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Crocodile Cafe in Petaluma worth a return visit

Octopus A La Gribiche with German butterBall potatoes, watercress with egg and olive oil mulsion from Crocodile French Cuisine in Petaluma. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat

CAREY SWEET,

See you later, alligator. That’s how I felt after my first visit to Crocodile in Petaluma, disappointed by an experience that was a roller coaster ride of flavor and service.

After a while, crocodile. That’s how I felt after a return visit, when things were smooth sailing, with pleasant staff and a consistently enjoyable meal.

Open since October, the cozy restaurant in the Theater District still seems to be finding its way. Working with a menu that’s an eclectic mix of classic French, accented here and there with African, Spanish and Italian dialects, it seems like just the kind of creativity the growing Petaluma dining scene could use. I even told myself that the restaurant’s location, steps from the riverfront, set the mood for the southern French port of Marseille.

The result is signatures like an excellent charcuterie board in a build-your-own selection of goodies, including housemade game bird pâté, chicken liver mousse, pork rillettes, saucisson sec (French sausage) and assorted local cheeses ($6 each), all rounded out with Revolution bread from Petaluma, wholegrain mustard, pickled vegetables and Mission fig-balsamic preserves.

Except that same meal also delivered dull pumpkin croquettes as three golf-size balls set atop a puddle of chermoula Moroccan herb sauce and a pond of crème fraiche ($7). The unusual ingredients weren’t the problem; the croquettes were dry and bland.

This is a place I really want to like, given its elegant design featuring a hexagon-mirrored wall reflecting glowing gold pendant lamps, a high-top table format in the lounge area next to the tiny dining room and a bar that welcomes with extensive wine choices focusing on California and France, plus beers emphasizing France and Belgium.

The place is family-owned and feels like it in that nice, cozy way. It’s the work of Scottish-born chef Michael Dotson and his wife and business partner, Moira Beveridge. The couple previously owned a Scottish gastropub in the South Bay after living in France for a while.

And when things are good, they’re very good, like a savory boeuf Bourguignon made with red wine-braised filet mignon, pearl onions and house made egg noodles ($21); or superb Devil’s Gulch rabbit, the meat braised tender and pulled, then tumbled with earthy fennel, egg noodles, crème fraiche and the surprising spark of pickled kohlrabi ($23). These are classy comfort foods with loads of flavor.

Steak frites are another authentic pleaser as well, featuring dense, chewy but deeply beefy hangar steak dolloped in maitre d’hotel butter alongside fries for dunking in celery root remoulade and ketchup doctored with piment d’Espelette Basque chile ($23 lunch/$26 dinner).

I’m very happy with the half chicken, too, the skin crispy and the bird paired with creamy potato-sunchoke galette, Romanesco remoulade and a drizzle of jus brightened with a splash of Riesling ($24).

The ingredients and recipe for the octopus à la gribiche ($17) were marvelous at one meal, the exquisitely tender seafood curled around tiny German butterball potatoes, red watercress, fried capers and cornichons in a silky egg and olive oil emulsion. The dish looked gorgeous, too, with the colorful ingredients laid out in a half-circle on one side of the plate. But the food was showered in so much salt, it was nearly inedible.

Too much salt also ruined chicken confit, a thigh splayed next to a mound of shaved apples and Brussels sprouts dotted with blue cheese and squash soubise ($14). Too bad, because I could tell it was a very good dish underneath the harsh seasoning.

On my first visit, the restaurant wasn’t busy, but we had to seat ourselves and wait about 15 minutes for a server’s attention. We were never asked if we wanted drinks, we had to request the sauces for our fries, and after waiting 20 minutes for our entrees to be cleared, we gave up and left, abandoning our plans to order dessert.

Later, glancing at my receipt, I saw I had been charged $15 for the confit — a dollar extra.

On the next visit, however, service was quick and friendly. Dessert was worthwhile, too, for our selection of buttermilk chocolate cake, served in creamy-crumbly chunks held together with dulce chocolate mousse, alongside a scoop of coconut crème anglaise ($9.50).

There’s potential here, particularly with vegetarian dishes like the delicious clafoutis, usually meaning a French pudding cake, but offered here as an entrée studded with charred scallion, goat cheese, roasted toy box carrots on a swath of English pea puree ($19).

But for now, the Crocodile crew needs to pay more attention to detail. I have high hopes that after a while longer, they’ll nail it.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.