"Five minutes till open!" shouted chef Belinda Leong, as if readying her crew to welcome guests inside for your typical restaurant dinner service last Friday night. The kitchen was firing, bartenders were batching cocktails, and servers were wrapping freshly baked baguettes. Except the tables weren't set and, instead of taking reservations, the front of house staff were busy assembling bags for delivery.
At the stroke of 5:30, Leong opened the restaurant's brass double doors to welcome both a fresh breeze of air and the curious foodies who had already queued up for pre-ordered takeout, while inside, chef John Paul Carmona "plated" heads of roasted cauliflower in compostable to-go vessels.
Such is the life of a brand-new restaurant during Covid-19, when the hype of its big opening and impossible-to-score tables have made way for a kind of thankless dance of preparing food to be boxed up and shuttled out. At least at Routier, Leong's highly anticipated restaurant a few doors down from her popular B. Patisserie, the takeout is decadent and has a French accent.
Known for her fabulous desserts and the casual cafe food served at nearby B. on the Go, Leong's latest venture has an extra dash of savory sophistication. Modeled after the French routier, a cozy roadside restaurant, the new California Street bistro is elegant but unfussy with teal banquettes, marble finishes, and brassy accents. It's the type of place that oozes casual charm, just like that neighborhood spot you discovered and loved so much the last time you were in Paris.
The philosophy here is mostly about ease and contentment—"that focus on the customer...the enjoyment around the food being served, regardless of the cost of the ingredient or the economic disposition of who is sitting at the table," says chef Carmona, who hails from Michelin-starred Manresa.
While dining inside here will have to wait, Leong devotees have waited long enough to get a taste of her fine French fare.
"The inspiration for the [current] menu is somewhat tricky because it's not just about the food, but about the takeout aspect that is required right now," Carmona said. "I wanted to have dishes that showed the personality of the restaurant we aspire to become, but also keep in mind when and how the customer is going to enjoy it."
French-inflected dishes include swordfish and pork rillettes; medallions of braised lamb shoulder; slow-roasted chicken with carrots in brown butter; and a poached lobster grand aioli that's guaranteed to make any ole night feel special, especially when you team it with one of Routier's several bottles of French and Californian wine and bubbly, curated by sommelier Renee Nicole Kubin. There are also pre-batched bottled spritzes including a Mistral of D'Sangue Mommenpop red vermouth, Panama Pacific white rum, lime, and tonic. The tonic is served unopened on the side to guarantee your bevvie will be bubbly at home.
B. Patisserie loyalists will be pleased with the desserts which, as is typical of both Leong and the French, manage to be both light and sumptuous at once. Save room for a rich chocolate mousse with chantilly and coffee crumble; a summery roasted peach bavarois; and brown butter and almond financiers.
Even without long-held reservations and white tablecloth service, the care being put into the details at Routier is evident already, making this one of the best dine-at-home experiences we've had yet. C'est bon!
(Photography by Sarah Chorey)
Leong's freshly baked demi baguette with deviled butter is a must-order.
// Order via Toast for takeout Fridays through Sundays, 5:3pm to 8pm; 2801 California St., routiersf.com.