April 25, 2011
Monday postscript: the personal touch of a little bistro

My review of Bistro La Petite France focused on the food and the warm hospitality of the husband-and-wife owners, Christophe and Claudine Ehrhart. If you're wondering what it means to have a locally-owned business with a personal touch, this would be a good place to visit and take notes. The formula is very simple, but somehow it remains elusive at too many other restaurants.

During our visits, Christophe never failed to greet us or say farewell, and Claudine was always there to chat with customers.

From what I saw, she gets to know many of the regulars and spends time chatting with them. It's such a contrast to some of the other places we have visited where we are made to feel like strangers, no matter how often we have been there. Claudine remembered us from our first visit, remembered what we had ordered and suggested a different bottle of wine on our second visit, based on the one we enjoyed on our first visit. When we arrived the third time, we were practically friends. A couple of weeks ago, by contrast, we walked into a downtown restaurant where the host showed us to our table, put the menus down and walked away without saying a word. That's just unacceptable, especially when her entire job revolves around creating a good feeling about the restaurant before the food gets to the table.

Some restaurants don't seem to understand that the food always tastes better when the customer is treated nicely. Rudeness, slights, inattentiveness all add up and make the experience less than enjoyable.

I suppose Bistro La Petite France could find a bigger space (there is currently room for 32), but things would change if they expanded - and not necessarily for the better. The strength of this bistro is in the personal touch, and Christophe and Claudine know it.

Changing the subject: Christophe told me how he got into cooking. When he was 15, his parents asked him what he wanted to do with his future. Christophe had no clue. His mom had a friend who owned a hair salon and she arranged for her son to work there to see if he would like it. Maybe he would have a career as a stylist.

"The whole afternoon, the only thing I had to do was wash ladies' hair. I came home crying. I said, that's not for me," he said.

Then his dad had a friend who was a mechanic, and Christophe went to the shop to try it out. Perhaps he would fix cars for a living.

"The whole afternoon, the only thing I did was change oil. I came home crying again."

Then his dad asked, "What about cooking?" And he arranged for his son to work at a friend's restaurant for a day. The teenager loved it and never looked back.

I have been watching this cool show on HGTV called "Househunters International." A recent spate of shows focused on folks finding a dream home in France, and it certainly looked appealing. Haven't aa lot of us dreamed of moving to Paris or a country village and immersing ourselves in a culture that seems to place more emphasis on slowing down and enjoying life? So why, I wondered, would someone from France move to California? Turns out, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence - even if they have cute little villages at the base of the Alps and we have vast suburbs with big box stores and too much traffic.

"In France, California is a dream," Christophe said. After years of working in restaurants in Europe, Christophe moved to Canada (Montreal, the Halifax and Toronto). He moved on to the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., then the Hilton in San Francisco. A job offer to cook at the new Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln, brought Christophe and his family to the Sacramento area. After three busy and enjoyable years at the casino, Christophe and Claudine opened their bistro in a strip mall in Roseville. They moved to Granite Bay because they liked the setting better.

The business is now a model for a small family-run bistro with the kind of cooking one would find in everyday life in France. And that food tastes even better because of the kind of customer service we don't see often enough at other restaurants in the area.

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