At San Francisco’s Maison Nico—an épicerie (a grocery) and a café—where I’ve been shopping, eating and sipping wine and coffee at least once a week for the past six months, I’m reminded of Paris in the early 1960s, when Les Halles, the old central fresh food market, was still in operation and the Algerian War waged. In those days, I relied on Eric Frommer’s essential text, Europe on $5 a Day, to secure affordable food and lodging. The $5 a day European budget is gone. In 2017, when Frommer published his last guidebook, the title was Europe on $95 a Day. Today, the price of food and drink at Maison Nico exceeds the price of food and drink in Paris in 1961. That summer I was happy eating peas from a can, munching on a baguette, wandering around the Left Bank and reading J.P. Dunleavy’s banned novel, The Ginger Man, which a Welsh bloke my own age lent me. I also splurged on foie gras and sole meunière. That was then. This is now.
At Maison Nico, I’ve met the French-born chef/ proprietor, Nicholas Delaroque and his American wife, Andrea. They introduced me to Paul Einbund, Maison Nico’s sommelier who doubles as the owner of The Morris, a San Francisco bistro named after Paul’s father. I think of Paul as Maison Nico’s “wine guy.” He’s the stellar master of the wine cellar housed in the basement at 710 Montgomery. “I go to Europe for wine as often as possible,” Paul tells me. “The last time I went was in November 2021. I’m itching to go again.”
Centuries ago, pâtés originated with European peasants who made them from what we’d call “leftovers” and from scraps of pork, chicken and duck. Gradually, pâtés became luxury items prized by the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Now they’re on the menus of restaurants around the world and available to the masses in supermarkets. The history of the pâté is emblematic of the larger history of food, which reflects the movement of social and economic classes and cultural paradigms, though that’s not why I devour them. Still, the history adds to the appeal.
Nico’s uncommon, artisan pâtés have earned him a Michelen star at his épicerie and café on Montgomery that’s open five days a week Wednesday to Sunday. On weekends, tourists arrive from far and wide. Monday Monday through Friday, office workers descend for lunch; word of mouth pulls them in. The window dressing first attracted me. My Montgomery Street office sits on the third floor of a building above the space where Nico and his close-knit team craft pâtés, brioche feuilletée and much more. These days, Parisian chefs would nod their heads in appreciation of his creations, though he also nods in their direction. “I was inspired to make pâtés on recent trips to Paris with my wife, Andrea,” he explains. She adds, “I’ve seen that nearly everyone truly knows their local butcher and bread maker. It’s not a cliché, it’s real! There are daily visits to the boulangerie and the boucherie.” The supermarket hasn’t taken over completely.
Nico comes from Rueil-Malmaison, a suburb of Paris, about eight miles from Notre Dame. The place name, “Malmaison,” has been translated into English as “bad home” or “evil house.” For Nico the town was a good place to grow up; has fond memories of his working class parents. “I’m still working class,” he says. “It’s in my soul.” Andrea adds, “Nico definitely has lowly beginnings.” His mother was a florist; his father an accountant, his step father a handy-man. As a teenager, he began to work near the bottom of the restaurant ladder. Nico remembers, as perhaps only a French person can remember, days during his youth that were devoted to nothing but food. On long summer afternoons the whole family—children, parents and grandparents—ate together and bonded over appetizers, entrées, salads and soups.
Yes, these days Americans are shopping locally, and yes families are eating together. But it isn’t the same here as it is in France, where the love of food cuts across class lines in a society and a culture where citizens are more aware of class than in the US. In France as in California good restaurants still exist, though there aren’t as many in France as there were when I visited in ‘61. “It’s sad,” Nico tells me. “In Paris in the 1980s, time and cost took over. Now you have to know where to go and what to look for.” He suggests bistros in the 11th Arrondissement, the onzième, once home to the Bastille, the notorious prison that Parisians stormed in 1789, and that sits on the right bank.
The big books on the shelf at Maison Nico, including a well-worn copy of Larousse Gastronomique, a bible for chefs, and a classic text by Auguste Escoffier, speak volumes about French food traditions and Nico’s dedication to them. Escoffier has inspired American chefs like James Beard, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and Julia Child who once said, “The memory of a good pâté will haunt you for years.” Like Child and Beard, Nico does everything that can be done in a kitchen, though he’s not on TV and isn’t world renowned. Not yet. Still, Maison is making him famous in SF.
He also goes out of his way to get when he needs and wants for the kitchen. He buys meat from Oliver’s Butchery in San Francisco’s Dogpatch, a neighborhood that was once industrial and working class and that now boasts upscale cafes, restaurants and shops that are a destination for tourists and people who describe themselves as foodies. The French prefer the word “gourmand.” The website for Oliver’s Butchery reads, “We are an old fashioned French Boucherie founded not only with a passion for delicious, fresh food, but also caring for the health of the environment, the animals, and our beloved customers.”
When Nico was a boy the family gathered at Creuse, near the center of France. He calls the region “the middle of nowhere,” but back then twenty or so people sat around a large table. There didn’t seem to be a break, Nico says, between lunch and dinner. “There was usually a roast—lamb or pork—that my grandfather cooked on a spit, using the old engine from a lawnmower to turn it around and around,” he says. He adds, “It wasn’t fancy food. It was about family, conversation and laughter.”
Before there was eating around the table in the open air, there was cooking, and not only by his grandfather. “My mother and my grandmother were good cooks,” Nico tells me. “When I was 16 and looking around for something to do, a job, my mother sent me to a restaurant owner. I liked the camaraderie in the kitchen.” He divided his time between school and work; two weeks at one place and two weeks at the other.
Over the years, he met skilled chefs in Paris, Corsica and the Alps and little by little his passion for cooking grew. “After all these years, I still feel passionate about cooking,” he says. “I’m still reading and still learning more about techniques.” In France, preparing charcuterie (pâtés, comfits, terrines, bacon, ham and more) is different from cooking in a restaurant. “You either go to school to learn to cook or to learn how to make charcuterie,” Nico explains. They’re two different crafts and separate from patisserie. After he arrived in San Francisco, he added to his skill set at Luce, which calls itself a wine restaurant and at Manresa, which borrows from French and Catalan cooking, and which moved to Los Gatos in posh Santa Clara County, south of the city.
At Maison Nico, making pâtés takes three to four days. It’s labor intensive and a labor of love. The spotless kitchen isn’t behind closed doors, but rather is visible from the front counter and from the indoor tables. You can watch the preparations and the artistry. First, the meat—pork or duck— has to be cleaned, cut into small pieces and salt added. After a day or so, it’s ground, then assembled and put into a crust to rest. The next day, it’s cooked. After the pâté comes out of the oven it’s allowed to cool slowly and then topped off with aspic. “The taste builds up,” Nico explains.
When newcomers show up at his épicerie and want suggestions about where to start and what to buy, he recommends a savory pâté en croûte de canard, pomme et boudin noir (duck, pork, blood sausage, apple and pine nuts). For a sweet, he suggests the noisettes et chocolat or the flan Parisian which has a flaky crust with a vanilla pastry cream filling. “My mother always had a flan for me when I came home from school as a boy,” he says. “It was my favorite treat.” He adds, “Every culture, the Chinese, the Mexicans, the French, and Spanish have some kind of flan. It’s universal.”
When he goes back to France with his wife, Andrea. he knows that it will take a couple of days to get into the French rhythm. “Time will stop for a while,” he says. “We’ll be in one place and won’t be rushing to go somewhere else.” Now at Maison Nico, it’s San Francisco time. Hungry customers are arriving for lunch with appetites for pâté as big as their dreams.