Thursday, February 01, 2007

Dish on Dining: La Note

A Touch of Provence in Berkeley
2377 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
Breakfast/lunch, M–F, 8 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Thu–Sat, 6–10 p.m.; brunch, Sat–Sun, 8 a.m.–3 p.m.
PH: 510-843-1535
Same-day reservations (but only for large parties)

If you’re like me, just the word Provence conjures up the smell of freshly baked breads and lavender fields. Not that I’ve been to this classic French region, but it’s one of those areas (like Tuscany or Napa Valley) that connote a certain lifestyle and culinary art.

One place that brings Provence to the Bay Area is La Note Restaurant in downtown Berkeley. This popular restaurant sets the tone in more than just its French Provencal menu. The décor and black-dressed staff all supply a certain French flair that makes you feel like you’re in a neighborhood bistro in the French countryside.

La Note is quite popular with East Bay residents as a perfect Sunday brunch location. You can always expect a crowd hanging outside waiting for tables. Luckily, if you’re just a party of two or three, the wait isn’t that long. Unluckily, if you’re like me and my friends this past Sunday (we totaled six and a child), a wait for a large table can last more than an hour.

My group of brunch mates included my friend Stella (she contributes to this blog as “chez Stella”), who introduced me to this cozy brunch spot a couple of years ago. Stella and I share a love for France and even crossed paths several years ago in Paris during separate vacations. (I still fondly remember the wine-poached pears we had for dessert at a local restaurant.)

For our brunch, we started off with the corbeille de pain, a basket of assorted bread that was nearly overpowered by this huge croissant dusted with powdered sugar sitting on top. French-baked bread is always a delight (mostly because of all the butter involved in the baking) and this was definitely a nice starter after waiting for more than an hour for our table.

We had an assortment of omelettes and pancakes for brunch. I had the lemon gingerbread pancakes with poached pears, which I found delightfully subtle in its ginger and lemon taste. But La Note’s pancakes are so huge that I probably would have done fine with the short stack (two cakes) instead of the full stack (three flappers). My friend David declared that he liked his pancakes better, and he said this “objectively.” He ordered the oatmeal raspberry pancakes, which I gave a taste and agreed that it was tasty in a more substantive way. But I didn’t feel one was better than the other, just a matter of whether you like your food hearty (go for the oatmeal) or sublime (go for the lemon ginger).

While the pancakes were filling and satisfying, I believe La Note is more successful in its omelettes, which are made the traditional French way with lots of eggs and cream (they state in their menu that they use three eggs for each omelette). My favorite is the omelette de pommes de terre (potato and caramelized onion omelette served open-faced with provencales tomatoes and toast). And I have to say I’m definitely influenced by the perfectly roasted tomatoes that add such a bright color to the plate and richness to the dish. (And because I’m always honest with you, my blog readers, I have to admit that I’m a big fan of ketchup. So to me, anything that reminds me of ketchup, such as intensely flavorful roasted tomatoes, is fine by me.)

For brunch, La Note also offers a nice selection of sandwiches and salads.

But is La Note more than brunch? Or is it just a one-note restaurant? (Ben, you slay me. ;-) I decided to test this out and went to La Note one night with a friend for dinner.

First off, let me say that La Note has very limiting hours of operations for dinner. They’re only open for dinner three nights of the week (Thursday through Saturday), and their reservations policy is just as confusing (reservations are taken only on the day you want to go and only if you have a large party; the definition for large parties varies whether you’re talking about brunch or dinner).

The night I went to La Note for dinner, it was a vast difference from brunch. The restaurant wasn’t very crowded and the lights were dimmer for the evening, giving it a slightly romantic touch. (Later in the evening they had an accordion player who was, you guessed it, dressed in that signature black-and-white striped shirt with a black beret.) The dinner menu reflects some of the same touches from brunch, such as the cheese, bread and salad offerings. But of course it had more substantial dishes that seem to lean on comfort-food. Again, something you’d find in a cozy little restaurant in the French countryside.

My friend and I started off with the soup of the day, which was a puree of celery, carrots and leeks with a tomato base. It was more brothy than creamy, and I wasn’t a fan of the puree texture. But still it was tasty. For our entrees, my friend had the Agneau Grille aux Herbs (Australian lamb chops with thyme), which was perfectly cooked. Just the right take on medium to provide a redness that was tender but not bloody. I had the pasta dish, which on this night was Pates a L’encre et Aux Fruits de Mers (squid-ink fettuccine with bay scallops, bay shrimps, squid, garlic and cheese). Seeing Fruits de Mers on the menu reminded me of how I kept ordering it in Paris thinking it was a fruit plate and being surprised to get a seafood dish.

The pasta was a huge plate of black wiggles, red sauce and specks of white cheese. It was a dish that could feed two Italians training for the marathon. The flavoring was slightly on the tart side of the tomato, and my plate didn’t feel as warm, so this was less successful than the meals I enjoyed at brunch.

If you’re craving relaxing French meals (and your schedule matches the dinner hours of La Note), then you can’t go wrong in visiting this Berkeley spot. But for bustling fun on a beautiful Bay Area Sunday, La Note continues to be the perfect brunch place to experience Provence by the bay.
Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (perfect for foodies who like to brunch)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Pizzaiolo in Oakland


Anonymous said...

I insist that my oatmeal raspeberry pancakes were better than your lemon gingerbread pancakes! Actually, you can get better pancakes -- lemon ricotta -- at Somerset in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood.

Chef Ben said...

Time to let it go David! ;-)

Although I do agree with you that the lemon ricotta pancakes at Somerset is way better than any at La Note. And probably less of a wait because it has a larger dining area. But both have nice patios.

Chef Ben said...

For those of you who missed it the first time, here's my review of Somerset.