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Upscale Comfort: Bay Wolf, La Rose Bistro, Rivoli

Prabhakar Ragde | Aug 31, 200412:50 AM

Bay Wolf is like a comfortable old slipper, and it was a good choice of family members (who'd never been there) for their last big meal in town; they have small children, and we had the whole south room to ourselves for nearly the entire evening, meaning that when the kids got louder than they should for close-proximity dining, we could take care of it before it got to be a problem. The food is a little less exciting than I would like, though. I had the tapas plate: tortilla Espanola (your basic potato-egg stacked omelet), marinated mushrooms, grilled eggplant (a huge portion, something like a quarter of a very large purple eggplant), and something billed as a clam fritter, which was a little doughy thing. Had we been in a random Barcelona bar, and it cost half as much, I might have been satisfied with it. My main of fideua (short dry noodles sauteed and then braised) had its portions of mussels, calamari, rock cod, and chorizo rather methodically arranged about the large, deep plate; the chorizo was the real surprise, quite balanced. My sister-in-law hesitated over ordering grilled duck; "It's usually dry," she said, and I said, "But this is duck central." She ordered it, along with the duck liver flan, and was happy. I can't even remember what dessert was, something baked with fruit. A pleasant evening, but not memorable.

La Rose Bistro, on Shattuck near Addison in downtown Berkeley, has neither history nor serious money behind it; it's basically one woman's vision (her daughter was our server). Small menu that evolves gradually, no nightly specials, Cal-Asian-Italian-French fusion food; starters $6-10, mains $15-25, desserts $5-7. The bread that comes to the table is in-house foccacia with cilantro pesto to dip it in, instead of butter. I had the crab cakes, which were tasty if a little too moist inside, and five-spice duck confit, which unfortunately had been grilled a bit too long and was black in places, and a bit stringy just next to those places. Presentations were all quite nice. Across the table I saw Muscovy duck strudel, with pieces of duck confit, risotto, and wild mushrooms wrapped in filo and flavoured with pineapple beurre blanc; a taste of this left me wanting more. "What is filet mignon?" asked my older daughter, who recognized the "Niman Ranch" before it. I explained. "Will I like it?" I said yes, but she had to order it medium rare. She did, and it was fabulous, though I had to help her finish it. For dessert I had a little muffin-sized bread pudding with bananas in it and a scoop of vanilla gelato sitting on a mint leaf atop it, which was lovely. They're trying really hard, but the lack of a solid base shows through -- the wine list, for example, is really disappointing, short and full of supermarket wines like Estancia and Chateau Ste. Michelle, but not at supermarket prices. Still, I have the feeling that a second visit would make one a regular, and this sort of initiative is really to be encouraged.

It was my younger daughter who wanted to go to Rivoli -- she got on the Internet, researched the menu, and hounded the rest of us into going. Good call; we had an excellent meal, even though the menu had changed somewhat. I had a corn and scallion souffle, another little muffin-sized creation in the middle of a creamy ragout with crab and diced tomatoes in it, reminiscent of a memorable crab lasagna at this same restaurant a year or so ago. My main was a huge slow-braised lamb shank, with a black mission fig and Gravenstein apple relish on top, and light little walnut/garlic gnocchi. (I dare someone to serve a large Hawaiian taro and wahoo fish dumpling and call it Gnoccho Ono.) Dessert was a warm nectarine and hazelnut frangipane galette -- I remembered that one. The only down note was the Mac/Windows argument between the loud nerds at the next table; I was tempted to send said younger daughter over to straighten them out. Rivoli balances a number of qualities I look for in a restaurant: inventiveness, comfort, professionalism, familiarity, and affordability. Plus their business cards are very tasteful fridge magnets, of which we have accumulated a rather large number. --PR

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