The dining room consists of a row of marble-topped tables, joined by a navy blue leather banquette. At the far end is a cozy circular section illuminated by a 1920s chandelier from Portugal. The full menu will be available in the dining room and the Record Shop, an intimate venue facing Franklin Street. The latter, furnished with a pair of tufted leather sofas and swivel chairs upholstered in bluish-gray velvet, is delineated by shelving that holds an array of records.

Striped jack, wrapped in enoki mushrooms, are burned with a torch.

Studio Ren and the Wilsons made the most of Le Fantastique’s 2,000 square feet. The wine room by Artistic Wine Cellars can house 800 bottles. Towards the rear of the restaurant is the windowed Fabrication Room, a refrigerated environment dedicated to the handling of fish. “We receive it, hang it, break it down in here,” says Robbie, standing in the roughly 8-by-8-foot room. “Not one scale will make it past that door.”

Although the pandemic waylaid plans for Le Fantastique to debut in spring 2020, Emily likens the delay to an extended “manager’s retreat,” with the restaurant’s major players — including Hou, Director of Operations Thomas Powers and Administrative Director Aaron Balin — using the time to get better acquainted and brainstorm ideas, in addition to continually preparing for Le Fantastique’s opening.

Soon after closing its dining room doors in March 2020, Bird Dog offered themed takeout bundles and donated meals to healthcare workers. When it reopened for on-site dining 15 months later, the menu had been overhauled. “We didn’t come back with anything that we closed with,” says Robbie. Portions are smaller to encourage more exploration and while the presentations may seem simple — case in point: the roasted maitake mushroom with brown butter and kelp oil — “there’s a lot of steps behind the simplicity.” (Fans of the signature wood-grilled avocado with ponzu need not despair; the kitchen will still make it upon request.)

Just as Bird Dog has evolved since inception, Robbie is mindful that the same may hold true for Le Fantastique — though his hope is that it becomes known for its raw fish program. “I just want people to love it,” he says. “If they love it for the bread and kakigori, that’s fine, too.” For now, he and Emily are eager to finally welcome folks into their latest establishment. “We feed off the energy of the guests,” Robbie continues. “It’s amazing to hear the music and see the people smiling and laughing and enjoying themselves.”

Related Articles

Back to top button