Restaurant redemptions are rarer than a $2 steak. Which makes discovery all the sweeter.

In its first eighteen months, Santa Rosa’s Rendez Vous Bistro (which opened in March of 2009) was the source of significant Net chatter –– some quite unflattering. Despite a major interior revamp, the restaurant publicly struggled with uneven service and an inconsistent kitchen. Owner Nino Rabbaa, who sunk much of his own wealth into the venture, persevered at the central Santa Rosa location bolstered by a convenient location, a large and sunny outdoor space, a vibrant bar scene and a serviceable if not impressive food.

Earlier this year things began to turn around with the hiring of Chef de Cuisine Matthew Karson, a Santa Rosa native (and SRJC culinary grad) who spent time in the haute SF kitchen of Aqua and several local restaurant restaurants before landing at Rendez Vous. Bringing youthful ambition and high-end French technique to Rabbaa’s bistro classics, the two seem to have finally cracked the code. The menu is now approachable enough for workaday lunchers but with enough carefully-tuned details to impress the dining out crowd.

“Like a fine wine, with age we get better,” said Rabbaa, who plans to open a second eatery, a high end burgery in Santa Rosa this summer.

Though there are still missteps (desserts never quite hit the mark and when Karson isn’t in the kitchen, it can show), the restaurant seems to have found solid footing to build on. With a crowded playing field of top-notch French bistros in Sonoma County, the bar is set high. But if Rendez Vous can continue to match friendly service, kitchen talent and well-priced Parisian fare in its highly-trafficked downtown space, BiteClub can honestly say: Restaurant redeemed.

 

Foie Gras at Rendez Vous Bistro

Foie Gras at Rendez Vous Bistro

What to Eat
Dip Your Toe: BiteClub’s first foray back was Rendez Vous’ weeknight prix-fixe dinner served Monday through Thursday from 5-9:30. Three solid courses included a classic beef-broth French Onion Soup, meltingly delicious wine-braised Beef Bourguignon with creamed potatoes and haricots verts and a mini Crepe Suzette. Impressively plated and generously portioned, it was a meal that made me rethink the restaurant.

Small Bites: Happy Hour and late night, Rendez Vous serves up bar bites well into the night including truffled pommes frites, a petite tuna tartar, polenta fries, and sliders. Plus, a nifty specialty cocktail menu with gimlets, mojitos, and margaritas from $7 to $9. Sunday through Thursday 3-6pm and 9-12am; Friday and Saturday, 3-6pm, 10pm to 2am.

Go For It: Kobe Beef Steak Frites ($24.25) is a lush strip of Snake River steak, truffled butter and celery root slaw with crispy fries. Liberty Farms Duck Confit is one of the most ambitious and delicious dishes, with crispy skin, white beans and shaved fennel ($18.50); Tuna Tartare ($14.50) has gone through a number of evolutions, including pear, almonds and other flavors, but might best be left to let the fish speak for itself; Pan-Seared Sustainable Salmon ($19.50) shows off artichoke frites, melted leeks and smoked tomato foam (a Karson favorite); Seared Sonoma Foie Gras: Lush, indulgent with dried cherries and watercress, along with a Champagne gastrique ($16.50)

 

Duck confit at Rendez Vous Bistro

Crepes: Sweet or savory, Rabbaa has definite ideas about how a crepe should be — slightly crispy and not made with buckwheat flour. Loaded with fillings, they’re a slightly more American-friendly version made with white flour. Savories include duck confit with béchamel; ham, Gruyere and spinach with a fried egg, shredded chicken with olive tapenade and mushroom with Mornay and white truffle oil. Sweet Suzette’s are solid, if slightly sweet, but I have to question the “Aurelie” a frozen crepe filled with Oreo cookies and ice cream — mon dieu.

Aioli: I’ve told the story a thousand times, but it bears repeating. On one of the first nights of Rendez Vous opening, I asked for aioli with my fries (notch) and was given a ramekin of olive oil with garlic in it by a confused waiter. Not cool at a French bistro. The restaurant now has three different types of aioli: Plain, basil and white truffle.

Rendez Vous Bistro: 614 4th St., Santa Rosa, 526-7700.

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