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French Bistro Redux

La Sen brings a touch of old-world fare—and charm—to Concord.


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Photography by Jennifer Martiné

Vive la révolution! La Sen is taking a stand against the industrial-chic, farm-labeled ingredient, locally inspired but fundamentally Italian mold by reaching back to a simpler time for gastronomic guidance. It’s a place where butter isn’t banned, the food isn’t politically correct, and the only scene is a French landscape on the wall.

Located a few steps from Todos Santos Plaza (and worlds away from Concord’s image as a culinary no-fly zone), this charmingly retro white table-cloth bistro offers up old-school favorites like steak frites—grilled rib eye with garlicky french fries—and filet mignon with an unapologetically rich reduction of shallots and veal stock.  

Yes, La Sen does French classics right—especially the meats. A lush cylinder of steak tartare is capped with a just-cracked quail egg, encircled by crafty condiments, and served with toast points (made from equal parts olive oil and bread). The hearty boeuf Bourguignonne, like the coq au vin, is incredibly tender. These dishes epitomize country French fare with an opulence gained from slow and gentle cooking in rich red wine. And don’t miss the lamb chops: Crusty on the outside, rosy in the middle, and served with velvety port wine sauce. They’re La Sen’s most popular dishes for a reason. My favorite is the duck breast, full of flavor and astonishingly moist, and complemented perfectly by crisped polenta.

Looking for something light? Look elsewhere. Even the eggplant lasagna is made with Gruyère and the rich béchamel sauce. If you’re looking to go easy, better to create a decadent meal of soup, salad, and dessert. Start with the impossibly rich French onion soup; follow with mixed greens tossed with crisp apple, tangy Roquefort, and a sprightly Champagne vinaigrette; and finish with a crackling crème brûlée. The price? Less than $20 ($15 at lunch). Or sub in an order of calamari with La Sen’s signature cilantro vinaigrette, a creamy emulsion also served with the bread.

That vibrant green sauce is the invention of chef and co-owner Hai Tat Nguyen, who was on the hunt for a light alternative to pesto. Nguyen doesn’t fancy himself a creative force. The first time he tried his hand in the kitchen—other than scrubbing floors, that is—he was told that he didn’t have the chops for cooking. Undaunted, he opened his own restaurant, La Rose Bistro in downtown Berkeley, which he operated for a decade. Several chefs passed through his kitchen, and Nguyen kept his eyes wide open. Soon, he took over the cooking, in part to keep payroll low as rents rose. And when the rent became unmanageable, he headed through the tunnel.

Along the way, he picked up a partner, Thanh Dinh, and opened La Sen—transforming SushiYa, an all-you-can-eat Japanese joint, into a charming French bistro. Dinh was impressed with Nguyen’s easy mastery of French cooking. “He’s a pretty quick study,” says Dinh. “He learns on the fly.” Dinh’s charming demeanor keeps La Sen flowing on busy nights. That’s especially important since the service can be both poised and not so much, depending on each waiter’s personality and past experience.

The food, too, isn’t always up to Nguyen’s high standards. Our duck breast, lamb chops, and filet mignon were cooked to a tee, while the salmon and pork chop stayed on the grill just a minute too long. The salade niçoise—crisp French beans, tender new potatoes, and seared tuna in a shallot vinaigrette—was fresh and all of a piece. But the salade de haricots verts came garnished with, and diminished by, canned mandarin oranges (they do use fresh mandarins when in season).

But really, there’s very little here not to like, including the desserts, where rich gelato meets dense chocolate cake, tiny turnovers, and a wobbly skyscraper of strawberries and puff pastry. The candlelit atmosphere, while more rustic than refined, invites lingering, particularly in the comfy stools at the sparkly black marble bar.

And when the lights dim and the music plays to a full dining room, La Sen really does transport you to the French countryside—especially when you’re swirling those last sips of Côtes du Rhône.

 


At a Glance

What makes it special: Unapologetic-ally rich cuisine in a linger-worthy French bistro ambience. The space: Just 35 seats, sultry lighting, and Monet-style murals create a cozy dining experience both romantic and lively. When to go: La Sen hums on Friday and Saturday evenings, when the dining room is full and the wine is flowing. What to order: Lamb chops, duck breast, and filet mignon are classics worth trying. You also can’t go wrong with the appetizers, particularly the salmon and beef tartares, and a heavenly rich French onion soup. Bonus: Complimentary warm ciabatta with a cilantro vinaigrette.


 

 

Contact

2002 Salvio St., Ste. B, Concord, (925) 363-7870, lasenbistro.com. Hours: Lunch Mon.–Sat., dinner daily. Price: Appetizers $6–$10, entrées $16–$25. Alcohol: Beer and wine.

 

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