Isn’t there always that one restaurant that you pass by a thousand times, think about trying every of those thousand times but just never do? For me, that restaurant was Bistro Liaison. Its rustic red canopy shines brightly at the corner of Shattuck and Hearst avenues, often draws my attention. Almost three years ago during an event in North Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, I sampled a cup of quenelle souffle — salmon and scallop mousse in a shrimp sauce (think clam chowder but fishier and cheesier and surprisingly good) — but the timing was just never right for an all-out dinner until a few weeks ago.
We walked in without reservation, half-worried that there wouldn’t be a table for us, half-worried that there would be a table for us, which might have meant the restaurant wasn’t good enough to fill up on a Friday night. But we were a party of two, perfect to squeeze in a table at the end of the room. When the hostess at the front desk offered to take my friend’s coat, we began feeling the warmth of old-fashioned restaurant service. And it only got warmer.
Our waitress paid a great deal of attention to our table, coming by every 10 minutes to see if everything was all right. The frequency of her visits increased as she politely tried to push us through the entree (appetizer) so that the plats principaux (main dishes) could be served. It was partly our fault for taking time with the entree, but the portion was by no means appetizer-sized. The Pate de Campagne ($12) is a half-inch thick slab of pork pate (minced pork and fat), two slices of toasted baguette, a black truffle deviled egg and plentiful radish and curly endive salad. Although the pate was firmer and grainier than I expected, the deviled egg was pleasant because it didn’t have the pungent smell of truffle that I dislike, and the toast was crunchy with just the right fattiness. This entree by itself was enough as a meal — combined with water and conversation, it got us full.
A minute later, the serious course was before us.
Nicely grilled Loch Duart salmon, still moist inside, on braised leeks, olive oil mashed potatoes and black truffle butter. Three thick but tender slices of seared pork loin dressed in a sweet plum sauce and what appeared to me like potato knöpfle spätzle. While the saumon paillard ($25) seems to be a staple on Bistro Liaison’s dinner menu, the pork loin was a special of the day, and both exceeded my expectations and were taken home almost in their entirety for the sake of dessert.
You would need a heart of stone to refuse desserts at Bistro Liaison because instead of asking if you would like dessert, the waitress will stamp the dessert menu onto your table. It’s there. In your face. You can’t even take it away. Every night has a slightly different list, but it’s guaranteed to include a creme brulee, a molten chocolate cake, a seasonal sorbet and because you’re in a French bistro, an Ile Flottante. As the name suggests, the main part of the dessert is a meringue island floating on creme anglaise, topped with roasted sliced almonds and a lacy tuile cookie to complement the meringue’s fluffy texture. The Floating Island is rich and light at the same time, harmonious and comforting enough to justify its $8 price.
If I had to nitpick an otherwise enjoyable experience, I would say that the waiters were a little too pushy about us finishing our appetizer, and the tables were placed too close together. The latter situation is a common practice in Berkeley, and considering how the waiters kept our main courses warm until they served them, their patience is commendable. Everything was well-seasoned, the fish was not flaky and the pork was miraculously still a star even after I reheated it the next day.
Although Bistro Liaison may not be suitable for the everyday lunch rush due to both its price and its atmosphere, it’s the kind of place to consider when you want to pat yourself on the back or treat someone special for a warm evening.
Bistro Liaison is located at 1849 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley.