Comfort Food for Cosmopolites

Kensington Bistro

Until they moved a few months ago, my parents were weekly regulars at an Italian restaurant in the Midwestern town where they lived for thirty years. Right after I left for college, they and their best friends started dining at Lucchese’s every Friday before heading out to a movie. After my sister left home, too, this became the folks’ Friday ritual, as inevitable as church on Sunday. Minutes after they arrived, Maria, their perennial waitress, would deliver their favorite cocktails — a glass of Chianti for Dad, a Fuzzy Navel for Mom. My parents and their friends would then take several hours to talk and kid one another and eat. They eventually dropped the movie part of the evening.

Over the years they would let me join in on these outings during my visits home. As my food snobbery peaked and ebbed I liked the food, then sniffed at how pedestrian it was, and then started enjoying it again. But I always envied my parents’ honored status as regulars. Last year they celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary at Lucchese’s. Maria fussed for days to get the tables arranged just right, helped me pick out the flowers I was ordering from California, and then busted her butt to make sure nothing marred a perfect evening. That’s my standard for a neighborhood bistro. Sure, the food is important, but even more significant is the restaurant’s place in the community. It’s the kind of restaurant that Kensington Bistro wants to be when it grows up.

Kensington Bistro has occupied the same building just off Colusa Circle for a few years. “Under New Ownership!” now proclaims the writing on the windows. These new owners, Lynn Sullivan and her sons Quinn and Lynn, run a catering company that prepares school lunches for private schools. They have subleased the kitchen at Kensington Circus Pub for the past ten years, and started doing weekend brunch at the pub two years ago. Soon their brunches were drawing in the crowds. This April, the bistro across from the pub went up for sale, and the Sullivans decided to move in, opening for business in mid-July. They’ve done major redecoration and have had to replace the ancient kitchen equipment, and things are still evolving. The first chef didn’t work out, so Lynn decided to take over the dinner and hire someone to manage the catering business. A stab at weekday lunch might be discontinued. With the new equipment installed, brunch has started hitting its marks again. In fact, a sunny-day brunch is the ideal meal to enjoy at Kensington Bistro. Cheery peach walls echo the sunshine that blasts in through the wall of windows at the front, and the arrangement of tables along the shallow, split-level building ensures that no one sits in the gloom. The decor is clean and simple — tile floors, wooden tables covered in butcher paper, and brightly colored French posters along the walls.

For a tiny restaurant, the owners offer an impressively large selection of brunch and lunch dishes, all priced below $10. You’ve got all your standards — omelets, egg and toast combinations, pancakes, breakfast burritos — all tweaked up a notch or two on the gourmet scale … but not too high. My friend Dina tried the most complicated of the bunch: a pair of poached eggs set atop lacy, crisp potato pancakes flecked with bacon. A thin, lemony hollandaise, green with chopped watercress, covered the eggs.

I had an omelet, thin and wide, filled with sharp cheddar and my father’s kind of chili — ground beef, kidney beans, and tomatoes, with no onion or chiles to give it oomph. Like many of the other entrées, it came with a fresh-fruit cup, toast (get the crunchy homemade English muffin bread, a perfect sponge for melted butter), and home fries sprinkled with a slightly undercooked mix of onions and bell peppers.

Paying homage to the owners’ days at the pub is a regular old British fry-up, complete with Heinz baked beans and fried bread. The Sullivans’ penchant toward things Gallic shows up in the French toast, of course, made with the perfect bread — Semifreddi’s challah — dipped in a delicate batter and served with real maple syrup. We also tried the day’s special muffin, a small round of straight-from-the-oven banana bread with oozing pockets of melted white chocolate. Two other pluses: good, strong coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice.

Dinner is still a work in progress. Lynn Sullivan is working toward offering a seasonal menu with reasonably priced food. “We’re a comfy, homey kind of restaurant,” she says. “Comfort food is what I want to serve.” Turn-of-the-millennium comfort food, that is, not your grandmother’s.

The Sullivans reached back to the 1970s to identify a couple of those dishes, like gratinéed artichoke and crab dip and rumaki — you remember rumaki, don’t you? Many people don’t find comfort in meat on a toothpick anymore, but I got a kick out of way the creamy chicken livers and crisp water chestnuts played off the thick, salty slabs of Hobb’s applewood bacon wrapped around them. Comfort food doesn’t exclude salad, though. One of our more contemporary choices was half an heirloom tomato sliced and dressed in balsamic vinegar. Fresh mozzarella and slivered basil capped each slice.

Main courses range from roast chicken and steak to pastas and a couple of sandwiches. Most of the meats come with the vegetable of the day — in our case, simply blanched romano beans tossed with slivered almonds — and a choice of garlic mashed potatoes, French fries, or house-made potato chips. Flouting convention, we ordered a mess of potato chips, as thin and crisp as fried butterfly wings, with our New York steak au poivre. The medium-rare steak was perfectly pink, and our burgundy cream sauce spiked with green peppercorns unobtrusive. Our pork tenderloin in a soy and ginger glaze could have used a little less time in the oven and a little less of the sweet, overly gingery glaze. The spice in the accompanying curried rice salad with currants and raisins, on the other hand, could have been a little more assertive.

The fettuccine in the dish called “Berkeley pasta” boasts two different sauces: first, flavorless Parmesan-cream sauce, but never mind, because the hefty dollop of a chunky, hugely flavorful tomato sauce with Italian-style turkey sausage more than compensates. A vegetarian version of the dish substitutes a zucchini marinara for the meat sauce. In fact, the menu does a good job overall at making vegetarians feel welcome. Three out of eleven entrées contain no meat, and two could easily be made vegan.

Desserts rotate on and off the specials board at will, often depending on what kinds of fruit the Sullivans pick up at Monterey Market. They’re Betty Crocker homestyle: blueberry pie, berry crisps, ice-cream sundaes. The fruit-topped pound cake would have succeeded had the chefs sautéed the pineapple and brown sugar in a healthy pat of butter till everything caramelized instead of sprinkling everything on top and hoping the sugar would melt under the broiler. (It dried everything out instead.) And our chocolate-chip torte tasted like a slice carved out of a gargantuan chocolate-chip cookie slathered in chocolate icing.

Our dinnertime waitress was enthusiastic about the food and about being part of a new restaurant. Not just enthusiastic — effusive. She took a shine to my tablemates (who can’t walk down the street without charming the pavement), and kept coming up to ask us how we liked each course, reaffirming how good it all was after we nodded. The brunch crew, more demure, just exuded enough goodwill to keep things moving smoothly.

That goodwill, plus reasonable prices, are what Kensington Bistro hopes will help it settle into the neighborhood. Once the staff achieves the standards they’re setting for themselves, they’ll have an excellent shot. Kensington Bistro1568 Oakview (at Colusa), Kensington.

510-525-1350. Dinner served 5:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Brunch served 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. One level is wheelchair-accessible, but the bathrooms are down a short flight of stairs.Several weeks ago I spent seven days in Parigny-l’Eveque, a tiny village just outside Le Mans in the Sarthe region of France. Sarthe, just east of Normandy and north of the Loire Valley, is a placid agricultural region little known outside the country. My family assembled there to stay with my brother-in-law’s family in their country home. I only had two agendas: rest and food.

In preparation for my visit, the Bourneufs bought a couple tubs of rillettes, the potted meat spread made with pork, duck, or rabbit cooked in its own fat. In my book, it’s a nearly perfect food — like spreadable bacon — and the Sarthois, the people of Sarthe, are famous for it. While I was there I ate rillettes for lunch, rillettes before dinner, and, once, a forkful or two of rillettes for brunch. On baguettes, of course.

Like Normandy, Sarthe’s more glamorous sister, the region is also known for cheese and apples. My brother-in-law Sylvain had been telling me for years about the wandering distillers who came yearly to his grandmother’s house — where we were now staying — to make apple eau-de-vie with its orchard’s fruit. This apple brandy is known as la goutte (the sip) in the local patois and earns the name Calvados after it has aged in oak barrels for several years.

But after Sylvain’s grandmother died last year, the family wasn’t allowed to hire the distillers anymore. In an effort to curb the high rates of alcoholism among the Normans and Sarthois, the French government has stopped issuing permits to distill cider and eau-de-vie for private use. Sylvain’s parents couldn’t inherit the grandmother’s permit, so they chopped down the apple trees.

But the heart of a scofflaw beats in every French body. Most farmers haven’t stopped making homemade eau-de-vie. They’ve just stopped sharing it with strangers.

One night Sylvain and my sister Amy and I went to another village to dine with their friends Fred and Leonie. Somewhere after the fourth bottle of wine and before the French heavy metal sing-along, Fred brought out a stoppered wine bottle filled with clear liquid. My sister and Leonie sighed. Sylvain’s eyes lit up. “La goutte!” he cried. “Where did you get it?”

After Fred and Leonie moved into their tiny house last year and started transferring their wine collection to the cellar, they found a huge jar of the stuff tucked away in one corner. It contained enough eau-de-vie to fill 12 to 15 wine bottles. This was the sixth.

Sylvain poured me a tiny shot. Now, Calvados is a complex cognac-like alcoholic beverage whose bouquet layers caramel and oak on top of fruit. This sample smelled like a bushel of tart green apples, as floral as apple blossoms — and it stripped away a couple of layers of tissue as it made its way down to my stomach. “A little rough, hunh?” Sylvain smirked as I flailed around for my glass of water.

I headed back home two days later, after the hangover had subsided. Foot-and-mouth disease prevented me from bringing home a 10-pound tub of rillettes, so I had to pick a more sterile souvenir. The strong US dollar made a nice bottle of six-year-old Calvados ridiculously cheap, and now I’m trying to figure out the best ways to use it.

But I have another souvenir which I smuggled out of the country in a plastic Evian bottle: the essence of an orchard. The French aren’t the only ones who think some pleasures merit flouting the law.

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