The concept of “upscale comfort food” has always rung a little tinny in my ears, mainly because cuisine described this way is rarely either.
Fried bologna on white bread with ketchup is comfort food. Add a dash of fresh chervil and sea salt and the dish is just ironic — not gourmet.
Walking the line between comfort food and haute cuisine is the challenge Table Culture Provisions chef/owners Stéphane Saint Louis and Steven Vargas have set for themselves, and they seem to be pulling it off nicely. It’s not impossible to make the disparate styles work together. It just takes the right mindset.
Saint Louis and Vargas gained notice after they invested their pandemic stimulus checks in Tesla and turned the investment into a $17,000 windfall that helped them launch their restaurant and mobile kitchen. Operating out of a borrowed space in Petaluma, they served mostly takeout food and carved a niche in the local dining landscape with craveable dishes like waffle-style potato chips (called gaufrette if you’re fancy) with onion dip, fried chicken, burgers and boozy brunch standards with panache rather than irony. Other special dinners included a Haitian feast, classic French dishes like cassoulet, dry-aged steaks, trout en croute and upscale brunch plates including an insane Monte Cristo.
Now they’re in a new, small place of their own, in the former Chili Joe’s on Petaluma Boulevard, with many of the same favorites plus plenty of newcomers. The move to the new location is part of a larger plan to work with Asombrosa Farm in Petaluma, a 65-acre plot with a 7,000-square-foot barn and culinary garden.
A New York-born world traveler, Saint Louis grew up in Haiti and moved to Northern California in his late teens, where he attended the California Culinary Academy. Stints at restaurants in Palm Springs, Miami, Petaluma and Sonoma followed. He moved to France to study at the Paul Bocuse Institute, parlaying that into positions in Shanghai and Copenhagen. Vargas is a Santa Rosa Junior College culinary graduate who Saint Louis recruited to work with him at Petaluma’s Della Fattoria and later, the Shuckery.
Back to that upscale comfort food. If you’re having trouble deciding which way to lean, consider the tasting menu — highly recommended ($80).
Their amuse-bouche of inky black caviar (add $10) and crisp delicata squash rings begging to dive headfirst into creamy onion dip is both familiar and exotic ($14). This homey comfort food with the delicate and unexpected pop of salty roe is exactly the thing you’d see a chef make for himself after service. It’s creamy, crunchy and supremely satisfying.
Table Culture Provisions is focused on hyper-seasonal cooking, and the Chanterelle Bites ($14) are a perfect midwinter appetizer with bits of mushroom, parsley and herbs in a buttery tart crust. Also on both the tasting menu and a la carte menu is the Beef Croquette ($14) with a confit of melting brisket packed inside a crisp outer shell and dipped in Dijonnaise.
Do not miss the bread course with buttery, yeasty Parker House rolls ($12). If there is a more satisfying bread than these old-style hotel rolls, I’ve yet to find it. Though they’re different in shape than the traditional folded rolls, the buttery tops and sweet, fluffy middles are classics. Beef bone marrow and butter are combined for a spread that’s silkier than a silk worm’s silky pajamas. Nori salt doesn’t add much to the dish, but it’s pretty.
Scallops and cauliflower in the same dish seem like a huge mistake, and at first whiff of the Pan Seared Scallops ($24), I was worried. But the mild, sweet sunchoke puree seemed to bind together the briny flavor of the scallops with the sulfurous crucifer in a surprising way. A bite of crisp garlic chips on top dispelled any further concerns.
The Tomahawk is a tasting menu specialty and required if you’re a beef eater. A petite cut of rib-eye (off the bone) is cooked medium-rare, perfectly seasoned and has a luxurious chewiness that makes you remember why you love steak in the first place. Add shaved truffles if you dare. It comes with potato pave (thin slices of potatoes that put au gratin to shame) and rich jus for a “just-enough” serving. Our sweet finish of a caramel streusel tart was a highlight.
With a clean and minimalist interior, short but tempting wine list and crowd-pleasing menu that includes fried chicken and fish and chips, this tiny 10-table restaurant has figured out comfort food with flourishes of French technique and seasonal ingredients that make a perfect addition to the Sonoma County dining scene.
Table Culture Provisions, 312 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma, 707-559-5739, tcprovision.com