The owner of Saint-Germain is quintessentially, authentically, utterly French. He's got a glossy ponytail, great pants, and a penchant for railing against anything and everything that might be construed as the establishment. At 9:00 p.m. on a Thursday, he has two tables' worth of captive, captivated audience in his tiny Madison Valley cafe and wine bar. At the moment, it's the press that's impinging on his individual freedom, on his nascent business's integrity and valor. A food writer for a local paper came in recently, he says. "I asked her not to write about this place. 'Don't write about me,' I said. They write a good review," he continues, "and I must buy an advertisement. This is how it works."


"Restaurant critics," he says derisively, with the finality only attainable via a French accent. My notebook is on the dark blue banquette next to my right thigh, eclipsed by the marble-topped table. Still, I cover it with my hand.

In the spirit of Gallic candor, I offer this: My first experience at this lovely little classically French place was not entirely lovely. Madison Park stereotypes occupied all seven tables. Overheard conversation was abysmally dull, and an alarmingly jowly, large infant menaced me from the next table, its parents oblivious to its apparent need for attention. The server—blond, dissonantly all-American—allowed long stretches of thirst to occur; when confronted with the word vichyssoise, which she was in fact serving that evening, Miss America admitted to speaking no French whatsoever. The owner, Jean-Michel, bristled when asked about Saint-Germain's rumored relationship to neighboring Voilà! Bistrot. All forgivable: One can't control one's crowd; service issues at a brand-new restaurant are unavoidable; French people bristle. And the food—snacks, really, a short menu mostly of tartines, open-faced sandwiches—was mercifully simple, and simply delicious.

Weeks later, later at night, Saint-Germain is a candlelit refuge, a cozy salon. Patrons come and go, ordering glasses of wine from the chalkboard list, indifferent to vintner or vintage. They look imported from Paris; they lapse, nonchalantly, in and out of French. The graceful waitress has raven hair with a shock of bright dye. While discussing the evils of corporatization, Jean-Michel's sense of autonomy is elastic enough to admit that he has a partner, from Voilà! Bistrot.

I've brought an already-soused Marxist with me, who proves to be the ideal companion, cackling with Jean-Michel about an old Gauloises slogan, crowing about French hiphop. We drink: white Bordeaux ($7) for me, superfluous red burgundy ($8) for him. He inhales a bowl of zucchini soup ($6); what little I wrest away is creamy, understated, increasingly peppery toward the bottom of the bowl. We race companionably to see who can get more of a butter-lettuce salad ($6) with transparent curves of fennel and tiny cubes of apple. ("This is my current favorite lettuce," I say, "so plain and perfect," and the Marxist chortles in agreement, or possibly at something else altogether.) A dish of cherry tomatoes ($7), sweet and at their moment, with a Mediterranean note of minuscule olives, languishes by comparison, but only because it's more difficult to fork up.

We order three tartines ($6.50 each), a stroke of gluttony Jean-Michel visibly appreciates. All are excellent drinking food, inexpensive, savory, comforting; each is better than the last. Slices of a fine French loaf, minimally grilled, have just enough body to be lifted up and stuffed into the mouth. (The Marxist, having dropped his knife on the floor and unintentionally appropriated mine, forces me to take this approach.) L'Auvergnate, topped with razor-thin ham and bits of Cantal cheese (like a gentle Parmesan), has a sneaky layer of melted butter: very good. Monsieur Seguin, spread with goat cheese, amply garlicked, topped with smoky, pink duck breast: remarkable. La Parisienne, with its warm heap of mushrooms sautéed in butter and cream and shallots: a ne-plus-ultra autumnal toast.

Dessert is rejected by the Marxist as an unnecessary luxury. I sample a poire belle Hélèn—vanilla ice cream, poached pear, chocolate sauce, Chantilly, a bit muddled up in a sundae glass—and a peach creation with tragically underripe fruit. The Marxist indulges in a philosophical conversation regarding distribution of wealth, segueing into the simultaneously terrifying and exciting nature of humanity.

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C'est bon. Jean-Michel: I am unentangled with The Stranger's advertising division. Should they telephone, exercise your freedom, mon frère. And merci beaucoup for a delightful evening.