Coco Chanel famously said that a lady should get all ready to go out for the evening, then take one accessory—scarf, bracelet, bejeweled hairpin—off. Le Petit Cochon—that's "the little pig" in French—looks great, and the space is not overdressed at all. It's upstairs from Chiso in Fremont, with the windows looking out onto the treetops, which right now are twinkling just right with plain white Christmas lights. It's cozy up there, above the Fremont party fray. The low wood-beamed ceiling makes it feel a little like a tree house, and the ring-the-buzzer-around-the-corner entry makes it feel like a private club. There's a divider made of hanging windowpanes and some countrified knickknacks on a shelf, but the space is mostly left to be its naturally pretty self, with music like the Beastie Boys cutting through the upscale feeling.
The chef/owner is Derek Ronspies, who has previously cooked with his brother, Dustin Ronspies, at Dustin's Art of the Table—a Wallingford spot that also has a clubby feel, with weekends reserved for intently local/seasonal prix-fixe menus that are pricey but reportedly worth every penny. I've never been, but in a 2007 review in The Stranger, Angela Garbes called Art of the Table "comfortable, satisfying, quietly revelatory... While there are a lot of flavors going on in [Dustin] Ronspies's food, all the dishes are carefully balanced, almost perfectly executed, and absolutely delicious."
There are also a lot of flavors going on in Derek Ronspies's food at Le Petit Cochon (and he's also religiously sourcing locally/seasonally), but the balance isn't there yet. Nearly every plate needed the Chanel treatment, sometimes twice. A salad called "Let Me See That Escarole" ($11) was like two (or maybe three) salads combined: grilled escarole, beets, baby lettuces, watermelon radishes, bacon-and-blue-cheese dressing, and pistachio butter. The pistachio butter especially clashed with the dressing, and its putty-textured nuttiness under everything else was just odd. A scallop "ceviche" ($13) had quotation marks for a good reason: The scallop was raw, and its unexpected texture would've been fine if it weren't paired with a squash puree—the oceanic, jellylike scallop and the sweetish, slippery puree were just not meant for each other. The other components—parsley root, pieces of fried lemon, plus a truffle vinaigrette to boot—didn't help matters. Another night, seared scallops ($14) got all the same accompaniments, but at least the textural problem was solved—except that the scallops were overcooked to that sad state where they become almost stringy, and the taste goes from delicate to fishy.
A dish called "Zoom a Shroom" ($14) had tons of delicious autumnal wild mushrooms—hedgehogs, king oysters, maitakes, and black trumpets—with radicchio mixed in (good), a dollop of polenta (really good), crispy shallots (great idea), pine nuts (who doesn't love a pine nut?), annnnddd... a piece of Kurtwood Farms' Dinah's Camembert. This is an excellent local cheese, but a lump of it melting in a gluey way on one side of the plate, competing against the creamy polenta (and losing), combined with its assertive, funky flavor—this cheese was not a friend to these mushrooms.
"A Snail Tale" ($17) had one thick-skinned and somewhat greasy oxtail ravioli, with escargot, chard, arugula pesto, cipollini onions, and more puree (roasted garlic)—elements that seemed randomly placed together on one plate. A perfectly cooked Neah Bay black cod (called, in a welcome failure of imagination, "Neah Bay Black Cod," $20) had carrots, kale, squid ink aioli, octopus tapenade, and the strange scattered crunch of fried chickpeas. Duck breast ("Get Ducky," $20), also perfectly cooked, came with a nearly tasteless gizzard confit wrapped up in bitter, stringy greens.
The only irredeemable dish was chickpea and chestnut fritters, which were relatively austerely dressed with a little vadouvan cream sauce and almonds ($7). It sounded like a great international variation on a holiday song, but it tasted like bitter paste—bad hummus mixed with burned nuts—and it was so sticky, remains of it clung to the fork. We left one of the three untouched, and the (very nice) server apologized and said they'd just put it on the menu that night, and that it was possibly "not perfected yet." Then Derek Ronspies came out and explained he'd just tried the fritters at the same time that we had, and that they were not what they should be; he would take them off the bill, he was very sorry, and would we like to try something else instead? It was peculiar to feel like a guinea pig, but he was completely charming. We tried a corn dog made with a piece of pork belly ($9, though he comped it), and it was so fatty-tasty that you could feel your cholesterol rising as the grease ran down the stick onto your hand.
The kind of highly composed, high-minded food that's being attempted at Le Petit Cochon is an art. Ronspies is sometimes near the mark, but more often, it feels like he's throwing things against the plate and using lots of beds of puree to make them stick.