You won’t be hard-pressed to find French culinary traditions or French-trained chefs in just about every restaurant in Sonoma County. But finding a decent boeuf Bourguignon or panisse north of San Francisco? Bonne chance.
Fortunately, both are on the menu at Petaluma’s Crocodile Restaurant — recently opened in the downtown theater district — along with other French classics including crispy pumpkin croquettes, cheesy Gougeres, house-made charcuterie and steak frites with a distinctly Gallic accent.
“It’s French comfort food,” said Moire Beveridge, co-owner of the restaurant. She and husband/chef Michael Dotson recently moved to Sonoma County from the South Bay, where they owned a popular Scottish gastropub. Now, they’re turning their attention to France.
“Both my husband and I had a deep love for the French lifestyle and food,” said Beveridge, a native of Scotland. “My family and I used to rent homes in France during the summers and spend months at a time living as the French did,” she said of the fresh ingredients, time-honored culinary traditions and passion for good food.
“It also held a place in my husband’s heart as he trained in France when he was just starting out as a young chef. There is something elegant yet unpretentious about French cuisine…the techniques are not obvious, and although they can be time-consuming, the results are classic and simply delicious,” Beveridge added.
But Dotson is far from a purist, dotting his dishes with spices and culinary influences from North Africa, the Mediterranean and India. In the restaurant’s small, open kitchen, a shelf holds dozens of his favorite seasonings, from piment d’esplette to fennugreek, coriander and alderwood smoked sea salt. “I’m rooted in classics, but became fascinated with Marseille,” Dotson said of the southern French port, where the cuisines of North Africa, Spain, Italy and the Mediterranean commingle.
You’ll see those spices in dishes like Pumpkin Croquettes ($7), bite-sized balls of sweet pumpkin and breadcrumbs sitting in a pool of creme fraiche and chermoula (a pungent Moroccan herb sauce) or Baby Carrots ($7) with pomegranate and muhammara (a Turkish pepper dip).
He also has a sense of humor with his cuisine, filling his classic puffed cheese Gourgeres ($7) with the distinctly American pimento cheese; or serving frites (fries) with “Pyrenees” ketchup, a combination of Heinz ketchup and piment espelette, a Basque chili that was popular in his former restaurant. “People wanted their Heinz,” he said. So they doctored it up to be a bit more homemade, in the tradition of making everything at the restaurant, even if this one happens to be semi-homemade.
More traditional dishes, like panisse, are rare finds north of San Francisco. Made with chickpea flour and water, panisse is a bit like polenta, creamy on the inside, and usually fried and sliced into pieces. Here, the creamy carrot panisse is sliced into a pie wedge served with root vegetables and herbed fromage blanc (a sort of cream cheese). The sauce is far more complicated, as are most French sauces, and Dotson winces as he tries to explain it. “The base is broth,” he says, meaning two different broths, in addition to walnuts, chili, vanilla beans, mushrooms and muhammara. Our best suggestion? Just eat it. Don’t try to figure it out.
Also worth a try:
– Steak Frites: Okay, so steak frites is on just about every bistro menu in the county. But most of the time the beef is pretty unremarkable. We love Crocodile’s version, with beefy hangar steak and maitre d’Hotel butter (a compound butter with herbs). Fries are served with celery root remoulade and Pyrenees ketchup ($25).
– Charcuterie: We love the trend of charcuterie boards, but too many restaurants have tried their hand at this, and should be stopped. Immediately. For the love of god. Because deli salami isn’t charcuterie. Here, the true charcuterie board is comprised of house made rabbit pate, duck pate and chicken liver mousse with wholegrain mustard, pickled veggies, Revolution bread and crackers. $6 each, or $18 for all three.
– Macaroni au Gratin: Creamy shells with melty, gooey St. George cheese. This doesn’t try to be anything but classically delicious ($8).
– Mushroom Roasted Chicken Breast: The wife of a chef can be picky, as Beveridge admits, but this chicken dish is one of her favorites. “There are mushrooms placed under the skin of the chicken before it is roasted and it always comes out juicy and tender. It also has a Parisian Gnocchi and Brussels sprouts with the chicken just drizzled on the plate,” she said. “It is comfort food at it’s finest,” said Beveridge, ($19).
– Boeuf Bourguignon: So we never got to try this one, but judging from the hours of work Dotson puts into this, it can’t help but be good. During lunch service, Dotson disappeared frequently into the back to build the flavors of this classic French beef dish made with red wine-braised filet mignon, pearl onions and house made egg noodles, $19. Give it a try and let us know…
– Burger, of course: The French don’t do hamburgers, they do brisket burgers. This one comes with green peppercorn mayo and fries, $12.
– Caramel Pot de Creme: Think pudding with a pedigree. Rich, creamy, smooth, unbelievable caramel pudding with espresso whipped cream and coconut shortbread cookies, $9.
– Wine, beer, cider: Beveridge has spent months creating a fascinating wine list of both Old and New World producers. That means small local wine, beer and cider makers along with boutique producers from France, Belgium and the U.S. Spend some time paging through it, because there are plenty of wines by the glass, exotic beers and even some fun sour beers and ciders. Free corkage on Mondays.
– Something you’ve never had: One of the disappointments after opening, said both Beveridge and Dotson, was the lack of interest in some of the more unique dishes like sweetbreads, duck and bone marrow. Both the duck and sweetbreads have been taken off the menu, but may return as specials. The roasted bone marrow with snails, garlic butter and mushrooms is worth trying, even if you’re a bit squeamish, for its buttery, rich taste.
And the name? “We were sitting down to a regular family dinner with my daughter and my parents talking about the name and we began talking about French dining experiences in general,” said Beveridge. “My father mentioned that his best French dining experience had been at Au Crocodile in Strasbourg many years ago,” she said. It turned out that her father had dined at the restaurant at the same time Dotson had trained there. “We took our inspiration from that moment,” said Beveridge.
Crocodile Restaurant, 140 Second St., Suite 100, Petaluma, 707-981-8159, crocodilepetaluma.com.