For years, La Rose Bistro was a fixture in the downtown Berkeley culinary scene. Theatergoers, Cal professors and Francophile students knew there was no better niçoise or more authentic soupe a l'oignon available in the 510. Now we in the 925 know it, too.
In November, the French restaurant relocated to downtown Concord, settling into a prime spot on Salvio Street near Todos Santos Plaza and across from the Brenden Theatres. La Sen, the restaurant's new name, offers the same California twist on classic French cuisine, but in a more modern and inviting space than its former digs.
On our visit, about a dozen tables filled the small dining room, where white tablecloths, dark red curtains and overgrown plants set the bistro tone. Restaurants so often choose wrong or overly loud background music, and I really appreciated La Sen's selection of down-tempo, ambient tunes. The fit was natural and unobtrusive -- great ambience.
As for food, the Salade Nicoise ($9) and Soupe a l'Oignon ($6) were my favorite dishes. French onion soup has a greasy tendency, but this one was far from it. Rather, I pierced the tent of broiled Emmentaler cheese to find soft, melty pieces of onion and soaked garlic croutons swimming in a savory-sweet broth. It's the best version I've had.
Same goes for the salad. A French cafe chain, which will remain nameless, settles for canned tuna on its niçoise. For about the same price, La Sen does justice to the salad with a delicately pan-fried filet that is served on a bed of green beans, cherry tomatoes and the softest potato wedges dressed in an anchovy-tinged shallot vinaigrette.
Our entrees were good. The bone-in pork chop, Côtelettes de Porc a la Polenta ($19), was hot and juicy with a touch of sweetness from a white balsamic reduction. In snootier ZIP codes, the accoutrements -- oil-poached garlic cloves, crispy-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside polenta cake and a caramelized whole baby apple -- would've elevated this to a $25-plus dish.
A tasty shallot sauce was the star in L'Entrecote Frite ($23), or rib-eye steak, but it did leach onto the accompanying pomme frites and get them soggy. My husband didn't mind much. He was too busy commenting on how perfectly the steak was cut, prepared, and seasoned. It paired beautifully with a glass of the Sables D'Azur Rose 2008, Cotes de Provence, France ($8). The wine was crisp and bright with ample fruit, so it stood up to the steak yet was light enough for the salad -- a very versatile wine.
When we ordered Coq au Vin ($20), we were expecting something close to Julia Child's dreamy vision of elevating chicken's flavor with butter, bacon, red wine and those to-die-for golden-braised baby onions.
I think La Sen's version needed more time in the casserole to burn off the bite in the red wine sauce. It tasted alcohol-y and was blackish red instead of dark brown. While I appreciated the inclusion of carrots and potatoes, I craved those traditional baby onions.
Luckily, fine service, lovely ambience and a decadent flourless chocolate cake worth far more than its $5 price tag left a great lingering impression. I gave La Sen three stars because I felt the coq au vin was the only source of disappointment. And I'm anxious to go back for lunch. It may just be the best soup and salad in town.
la sen bistro
* * *
FOOD: * * ½
AMBIENCE: * * * ½
SERVICE: * * *
WHERE: 2002 Salvio St., Concord
CONTACT: 925-363-7870; www.lasenbistro.com
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
VEGETARIAN: Try the Soupe a l'oignon or the
BEVERAGES: Soda, coffee, teas, beer, and a wine list with a focus on France and California
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate.
PARKING: Parking structure across the street
KIDS: Ours nibbled on
Lasagne au Boeuf and pomme frites.
PLUSES: French classics with a California twist
MINUSES: Disappointing coq au vin
DATE OPENED: Nov. 1
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40