(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in October, 2016.)
Black sheep might be considered outcasts but there’s nothing disgraceful about the buzzy new dining spot of that name in the heart of Willow Glen. Opening late last year, Black Sheep Brasserie brings some classic Frenchness to town, but wrapped in modern sensibilities, from the chic food preparations to the decor. For example, snails here aren’t just the longtime Parisian iteration featuring garlic butter and herbs but rather are basil-fed crawlers steeped in Pernod butter. Meanwhile, the high-ceiled space is modern and handsome with a muted gray-neutral color scheme enlivened with occasional pops of bright red.
The ruminant mammal reflected in the restaurant’s name is the English translation of Le Mouton Noir, a former French dining spot in Saratoga launched back in the ’70s by Don Durante, one of the new place’s four skilled partners. Joining him are young entrepreneurs Stephen Shelton, Jimmy Marino and Philippe Breneman, the food and drink gurus who own popular Lexington House in Los Gatos. When it comes to “brasserie,” the definition refers to a larger, casual, affordable spot serving classic French dishes. Alas, in a restaurant where each petite piece of baguette not quite large enough for two non-hungry people costs $4, affordability is relative. However, the baguette in question is from ManresaBread and is top notch.
Happily, good ingredients and creative prep are the norm here, rolled out in cold starters, salads and soups, small “to-share” plates and entrees. Oysters are a mainstay in Parisian brasseries and two ever-changing varieties are available here with a pair of sauces. The kitchen does a nice job on duck liver mousse, a creamy, earthy mixture with that liver funkiness nicely complemented by a house-made pickle that could be green strawberries or something else. Tasty, mustardy beef tartare with egg yolk and cornichon is also on the menu.
The biggest departure from classic Gallic cuisine is in the salads, like a green salad with shaved vegetables enrobed in green goddess dressing with tangy sheep cheese or salad Niçoise made with seared ahi rather than France’s standard canned tuna, with a seven-minute farm egg replacing the usual rubbery, quartered pieces. Obligatory French onion soup here is richer and cheesier than the usual.
The star of the to-share list is a healthy serving of fat mussels swimming in rich saffron cream sauce. Gilding the lily are shoestring fries drizzled with aioli on top, which are yummy if a bit messy to eat on top of the soupy shellfish. Those frightened of organ meat should make an exception for crispy veal sweetbreads on pureed potato that are punctuated with lemon and capers. The little portion of mild, creamy innard is soothing, satisfying comfort food.
Main courses largely depart from the brasserie theme but definitely showcase French sauces. So popular it sometimes runs out is luscious trout amandine with almond brown butter showing off delicate pink flesh. Less successful is halibut with beurre blanc, which can be somewhat overcooked. The restaurant’s modern interpretation of steak-frites features dry-aged sirloin rather than the often-tough French cuts that sits astride pureed spuds rather than the usual skinny fries. Meat eaters will swoon over mustard-crusted rack of lamb, perfectly cooked and paired with a divine take on Brussels sprouts, sweetly caramelized and punched up with sweet-and-sour shallots.
Another winner is fork-tender, flavorful braised pork shank smartly accompanying luscious, slightly tart white-bean “cassoulet.” Echoing the “casual” theme is a top-drawer burger au Français that wears Comté cheese with a pickle-brine Hollandaise, all wrapped in a brioche bun. Bulking up the choices is the welcome addition of various alluring sides like those killer Brussels sprouts, potato puree, fries, rich potato gratin with cheeses and melted leeks and an attractive-sounding dish of heirloom carrots cooked in duck fat with date puree, which unfortunately had some super-tough carrots along with way-too-sweet puree that was disjointed as a whole.
The Cal-French desserts redeemed things, however. Dark chocolate tart with brandied cherries is a chocoholic pleaser while the warm bread pudding with huckleberry jam would make anyone smile. Also producing grins is thoughtful but friendly and knowledgeable service without a hint of the famous French rudeness that might also be traditional.
Black Sheep Brasserie, 1202 Lincoln Ave., San Jose. (408) 816-7251. http://www.bsbwillowglen.com
HOURS: Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9:30; Friday-Saturday, until 10; Sunday until 9. Sunday brunch 10-2. Reservations strongly recommended.
PRICES: Starters: $5-19. Larger plates: $15-34. Desserts: $8-10.