November 25, 2011
Chez Daniel, Monsieur Pont and one tough table

La Bonne Soupe.JPGWe recently called Chez Daniel to make a reservation on short notice. In Sacramento, we usually don't have much trouble if we call a few hours before we plan to dine.

But not this time. It was a Saturday, and the woman who answered the phone began with an apology. So sorry, she told us. We're all booked up.

That was bad for us but very good for the 72-year-old French chef, Daniel Pont, who is making a comeback after the briefest of retirements. He sold La Bonne Soupe Cafe last spring, but he couldn't stay away from the business that made him a local celebrity.

After I failed to land a table, I decided to wait a day or two and call M. Pont to see how things were going. We played phone tag a few times, but that wasn't so bad. Given his impeccable telephone manners and elegant French accent, his voice mails were always a pleasure.

When we finally got together on the phone, I wanted to know how the new place was doing and how he was holding up.

"I have plenty of customers," he told me, before adding with a touch of modesty, "It is brand new. People are curious."

He estimates that 50 percent of the customers are regulars from La Bonne Soupe, eager to see what their beloved chef is up to out in Folsom. It's no wonder. Check out the photo accompanying this blog post. That's the French onion soup and a braised pork tenderloin sandwich from the good old days.

Pont said the new restaurant gets booked up quickly on the weekends. But there are occasional openings on weeknights.

"It is advisable to reserve. I only have nine tables. The way I do reservations, I don't fill up the whole restaurant."

Pont was known for many things at La Bonne Soupe, the downtown cafe that was open only for lunch. The food, especially the soups and the precisely made sandwiches, won legions of admirers. The line was notoriously long, and the wait was even longer. Pont worked alone, which meant he cooked, he greeted, he served, he rang up the cash register. Most folks loved to watch him at work. Some found it frustrating -- as they only had so much time for lunch.

Pont is now doing only dinner, and his restaurant is doing more sophisticated food -- rack of lamb, duck, salmon poached in champagne. He now has one employee running the front of the house and waiting tables. A second employee washes the dishes. Pont does the cooking, and he's as meticulous as ever.

He recently refused a reservation from a woman who wanted a table for six. Pont will only do tables for 2, 3 or 4. Six customers at one table, the chef explained, would mean some dishes might take too long to get to the table.

"I won't sacrifice the way the food looks just for numbers," he said.

Pont focused on lunch for six years -- soups and sandwiches and salads. But now he is going back to a fuller repertoire, just as he did when he owned restaurants in the Bay Area. He says he will maintain a core menu that will not change, and he will introduce new items as daily specials.

"I am happy I am back to doing these dishes," he said. "There are hundreds more I want to do."

Like a lot of proud chefs, Pont keeps a close watch on the plates gathered from the tables at the end of the meal. They are, he reports, coming back empty. People are very happy.

And that's why this new place is fast becoming one of the toughest places in town to get a table.

As soon as we can score a table, we will be visiting Chez Daniel to try this hot new restaurant, and we'll soon be writing a "First Impressions" piece about the experience.

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