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Just about everybody's hometown has a restaurant like DeSchmire in Petaluma. It's not particularly well-known except by locals who've been going there for decades. It's unpretentious except for occasional interludes when it tries to go a little more upscale, but soon falls back into the comfortable charm that has kept it going all these years. And the food is consistently and surprisingly good, mostly because the owner is the executive chef and he or she has a passion for good cooking.

Like much of the rest of the restaurant industry in these poor economic times, DeSchmire (pronounced "duh shmeer") had empty tables on a recent night. Yet the quality of the French-influenced fare remains as high as ever. That's because Executive Chef and owner Dan Eastman has the passion to please his customers, and Chef de Cuisine Marc Wohlfeil makes that happen.

A place like DeSchmire depends on the locals — the community — at all times, but especially in the lean times. Tourists will head to restaurants with more buzz, but it's always the little places, the mom-and-pop eateries, that they write home about if they're lucky enough to stumble into one. DeSchmire is just such a place.

Consider the Mussels ($7 ****). I'd write home about them, too, if I wasn't already home. They're grown locally at Scott Zahl's Tomales Cove Mussel Company, located a few miles south of Marshall at Marconi Cove and, the staff said, they were delivered to the restaurant one hour before they were served to me. These mussels are plump, tan-brown, very fresh-tasting, sweet and wonderfully tender. I thought back to the Prince Edward Island mussels served in most local restaurants — small, firm and a little chewy, with a slightly bitter aftertaste. These were nothing like that. The mussels are de-bearded just before cooking, steamed so their juices run down into the boiling water pan. The liquid is fortified with white wine and butter, and a big bowl of steaming hot mussels is delivered to you with a little fork for plucking these beauties from their shells. Make sure you have plenty of bread for sopping up that delicious broth.

The Crab Cakes ($8 ****) are everything you want in crab cakes but hardly ever find: they are absolutely crammed with crabmeat, not the shredded crab from commercial pickeries but lots of lump crabmeat, like you get when you carefully pick a crab yourself. They're slightly spicy and herby, taste light and fresh, and come accompanied by a Thai cucumber salad.

The menu changes seasonally and right now the restaurant is planning for summer, so expect some menu changes. The wine list is small and undistinguished, and pricey. DeSchmire sells the 2008 Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for $45. It's available at many stores listed on the Internet for $15. However, feel free to bring a bottle, as no corkage fee is charged.

Service is snappy, if overly solicitous. The young waiter checked in every few minutes to see how the folks at his tables were enjoying their dinners. I would have liked to have said, "Fine, except for these constant interruptions," but could see that I had him at "Fine," and let it go.

French classics abound on the menu. French Onion Soup ($7 ***) has bubbled, browned Gruyere cheese flowing over the top and down the sides of its ceramic bowl. The onion soup inside was delicious but lacked the concentration given by caramelized onions. Even so, the big fun with this soup is prying bits of congealed cheese off the bowl and chewing them up.

Several salads are available, including Salad Roche ($6 ***), which translates from the French as "rocky salad." Hearts of romaine, bits of crumbled bacon and red onion, all dressed in a creamy, intense blue-cheese dressing means that, sure enough, this salad rocks.

Veal Diane ($28 ***) was one of the specials on a recent evening, patterned on the classic Steak Diane, which is made with a pan-fried filet mignon. Here veal cutlets were substituted, but as in the steak dish, a sauce is made from the pan juices by whisking together butter, shallots, cream, beef stock and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. (I don't believe this sauce was flamb?d with brandy, as is done with the filet.) The veal was, however, topped with more of the luscious crabmeat used in the crab cakes, plus lemon zest to freshen the flavor and saut?d red onions to enhance the veal. Three asparagus spears and sliced lemon rounds finished the plate.

Chicken Dijon ($18 *** ?) was another winner. A lovely Dijon mustard sauce covered two pieces of breaded, saut?d, juicy, tender, breast meat that perched on a mound of rice and sliced mushrooms. With it came three asparagus spears and a carrot and beet chiffonade slaw.

Could there be a better dessert than a Strawberry Parfait ($8 ***), with its layers of sliced strawberries, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate? Never.

<CF103>To sum up:</CF> Great old-fashioned French food lives, and lives well, at DeSchmire.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.