Banking on change
Menlo Park's Left Bank excels after a makeover
At an adjoining table, at Left Bank in Menlo Park on Presidents' Day, a young family had just been served. I was astonished to see a girl about 4 years old, eating from a bowl of mussels ($13.50) with white wine and spinach. She wasted no time filling her mouth as her mother carefully dislodged the plump orange-ginger-colored meat from their ebony shells.
The girl's 2-ish-year-old sister wasn't quite as enthusiastic and grimaced at the briny taste. She preferred the basket of crisp fries that accompanied. Her older sister never slowed until she had her fill, including spooning up some of the aromatic sauce. I can't imagine my son eating mussels at that age.
Left Bank reopened in early December after a 10-week hiatus to update the premises and reinvigorate the French-California-styled menu. Open since 1998, the brasserie was ready for an overhaul: The ever-popular eatery was showing signs of fatigue, both physically and gastronomically.
The interior still has sky-high ceilings and huge framed posters on the walls with lots of glass facing both Santa Cruz Avenue and Doyle Street. The bar area has been updated with smart new detail; the closed-in mezzanine dining room has been opened up and a wrought-iron staircase added for access; the kitchen has been enclosed and tables added where booths formerly existed.
There is a dazzling new tile floor and a temperature-controlled wine room. The space is still open and airy, festive without being raucous. Open long hours, it's a good place for families and night owls as well.
Co-owner Roland Passot, who owns the Michelin-starred La Folie restaurant in San Francisco, has kept many of the old standards but infused the menu with several exciting additions. The old dishes have a new crispness to them as well, fresh and sparkling like everything else at the brasserie.
One of my perennial favorites at Left Bank has been the Salad Lyonnaise ($8.50) made with frisee lettuce and lardons (chunks of diced, blanched, fried bacon), dressed with a mustard vinaigrette and topped with a poached egg. The egg, when pierced, oozes onto the other ingredients creating a warm, luscious taste sensation. Unfortunately, on two recent occasions, the egg was hard-boiled, which stole away the soul of the salad.
House-made pates were enticing and filling. I tried both the country (pork) pate and the duck and pork rillette (cooked in fat). Rustic and elemental, the pates contrasted nicely in texture, one silky and gelatinous, the other, coarser and chewy. Both delicious. Also available was pig's feet terrine. Ordering all three pates cost $14.75 (two $9.75, one $5.50).
Frit de mer ($10.75) was a plate of fried calamari, Laughing Bird shrimp (billed as farm-raised, hormone-free, ecologically balanced white shrimp) and crispy onions with a mustard vinaigrette for dipping. The calamari seemed tired and wasn't up to par with the shrimp, which were so plump and delicate that the vinaigrette wasn't needed.
I was enthusiastic about the tartes flambees, Alsatian thin-crust tarts. Atop a broad crisp cracker crust similar to Armenian cracker bread, they came with four options for toppings. The smoked salmon ($12.50) had layers of thin sliced fish crowned with a suggestive leek compote and buttery creme fraiche. It was seriously wonderful with plenty to share.
I also loved the duck confit ($11.75) with onions and mushrooms, sprinkled with truffle vinaigrette. What could be more French than duck and truffle? It was a captivating combination with loads of dark, rich duck meat, earthy onions and fleshy mushrooms, with resonant overtones of truffle.
Main courses were equally satisfying. Loch Duart is highly regarded Scottish sustainably farmed orange-pink salmon ($21.75). The Brussels sprouts, lardons, butternut squash and capers enhanced the dish adding nutty, zesty, unctuous flavors.
The butternut squash gnocchi ($15.75) with spinach and sage brown butter were perfect little clouds of flavor. House-made daily, those petite puffs were elastic but not rubbery, airy and not sticky, delicate yet flavor-packed.
Also good was the coq au vin ($18.75) with baby carrots, pearl onions, lardons and egg noodles. The chicken was meaty and cooked through, tender with a fresh clean taste. A French classic.
No self-respecting brasserie would be complete without steak frites ($19.75). The skirt steak was tender with just enough fat to infuse flavor. The pommes frites were crisp and non-greasy. Add $3.50 for a choice of bearnaise, bordelaise or green peppercorn sauce.
Desserts were offered two ways, full serving and petite. I love the idea. I enjoyed the full serving of tarte au citron: lemon tart ($6.25). It was a much improved version of its predecessor. The crust was flaky and light, the filling a rich, creamy lemon curd. The top had been sprinkled with sugar and caramelized, creme brulee style. It was a delicious conclusion.
The full serving of profiteroles ($6.25) consisted of three buttery cream puffs filled with vanilla ice cream and covered with chocolate sauce. The petit version — one cream puff — was $3.25.
Another petite dessert was financiers ($3.75), three tiny spongy almond cakes served warm. They were melt-in-the-mouth delicious.
Service alternated between efficient and wanting. Bussing seemed to be the biggest problem. While I applaud Left Bank for instructing bus boys not to snatch away plates until all the diners have finished, the wait was often too long and soiled plates sometimes were not cleared until the next course arrived.
The wine list has been updated and boasts an appealing selection from both California and France. Prices are fair with few wines above the $100 mark. Corkage fee is $12.
Also new are monthly French regional menus. In March, Normandy will be celebrated with a special month-long menu with matching regional wines.
If your kids are finicky eaters, you might consider taking them to Left Bank. Had I been aware at the time, I might have circumvented those painful peanut-butter-and-jelly years with my son. Twenty-five years later, he likes mussels now too.
Left Bank Brasserie
635 Santa Cruz Ave.
Menlo Park 650-473-6543
Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sat. & Sun. brunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: yes
Party facilities: yes
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent