Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Fooling the Berkeley Masses

I ate lunch at La Rose Bistro today.

In this land of wonderful restaurants, Hockeyman and I almost never go out to eat. This is due in equal measures to my love of cooking and aversion to being around groups of people. Thus the bulk of my restaurant experiences involve work lunches.

I am extremely fortunate to work within walking distance of Thai, Greek, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, American (amusingly, this is hardest to find), Nepalese, or Indian food. For seven dollars or less, I can eat a fine meal.

I rarely give much thought to my lunches; most are solitary ventures taken at my desk. But today I was with friends, celebrating a birthday, making the meal a special occasion.

La Rose Bistro serves French/Asian fusion food. It is Zagat rated and well received by the East Bay Express, our local alternative rag.

Today's menu included beet salad, garbure, linguine with clams, and crab cakes with aioli and garlic fries. The hungrier could order duck confit with star anise and dried cherries (it was unclear whether was the star anise and cherries were preserved with the duck or served alongside) and "bak" choy.

One of my friends ordered the garbure, which resembled thin vegetable soup. It contained duck confit but neither duck nor goose fat. To quote the esteemed Paula Wolfert:

"Just before serving, check the consistency ofthe garbure; it should be so thick that a wooden spoon stands up straight in the center." (45)

Go ahead and call me a snob. But I felt the place attempted to fool the diner into thinking he or she was having an honest gastronomic experience when in truth "bak" choy and dried cherries should never be within kissing distance on a plate calling itself French. I don't object in principle to these foods appearing together. We still live in a free land. But don't tell me it's French. That's just bullshit, and I'm paying for it. And linguine with clams and shrimp? Italy-by-way-of-New Jersey.

Still, the place was full, waited on amazingly well by one clearly overworked waiter who deserves a medal for his grace under pressure.

I ordered the crab cakes with aioli and garlic fries. The meal arrived on a square plate, nicely arranged: a heap of mesclun (Alice Waters has ruined salad in Berkeley), a tangle of fries, a china clamshell of catsup, and two crab cakes set atop a piece of bread. The bread was toasted with cheese and onions. The aioli was squirt-bottled across the crabs cakes in neat zig-zags.

A generous portion, dinner-sized, really. Seven hours later I am still patting myself on the back for not eating all the fries, which, honestly, were no better than what you can get at Oscar's, the greasy spoon a few streets eastward. The crab cakes were good, their bread/cheese/onion bed leaden. The salad was quite nice, its balsamic vinegar cutting the heaviness of the crab. But everything was oversalted; for the remainder of the afternoon I had that heavy sodium aftertaste one gets after eating at Denny's.

It wasn't that the food was awful. But it wasn't great. It was okay, and that's okay, but this restaurant is pushing itself as Berkeley-French-Elegant, at Berkeley-French-Elegant prices. And it appears, from the fine reviews and the folks sitting next to me with their Sur la Table bag, that they are succeeding. On one level this is sad, but on another, I inhabit the land of food snobbery. Compared to a lot of other Bay Area denizens, I am a Mickey-D-eating-plebe. If my fellow diners think star anise belongs in duck confit, they deserve what they get: dented Amex Golds and indigestion.

N.B.:
The Paula Wolfert quote on Garbure comes from The Cooking of Southwest France. The next time you have $35 to spend, instead of heading to La Rose, buy this book and make yourself something from it. Your belly will thank you.

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