This is the column's second visit to this former gas station, the previous loving restoration having been a b.good burger stand.
While I hope that Cognac Bistro stays and thrives for a long time, with a trend line like garage-to-burgers-to-four-star-bistro, the next occupant would have to be either the Al Qaeda Heaven of the 70 Virgins, or an M&M Mars outlet store.
And even those destination retailers would have to fend off queries from disappointed Cognac regulars about where to find mussels a l'escargot and house-made gnocchi. In respect of one Nadeau principle, there is an eponymous owner and eponymous food - that would be chef-owner Nelson Cognac, and 12 famous brands offered with dessert, or mixed into hitherto non-brandy cocktails such as martinis and manhattans.
Although Cognac's previous restaurant was the Eastern-Mediterranean-oriented Kouzina, this bistro is mostly French, with a French take on local foods and worldwide wines. That starts at the breadbasket: real baguette, with crust and holes to grab the sweet butter.
Moving directly, as you should too, to the mussels "escargot" ($11) - what a simple and wonderful idea. Instead of serving up special dishes and instruments to take imported canned snails out of imported reusable shells -here we have plump local mussels, out of their shells, crowded into a cocotte with the same garlic butter that was always the point of the exercise.
Cognac also has something new to say about the incredible cliché of "crispy calamari" ($9) with fried hot peppers. He repeats the best previous approach, frying them truly dry and crisp, then offers up a dip of black-olive tapenade and a few whole Kalamata olives (thanks, Kouzina) among the squid and peppers.
The raw bar is taken seriously here, and the $1 special on certain oysters and clams - bluepoint oysters our night - is not to be missed. These had the classic bluepoint salty intensity, somewhere on a spectrum between milder oysters and cherrystone clams.
Seafood fregola ($14), on the soups-and-pastas part of the menu, is in the spectrum between appetizers and entrées. The fregola part is a Sardinian pasta a little smaller than spring peas, and more dense and filling than pilaf, and mounded into a deceptively modest portion that lacks only the acidity of a salad with pasta, squid, mussel meats, and bits of cheese.
The entrée of choice is whatever currently includes house-made gnocchi, recently "Harpoon braised lamb shank" ($21). Despite the ale - no one braises with real harpoons any more - this is a rich tomato-inflected stew with the lamb cut like osso buco and off most of the bones. The gnocchi are so light and airy with a slight tang like cheese; maybe they used a buttermilk biscuit recipe.
Organic Scottish salmon "coq au vin" ($22) was simply grilled, but unusually presented on what look like steak fries but are actually cut-up portabella mushrooms, flavored with bacon and small onions. Grilled hanger steak ($22) came as steak frites with excellent skin-on French fries and some watercress. The sliced meat had the deep flavor that makes this cut a chef's favorite, and the chewy texture that kept it (until recently) inexpensive. You may want something green, like a side order of haricot vert ($5), which was done as most people would expect it, and lacks the extra flavor you can get by overcooking green beans.