Publication Date: Friday Sep 4, 1998
Restaurant Review: rant in Menlo Park. @head:It's in the Bank @sub:Menlo Park's newLeft Bank is assured of success, with simple, honest food in a chic serie setting @by:by Laura Reiley
Most people have an art face. If you go to New York's Museum of Modern Art and stand in front of, say, "Les Mademoiselles d'Avignon," you'll see it. Folks first make a wincing, chagrined look which segues quickly into an appraising, head-to-one-side look and culminates in a lower lip-jutting grouper look that means "Oh, I get it." This face is reserved for visual art, especially work from post-Impressionism onward; performance art; jazz, class ical, and really ugly alternative rock music; modern dance; and seldom, very seldom, food. You often see the face at Roland Passot's first restaurant, La Folie, opened on Polk Street in San Francisco in 1988. His food is edifying, entertaining, transporting. Each dish arrives as a text, a small and whimsical addition to Pa ssot's growing oeuvre. Passot and partner Ed Levine opened Left Bank in Larkspur in 1994 and then another in Menlo Park just this past month. Already the Menlo Park brasserie is a runaway success; it has lent--along with Bistro Vida just a few doors down- -a little French je ne sais quoi to the first stretch of Santa Cruz Avenue just off of El Camino Real. But for those fans of Passot's food who come expecting La Folie South, or who anticipate some less expensive, brasserie spin on his high-flying Sa n Francisco fare, you're in for a disappointment. This is food, not art. That said, what Left Bank does is great food--simple, unfussy, honest brasserie staples augmented by the riches of Northern California produce. The restaurant's logo is a fat pig in profile. It appears on the menu and in several spots along the huge expanse of windows that comprises two of Left Bank's outside walls. There's nothing particularly pork-heavy about the menu, nor are the patrons or staff in any way porcine, and the interi or is anything but swinish. In fact, the whole place reeks of exuberant good health and level-headed understatement. Designed by San Francisco architect Michael Guthrie (Bix, Tra Vigne), Left Bank is a big square room. What gives it panache are soaring ce ilings (with a neat amber-tinted faux skylight), oversized French booze posters, cherrywood pillars and other millwork, and lots and lots of light. A glass-backed bar fronts the room, allowing would-be diners to shuffle around and peer through to the dini ng room. At the back of the room a long wooden counter separates diners from the bustle of the kitchen. On three out of four of my visits to Left Bank, Passot himself was expediting, giving the final primp to plates before they found their way into the di ning room. Clearly he's making sure the kitchen and floor staff are in a groove before he really turns the reins over to chef de cuisine Todd Kniess (previously chef de cuisine at Left Bank in Larkspur). From our experiences, Passot has little to worry ab out: the men and women manning the open kitchen seemed in control, albeit a bit grim, and the dining room staff is slick even in the face of the pandemonium that accompanies a mega-hot new restaurant. (And it's no small feat to equip a new dining room wit h clever waitpeople in this Peninsula's restaurant climate.) Assuming you've got a reservation and will eventually be seated in the dining room, it's still fun to begin dinner with a cocktail in the bar. The Left Bank libations offer Francophile spins on many classic cocktails--lots of Lillet and Dubonnet--and the by-the-glass wines are modestly priced and split between France and California. Beers on tap reflect co-owner Ed Levine's long-standing association with Gordon Biersch; three out of five beers a re G.B., which is just fine by me. The kitchen's best offerings come free of superfluous garnishing or squiggles of sauce. The tarte Lyonnaise ($5.50) brings only a perfect wedge of pastry cradling leek and onion custard flecked with bacon. La salad Rive Gauche ($4.75) is a jumble of field greens, heavy on the frisee, with a kicky Dijon vinaigrette and nothing more than a lush bleu cheese toast to accompany it. Another salad, the salade de tomate ($6.25), showcases the stippled, stripy heirloom tomatoes w e've been spoiled with the past couple of Augusts, along with a little shaved fennel and more frisee. For entrees, anything with fries is a winner (if these spuds are cooked in canola oil I'll eat my chapeau). The burger ($7.50) is juicy Angus beef on a soft bun with the usual fixings, including a delicious housemade pickle spear. A lamb sandwich ($7.75) pairs rosy herbes de provence-flecked lamb slices with roasted red peppers and pungent aioli. Of the more substantial entrees, thick tomatoey bouil labaisse ($16.50) is cluttered with tender clams, scallops, shrimp, etc. and lifted up by a wee plate of toasts on which one rubs raw garlic and a slather of rouille. Our other favorite dish was prized not as much for its pink slices of flavorful roasted pork loin as it was for its pile of delicate, eggy spaezle curls. Desserts are similarly robust and simple: the flourless chocolate cake ($5.25) is molten-centered and intense, and the tarte Tatin ($4.75) heaps big chunks of caramelized apple on flaky cru st with a homey scoop of vanilla ice cream. In all, there is very little at Left Bank that might be improved upon--a fact that seems apparent to many, since reservations are pretty much imperative at this point. My only suggestion to Left Bank is this: Do not mark every private room upstairs with the word "prive" (French for "private"); my feeble high school French left me thinking every one was a bathroom.
Left Bank, 635 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park, 473-6543
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday
Atmosphere: Designed by San Francisco architect Michael Guthrie, the restaurant's interior is chic, breezy and comfortable. Lots of light and a kind of bustling professionalism along the long open kitchen make the dining room at once casual and urbane.
Highlights: What they are calling "cuisine grand-mere" translates as expertly prepared steak frites, roast chicken, bouillabaise, tarte Tatin and so forth--French comfort food. Left Bank's mixologists also whip up some m ean cocktails.
About the owners: Executive chef/co-owner Roland Passot is one of the most decorated chefs in the Bay Area. A native of Lyon, Passot moved to the United States to work at Le Francais in Illinois in the late 1970s. He rel ocated to San Francisco in 1980 to be the opening chef at Le Castel. From there he moved to being chef at The French Room at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas before returning to San Francisco to open La Folie, which has consistently rated among the top restau rants in the Bay Area. Before pairing up with Passot, co-owner Edward Levine was CEO for Gordon Biersch Brewing Company, Previously, Levine served as CFO of Il Fornaio (America) Corporation and planning director of Collins Foods International. Reservation s - recommended Credit cards - yes Parking - street Beer, wine and liquor - yes Takeout - yes Banquet - yes Wheelchair access - yes Non-smoking - yes Highchairs - yes Outdoor seating - yes