The name of Mark and Terri Starks’ new restaurant — Augie’s — tells you a lot about the Santa Rosa French bistro.
It’s a cheeky reference to Auguste Escoffier, the French chef and restaurateur considered the father of modern French cuisine. You can thank him for standardizing recipes once served to kings and aristocrats, for creating a military-like structure for kitchen staff and for cleaning up (literally) unsanitary food preparation.
His distinguished 19th-century legacy casts a godlike shadow over the culinary community. But the esteemed Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur Auguste Escoffier isn’t really a guy I’d want to crack a cold one with. But Augie? He spikes the office party punch with Beaujolais Nouveau and likes to hug things out.
That is to say, Augie’s isn’t about fiddly French food, lifted pinkies and meticulous plating. It’s about hearty onion soup, braised boeuf Bourguignon with creamy potatoes and bowls of steaming mussels swimming in creamy Dijon sauce that’s begging to be soaked up with a crusty baguette. Augie’s is a truffle-buttered bear hug of a restaurant where the Champagne starts flowing at 3 p.m. and the skinny fries come in a gold-handled rondeau pan because they can.
The Starks purposefully pay homage to the see-and-be-seen, three-martini lunch heyday of Portofino, when 535 Fourth St. was a meetup spot for young singles and business wheeling and dealing. The Starks want people to congregate, hang out and grab an aperitif downtown like they used to do. With Augie’s, their eighth and likely final restaurant (others include Stark’s Steak Seafood, Bird & The Bottle, Grossman’s and Willi’s Wine Bar), they are plunging in to another effort to reinvigorate downtown Santa Rosa.
To step inside is to leave Santa Rosa behind and enter a timeless Parisian moodscape. The interior, which many will remember from Portofino (which closed in 2013), is long and narrow, with few windows. But the result is a cozy, nestlike atmosphere. Metallic butterfly wallpaper climbs the stairs to a low balcony level, giving the east wall a tasteful gaudiness with a pinch of humor. Bulbous gold beehive lights cast a warm glow, and a zinc-topped bar and apron-clad servers round out the Gallic vibe. Look around for unexpected decor (like the crane wallpaper and royal dog paintings) from Terri Stark.
With its welcoming atmosphere, classic-yet-approachable French cuisine and excellent service, we think Escoffier and Augie would both approve of this new spot.
Warm red onion “tarte Tatin,” $16: Just, yes. A lovely whirl of red onion slices topped with whipped Boursin cheese is the perfect appetizer. I wish it was on the happy-hour menu in a simpler form. Perfection.
Liberty Farms duck liver terrine, $18: I grew up on Oscar Meyer Braunschweiger sandwiches that tasted like pennies, so something as creamy and luscious as this silky terrine has me swooning. Liver isn’t for everyone, but this version could be. Sweet onion fig marmalade is the perfect partner. A shout out to the Pate De Campagna, $17, a chunky, homeier cousin of the terrine.
Steak tartare, $21: Diced, raw filet mignon mixed with capers, shallots and egg served as a single quenelle with brioche toast. If you like tartare, this is a great version. If you’re looking for an appetizer that’s a little more middle-of-the-road, try the smoked salmon ($17) or onion soup gratinee ($18).
Salad Lyonnaise, $17: You’ll find this mix of bitter frisee and chicory the optimal bedding for bacon vinaigrette, lardons (thick chunks of bacon), croutons and a sunny-side-up egg meant to drip into the whole mess. So French.
Black truffle butter escargots, $18: Mark Stark is wild about his escargot menu. I am, too. Apparently I ate an entire order of escargot when I was 5 and didn’t ask what it was until I was done, and it didn’t faze me a bit. I like escargot simple, with just garlic and butter, but the slightly scary-looking yet absolutely delicious black truffle butter version is my favorite.
Beef cheek Bourguignon, $38: Julia Child brought this dish — a simple braised beef with vegetables — to American palates, but it’s rare to find a good version at a restaurant. This is that unicorn dish that’s homey and satisfying but something far too labor-intensive to make at home. A high point of our meal.
Liberty Farms duck confit, $29: This was the entree that disappeared from our table first. Two meaty legs and thighs with crisp skin and soft, juicy meat that only a confit can produce. Served with roasted figs and a sublime pan sauce.
Prime burger royale, $23: The French do not make good hamburgers. Augie’s has the burger game down pat, adding very French Comte cheese, truffle mayonnaise and onion marmalade on a soft brioche bun. Served with skinny fries (or pomme frites if you’re classy).
Floating Islands, $14: Ignore the curious presentation of poached egg white meringue floating atop a lake of Grand Marnier spiked Crème Angliase. It’s not especially pretty, but it’s Julia Childs’ favorite dessert for a reason.
Happy Hour, 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday — Sunday: I’m a little lukewarm on Augie’s happy hour, though I’d never turn down an invitation to sit at the bar on a sunny afternoon. Value-priced drinks ($7) like the Vesper (gin, vodka and Lillet Blanc) and French 75 (gin, lemon and sparkling wine) are tasty little after-work mood-lifters. But the opening happy-hour dishes — butter and ham open-faced tartine, Oeufs Mayonnaise (a take on deviled eggs, but with more mustard flavor), and herb and Gruyere gougeres are a little too cerebral for the average happy-hour crowd. You can order the prime burger royale (still $23 at happy hour), which is outstanding and filling.
535 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707-531-4400, augiesfrench.com. Open 5-9 p.m. for dinner Wednesday to Sunday. Reservations are highly recommended.