The big buzz in central Contra Costa County is the March 10 opening of John Marquez' new restaurant, Artisan Bistro in Lafayette (formerly Gigi Restaurant).

It comes with some pedigree: Marquez has cooked in restaurants such as French Laundry, and was most recently the executive chef at Fringale and the Michelin-rated Coi. And he's a local boy (San Ramon Valley High School, class of 1995) who trained in the kitchen of Bridges under Chef Kevin Gin.

Marquez now lives in Walnut Creek with his family (he has two young daughters), and had been thinking of opening his own restaurant closer to home for several years. While at New York City's Blue Ribbon restaurant a few years ago, "I thought, I could do this. Simple, good food."

What makes Artisan Bistro different, he says, is the seasoning. "(Bistro cooking) has always fascinated me," he explains. "A neighborhood restaurant, well done, well seasoned, and people know you."

The menu for both lunch and dinner is similar. The dinner menu includes an herb crusted rack of lamb ($25) and a rib eye steak ($26). All desserts are $8 and include something Gigi was famous for, funnel cake. This one has bourbon caramel sauce and strawberry compote.

Marquez, who owns the restaurant with his parents, says the brick patio of the historic 1922 building is being cleaned up. The walls have been repainted and feature modern art by Marquez's uncle, John Earl. The restaurant seats about 60 inside, and 42 in the patio.

It's called Artisan Bistro because "everything here is handmade or will be soon," Marquez says. "We'll make our own butter, own ice cream, own bread in near future."

Word is trickling out. A friend and I went to lunch the second day it was open and had the chicken and mushroom soup with barley, pesto and aged Pecorino ($8). We also had the very French frisée salad ($11) and marinated beet salad ($10) with goat cheese and a shallot vinaigrette. While we were there, so were about 28 others. And reservations were piling up for the weekend.

Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. It's closed Mondays. Artisan Bistro, 1005 Brown Ave., Lafayette; 925-962-0882. www. artisanlafayette.com
________________________________________________________________________________________________________