I never really noticed this restaurant on San Pablo near Solano Avenue until it was mentioned in a recent Chowhound post.
Being in my neighborhood (Berkeley to Crockett) I decided to check it out.
I am in love with the cocktails, mussels, socca, cheesy macaroni and the ambiance of an unpretentious neighborhood bistro. But the rest was like the potato puffs.
Meals start with two complementary potato croquettes. They were nice enough, but they are what Gregoire calls potato puffs, and suffer by comparison as they are not as light and elegant. There is not the play of textures between the crisp exterior and creamy potato. On one visit, the center was cold.
Those potato croquettes sum up Nizza La Bella in many ways. Fine Southern French and Northern Italian inspired food but other Bay Area places just do it better.
The bottom line is that its a good neighborhood spot, the nearest bistro to my home, and Ill return, but be selective.
Jonathan Kauffman said in a review (linked below) Drinking at Nizza la Bella is a pleasure, almost an obligation.
The cocktails are standouts, especially the Violet Cocktail Hour, a clear lovely light purple drink made with Citadel Gin, parfait d'amour (a liqueur made with orange, spices and violet petals) and dry vermouth in equal portions, with a candied violet at the bottom of the martini glass.
The martini glasses are the right size, not those oversized aberrations at some bars. If a restaurant uses quality ingredients and pays attention to the preparation, you dont need to compensate with size. The drinks are carefully prepared with nice touches like using the sweet and slightly spicy Northern Italian wild black cherries, Amarena Fabbri,
The mojito is excellent. The mint is thoroughly crushed using a proper wooden pestle, the rum added, the drink shaken, strained and topped off with seltzer and a mint sprig garnish.. The mint oils permeated the drink .It was much better than the leaf packed glasses which I find can make a mojito bitter.
Nizza la Bella ("Nice the Beautiful" in the Niçois dialect) shares the heritage of co-owners Eleanor Triboletti (Italian) and Evelyne Slomon (French) with food inspired by the Riviera.
The most noted dishes (socca, mussels, chicken, pizza, macaroni and cheese and apple tart) are those baked in the 800 degree wood-fired oven imported from Provence.
An appetizer called socca is described as a wood-fired Nicoise chick pea heartcake, It made me think of a crepe crossed with a latke. The crepe thin, plate-sized socca was served on paper to absorb the oil. It was crispy on the edges. A lovely dish and one I will order when bringing guests to the restaurant.
The best dish was the mussels which were meltingly tender, rich and garlicky. Id order this again without a second thought. I did like the foccacia like squares of fougasse that come with dinner.
The macaroni and cheese was bubbling hot from the oven and topped with beautifully browned, buttery bread crumbs. Made with gruyere, parmesan and cream, the cheese coated each tiny elbow macaroni with a subtle tangy taste. The ingredients worked in harmony, none calling attention to itself. It wasnt overly or underly buttery or cheesy. It was a comfort dish at its best.
The chicken was fine, but nothing made it a stand out. This was not chicken that was fall off the bone tender. The white meat was on the verge of being dry, but not quite. The dark meat was almost undercooked. You would think with that high heat the skin would be crispy, but only in spots. Not a match for Zuni, Gira Poli, Roti Roti, or, quite frankly, Ralphs roast chicken.
There was a lovely presentation of the roasted veggies (asparagus, creamer potatoes and carrot slices) garnished with a flower. Great skin on the potatoes, crisp and salty, but the vegetables were lukewarm.
I had Bouillabaisse only once before in my life. It didnt inspire me to seek it out again. The version at Nizza la Bella didnt make me a fan either. It was fine. The fish (half dozen mussels, white fish, three medium prawns) was fresh but not stellar. I liked the soup with a few spinach leaves and potatoes slices, but not enough. The rock-hard, long slices of bread criss-crossed over the top didnt add anything.
That hot oven didnt do the vacherin any favor. Gluey coffee flavored gelato sat on top of a ring of rock hard meringue. There was no way to break through the marble hard bottom layer, so I tried to break into the small piece topping the dessert. It finally broke in two, one half flying off the plate and onto the floor. I hate when that happens.
If that awful gelato was house made, it wasnt worth the effort. Off tasting slivered almonds and a drizzle of chocolate sauce that added little more than eye appeal, completed the dish. I mourned Bizou again. This dessert was an insult to vacherin.
The signature dessert, the apple galette baked in the hot oven, was like a cross between a puff pastry and a pancake. The flat, thin, plate-sized pastry had thinly sliced apples, brushed with thyme honey and topped with vanilla gelato. The edge, slightly charred and crispy was fine. The middle was raw, as in uncooked pancake batter raw. The apples had no distinguishing flavor. If I was going to get a good gallete, Id prefer going down the street to Acme.
The most successful dessert Ive tried was the creamy panna cotta.
The one page menu offers a small selection. The top has the standard dishes and the bottom has the specials, five salads and four entrees on my visits. Specials change daily.
Drinks take up two pages with nice aperitifs, liqueurs, alcohols and digetstifs. The wines are mainly French and Italian.
Nizza La Bella opened in the spring of 2000 and a lot has been written about it. The best and most comprehensive view (as usual) was by Kauffmann of the East Bay Express (link below)
Looking around on Chowhound, the place seems to get mixed reviews. You either love it or think eh.
Evelyne Slomon is the author of "The Pizza Book". This Chowhound post speaks highly of their pizza.
[BROKEN LINK REMOVED]
The salad nicoise with the house-made tuna confit is favorably mentioned in a number of posts and included in the Chowhound SF guide. It wasnt on the menu on my visits though.
There are lots of favorable mentions of the steak frites with skirt steak. The Entrecote Frites is aged ribeye.
This is truly a neighborhood bistro, the neighborhood being Berkeley. I may have eaten better at Bizou, but I never had more interesting conversations with fellow diners. Great place for the single diner. One conversation I had involved Plato, Rousseau, and Bill Gates. Another debate was why American food has evolved over the past decades while the culture gets more vulgar. Gee, at Bizou we just talked about food.
Ill go back, but it would be an afterthought and not a destination. A nice neighborhood bistro that I happen to be passing at the right time when I am in the right mood and would like a lovely cocktail.
This was a nice article about the drinks.
This article does an excellent job of capturing the look of the restaurant. http://www.tsra.org/archives/Archive1...
827 San Pablo Ave
Albany, CA 94706-1602
Monday, Wednesday- Friday 5:30 9:30
Saturday Sunday 5:30 10:30
Bar is open at 5 pm