Left Bank has chosen to imprint the Gilded Age of a brasserie onto Oakland and the East Bay
The tables in neighborhood French bistros are imperfect, wobbly, scratched. Plates are chipped, tablecloths stained. Paint is peeling off the walls in noticeable flaking fragments. But none of that matters because the food is so good. Recipes have been handed down through the generations and refined over decades. Diners eat in the present tense with their companions and with ghosts from the past.
At Left Bank’s new location in Jack London Square, the present tense is what matters most. When one is seated in the vast dining room, the scenery is impressive and the dishes are impressionistic. No matter where they settle down, diners are on display. Intimacy is on no one’s agenda. The dining room has been designed to resemble France by way of a saloon in the great American West, an upscale version of Joan Crawford’s establishment in Johnny Guitar.
With two locations in the South Bay and a third in Marin, the Left Bank team has chosen to imprint the Gilded Age of a brasserie onto the Oakland and East Bay marketplace. A humble bistro might have fit in when the waterfront was a deserted place—anchored by Yoshi’s, BevMo and World Market (formerly known as Cost Plus). The ongoing refurbishment of Jack London Square now features a hotel, a ferry building and a dozen options for tourists and locals to spend an evening out.
Left Bank has established a straightforward and, likely for the cooks, easily executable formula for the menu. Make the staples of a French brasserie appealing and approachable to anyone who walks inside. The most exotic items on order are escargots and oysters. Tripe doesn’t make an appearance, but a housemade chicken liver mousse is part of a cheese and charcuterie plate. Wild tendrils of frisée and deep-fried coils of calamari look as familiar as a plate of salmon or pork chops.
With onions caramelized to the color of dark amber, the French onion soup ($12) achieves a profoundly rich and comforting broth. Topped with a thick coating of melted Emmental on top of an immense crouton, the ratio of cheese to soup is nearly equal. The salade Lyonnaise ($15) is composed of frisée leaves, lardons, croutons and one perfectly poached egg. I would not have objected to a vinegar and mustard vinaigrette but, in this case, the yolk is meant to solve the problem of undressed lettuces.
Thanks to the inclusion of saffron, a bowl of bouillabaisse ($38) comes out the color of marigolds and, incidentally, Sandra Oh’s dress at this year’s Academy Awards. In keeping with tradition, the dutiful cooks also toasted a slice of baguette and slathered it with a creamy, delectable spoonful of rouille. Every seafood component was nicely poached.
Between this fish stew and the steak frites ($35), I’d go back for the bouillabaisse. To my dismay, the steak came out not whole, but already cut into slices. Even the photo on the website shows a steak served in one piece. It’s the first time I’ve ever ordered a steak frites and didn’t have the pleasure of slicing into an awaiting row of grill marks. The peppercorn sauce almost assuaged my insanely over privileged sense of disappointment. The frites themselves were good but not exceptional.
For dessert—crème brûlée and profiteroles ($11 each). The Left Bank, like Julia’s Restaurant in Berkeley, serves a vanilla crème brûlée in a wide flat ramekin, rather than in a slightly taller one with less square footage. If you prefer equal amounts of crème and brûlée, then the Left Bank’s wide flat version will fit the bill.
The best Bay Area profiteroles I’ve ever tasted were at the dearly departed The Butler & The Chef Bistro in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood. They assembled layers of vanilla bean ice cream, perfectly tender choux pastry, freshly whipped cream and warm chocolate sauce. Many years later, those profiteroles have yet to be dislodged in my memory as an all-time favorite.
Left Bank’s version omits the whipped cream and bakes a sugar coating on top of the choux cap. Neither the omission of cream nor the addition of sugar did much to win me over. But for someone who’s never tried them before, the combination of pastry, vanilla and chocolate is a delightful way to end the meal.
Left Bank, open Sun to Thurs 11:30am–2:30pm and 5–9pm; Fri to Sat 11:30am–2:30pm and 5–9:30pm. Jack London Square, 55 Webster St., Suite 66-055, Oakland. 510.459.4500. leftbank.com.