Petits Plats, Please

At Berkeley's bustling bistro Liaison, to share is to enjoy.

The urban foodies I know are dividing themselves into two camps: those who share their meals and those who don’t. There are the plate-passers and sippers, happy to have two bites of fifteen different dishes. And then there are the savorers, determined to explore every nuance of a dish by studying it first bite to last.

Julia Child, in newspaper interviews, has proclaimed herself among the latter. I, however, love dim sum, tapas, tasting menus, and salad bars. I started writing restaurant reviews to justify my excursions onto my fellow diners’ plates. I don’t defend this predilection, perhaps an unfortunate result of MTV-inspired attention deficiency. True dining involves far more than picking and passing–and its rewards are far greater than a full stomach and curiosity satisfied. Still, when I notice that a new restaurant’s menu lacks the word “entrées,” I make a reservation.

Liaison, one of the newest restaurants on the southern end of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, is trying to bridge the gap between fine dining and feeding frenzy. Its menu is composed of petits plats, literally “small dishes”–most of which are ultraclassic French bistro fare normally marketed to the $20-entrée crowd. The result? Some very fine food, some better-than-adequate food, some annoying quirks, and a winning price range.

Liaison is owned by its chef, Kenneth “Todd” Kniess. Kniess’ pedigree includes six years working as Roland Passot’s chef de cuisine at Left Bank in Larkspur and Menlo Park. The Left Bank restaurants, country cousins of San Francisco’s four-star La Folie, specialize in the food of true French bistros. Kniess builds on his success at Left Bank: Half the menu items at Liaison are so classic your grandmother in Iowa would recognize them. The other half exemplify contemporary Bay Area cuisine, spotlighting fresh ingredients and clean, simple flavors. The affordable wine list also features a good mix of moderately priced French and Californian varietals.

The restaurant’s warm, welcoming look, the work of Shawn E. Hall Designs, reflects this Cal-France fusion. All-French are the sleek oxblood leather banquettes topped with long, low mirrors, the burnished-brass lights, the country cookery knickknacks on the walls, and the preponderance of waitstaff. But the open kitchen, the south-of-the-border-vivid burgundy walls, and the buzz are pure California. Small square tables set closely together ensure that diners can monitor their neighbors’ plates and conversations.

Kniess’ aim is to create a neighborhood restaurant, not a destination. He chose the small-plate format for its informality and versatility. Those out for more than a bowl of mussels and fries will find that ordering the proper amount of food requires some delicate calculations. The waiters assist by estimating sizes with their hands, but it may take a couple of visits to get the proportions right. We found that two average-sized, hungry humans could stuff themselves on 2 1/2 petits plats per person, plus dessert. Though the restaurant is ostensibly eschewing the strict division between appetizer and entrée, its servers still generally arrange to deliver salads and soups first, followed by heavier courses. Many of the latter come without accompanying starches and vegetables, so a number of side dishes are available to round out the meal.

Nonappetizer starters include a massive salade ni&ccedila;oise ($10.75), which is mixed greens topped with all the ingredients of a normal composed salad and then some: boiled egg, haricots verts, black-olive tapenade, roasted red peppers, avocado, slices of lightly seared tombo tuna, and small potatoes. Another cold dish, crisp blanched asparagus ($7.50), is flanked by red and gold beets and draped with prosciutto. Both salads are dressed in vinaigrettes so tasty that they just fall short of unifying the disparate flavors. A richer first course –if you want it to be a first course–is the escargot bourguignon ($11.25). Plump snails are smothered in garlic-lemon-parsley butter, topped with tiny croutons, and broiled. A splash of Pernod leaves a haunting anise finish.

My dining companions unanimously clamored over the soupe a l’oignon ($5.50), served in a rustic crock that reminded me fondly of haute cuisine circa 1975. We spooned though the bubbling layer of melted Gruyère on top to revel in the sweetness of long-sauteed onions suspended in beef broth. A daily special, vegetarian sorrel-potato soup ($5.50), balanced the green’s lemony tang against buttery pureed potatoes enriched with extra-virgin olive oil.

Diners can choose mussels ($10.25) steamed either in white wine or in a provençal tomato-based sauce. On one visit, we tried the former, redolent with parsley, shallots, and garlic. I thought the wine overpowered the mussel liquor, itself the most intoxicating of sauces, but I was overruled by my dining companions. Every spoonful was rationed.

The heartier petits plats are divided equally between the familiar and the new. Familiar is a tender boeuf bourgignon ($11.25) stewed with roasted mushrooms, a little too dense and dull on the palate. Familiar yet memorable is the coq au vin ($11), chicken braised forever in red wine with bacon, pearl onions, and mushrooms. Its sauce, a testament to thousands of years of Gallic gastronomy, has that big, deep flavor for which Californian cuisine rarely strives.

More modern notes include a thick slice of crisp strudel stuffed with wild mushroom and braised duck ($9.25), accompanied by an overly sweet huckleberry reduction sauce, and a perfectly cooked filet of roasted salmon ($10.50) served over white bean salad and topped with parsley, chives, chervil, and onion sprouts. A roasted quail–a bit dry–stuffed with creamy, fragrant truffled risotto ($10.25), is served over roasted cremini mushrooms and illustrated with a few ellipses of a syrup of reduced Balsamic vinegar.

We tried and approved of two of the three sides. The sautéed spinach with pine nuts and currants ($3.50) was tender and complex, and not too oily. Water glasses holding paper cones of French fries can be seen on almost every table. Liaison’s crisp, McDonald’s-shaped pommes frites ($3.50) are served with a tart aioli.

Fear of sharing aside, the most annoying part of the petit-plat format proves to be the insufficient amount of tabletop space. The setup seems perfect for larger groups: lots of sharing, lots of social contact. However, entrées are served together on long rectangular platters that span half the table length. (Vegetarians and veal stock avoiders, insist your entrées are kept separate, because the sauces mingle.) I found that while two diners per table worked, when I returned in a party of four each person only had room for a bread plate and a fork. The logistics of passing plates and finding room made it hard to concentrate on enjoying the meal. One other kvetch? Far too much of the lovely complex sauces–the centerpiece of any French meal–gets left on the large platters, especially when every “empty” plate gets whisked away to make room.

After the last savory course comes the dessert menu. Chef Todd daringly serves only the most traditional French bistro desserts, so familiar that they require impeccable culinary technique. Most inspirational is a sharp lemon tart served atop a pool of raspberry coulis ($5.50), which succeeds because of the delicacy of its fluted crust. We also enjoyed the alcoholic bite of the evanescent champagne-strawberry and mimosa sorbets ($5.50), surrounded by diced strawberries and kiwis. Toothsome but passionless is the mousse-like gateau au chocolat ($5.50) or chocolate cake, with vanilla-bean ice cream. And unfortunately, the tarte tatin ($5.50), is less of a caramel lover’s upside-down apple pie than a square of ephemeral puff pastry ruined by three burnt apple halves. Diners with enough time, or those who lack a sweet tooth, should order the “fromage board” ($9.50)–six chunks of ripe French cheeses that run the gamut from mild and sumptuous (Pont l’Eveque) to palate-obliterating (Bleu d’Auvergne).

Diners are attended to by an eager new front-of-house crew, still a little coltish and all too happy to drop in as many French words as they can remember. One waitress was determined to upsell us (repeating “How about one of our….?” and “Can I get you another…?”), and it took a fierce struggle of smiles to come out unscathed. On another visit some mishap sent either the kitchen crew or the waiter into confusion, resulting in thirty-minute waits and lukewarm entrées. Overall, though, we found the waitstaff, overseen by Left Bank alumnus Bo Campos, responsive and well-informed about the composition of the dishes.

The pleasantly small size of the check redeemed many of the errors and made their high points dearer. Judging by the number of $10 petits plats my second-visit crew ordered, we thought we were headed for bankruptcy, but we ended up paying $40 per person–which included two glasses of wine apiece.

Lunch, served seven days a week, offers many of the same salads, both large and small, all priced the same as they are at dinner. The onion soup makes an appearance, as do a couple of the lighter warm dishes. Exclusive to lunch are a selection of croques, or sandwiches. They include an open-faced broiled croque monsieur ($8.50) with ham, béchamel, and Emmenthaler cheese, and a croque parisien ($9.75), a baguette stuffed with pears, prosciutto, Roquefort, arugula and walnuts.

The bustle makes Liaison a bad place for an intimate date but a fine choice for a light meal with friends. And the secret to enjoying your dining experience is to take a Maoist approach to epicurianism: Private property is theft! Every bite belongs to the collective!

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