Bay Area Reviews
Bistro Liaison had been on my list of restaurants to try for quite a while now. The French bistro had gotten fairly good reviews from a variety of sources and had the advantage of being open on Mondays (quite a rare thing for "nice" restaurants in the Berkeley/Oakland area) - so we headed there on a Monday in November 2004 when our daughter was on vacation.
It was all in all a good choice. We had a good, though not perfect, dinner in a convivial adults-only atmosphere. I don't think Bistro Liaison is a destination place per se, but I would love to have a restaurant like it in my neighborhood.
The little restaurant has the feeling of a European bistro, with tall walls painted in yellow, old-fashioned lighting and a completely open kitchen. The room is quite crowded with tables (don't expect much privacy here) and by 8 PM the restaurant was completely full and there were people standing waiting for tables. This is a place where it behooves you to make a reservation, even for a weeknight (we'd made 7 PM reservations earlier in the day). The crowd and lack of acoustic-absorbing materials makes for a very loud room. It was hard hearing the waiter and we had to raise our voices to communicate. Although that detracted from the romance of the experience, it added a convivial community atmosphere that I liked.
The menu features classic French bistro dishes and it's a little bit longer than the one that is published on the website, featuring nine appetizers ($6-12) and eight main courses ($15-20) in addition to a few side dishes, cheeses and desserts. There are also daily specials.
We started by sharing a mousse de foie ($7) which came accompanied by thin slices of a toasted baguette, olives and cornichons. The mousse was too mild-flavored for my taste though I enjoyed the very light texture.. The accompanying toast was cold and clearly had been sitting around for a while (probably since before we ordered, as the dish came very quickly after it was ordered). The mousse was better on the bread, but still not a winner. I wouldn't order it again.
I ordered the plat du jour which was a roasted lamb basquez with mashed potatoes ($17). The lamb had a coarse sauce of rosemary and olives. It was disappointing. Any roast served at a restaurant (or to guests, for that matter) needs to be served medium-rare, so that you can enjoy the natural juiciness of the meat as well as its particular taste. The lamb here was served medium-to-well-done and was therefore dry. It tasted mostly of rosemary, not an unpleasant taste but too familiar and even. The sauce was fine and did add some spunk, but not enough to make the dish enjoyable. I also felt that it was under-seasoned, a thought I had about most of the food that night. However, salt and pepper shakers were available on the table. For the record, Mike, who likes his food lightly salted, thought everything was fine.
Mike's boeuf bourguignonne ($15.75) was a real winner. The meat was tender and the sauce deep and delicious. We both enjoyed it very much. It didn't come with any side dishes, but we'd ordered extra garlic mashed potatoes ($4), which also went great with the sauce. The mashed potatoes themselves were very tasty, though not very garlicky at all, which wasn't an issue for me as I usually prefer them plain.
The dessert menu, stamped by the waiter onto the paper that covers your table, included mostly very classic, basic desserts (all $6.5): creme brulee, chocolate mousse, sorbet, profiteroles, and tarte tatin. The special dessert that night was a flourless walnut cake served with vanilla ice cream ($7) - according to our waiter we got the last slice. The cake was good though not flavorful enough if eaten by itself. I'd probably have liked the cake to be a little bit sweeter. The ice cream, however, was delicious. It had a strong vanilla flavor and a seductive gummy texture. It combined wonderfully with the cake, almost in the manner of a Ben & Jerry's concoction. The cake provided texture and a walnut flavor and the ice cream brought it all together. I would order this again, though probably with an extra scoop of ice cream on the side (especially if you're going to share).
Mike had a kir aperitif ($7) to start the meal which he enjoyed and we both had sodas ($2.75, no refills) with dinner which came in large glasses and tasted fine. Our whole meal came to $72 before tip, which seemed very reasonable to us.
Service was a little bit uneven at first. Our waiter was very pleasant and attentive but the timing of when things got to the table was all wrong at first. Soon after we ordered, we got our appetizer, followed a little bit later by Mike's aperitif and only then our water, followed by bread and finally our sodas. Fortunately we got the bread before we ran out of toast for our mousse, but I really would have preferred the water first, then the bread, and then the rest of the stuff. Still, after that the timing went well (though perhaps a little quick, we were in and out within an hour) and our water glasses were frequently topped off.
Bistro Liaison is definitely not a child-friendly place. We didn't see any high chairs and there was no changing table in the bathroom. The place is too crowded for little ones who can't stay on their seats, though noisy enough that their utterances will probably not be heard by other diners. That said, the couple next to us had a baby with them, who quietly lied in his baby carrier, situated on the banquette next to a parent, throughout our meal.
In all, we had a very nice experience at Bistro Liaison and if it was in our neighborhood, we'd surely go back again and again. I think we enjoyed the atmosphere much more than the food. My expectations of the food weren't terribly high, so I was pleasantly surprised by the good dishes and only mildly disappointed by the less successful ones, but I wouldn't go back here for the food. Rather, what we appreciated is how relaxed we felt throughout the meal, whether that was because or despite of all the people and noise I'm not sure. I don't think I'd go back here for a romantic dinner, but I'd definitely see it as a place to get together with friends in Berkeley.
1849 Shattuck Ave.