One of the East Bay's most enjoyable French restaurants recaptures its former glory
As I entered Pleasant Hill’s Left Bank, it wasn’t the oversize, colorful French posters, the charming floor tiles, the mirrored bar, the sweeping staircase to the banquet room, the glistening display of crab and oysters on ice, or the informal hustle bustle of a typical French brasserie that caught my eye. No, the first thing I noticed was an order of gorgeous, golden, slender pommes frites overflowing from its tall paper cone set in a wire basket—moments before a waiter whisked it away to a diner.
A few minutes later, my companion and I were sipping Taittinger champagne and pastis (a traditional anise-flavored French apéritif) and digging into our own order of frites, gratified to discover they were as good as they looked: crisp, perfectly salted, piping hot … everything a french fry should be.
The moment was one of pleasant surprise. Not so long ago, Left Bank was in a slump so severe we’d almost given up on the place, but thanks to several new hires over the past year, all of that has changed. The restaurant has not only regained control of its basic repertoire but is also going beyond by offering artisanal products such as Fra’ Mani salumi and incorporating pristine locally grown produce.
French master chef Roland Passot founded the original Left Bank in 1994 in Larkspur and later opened locations in Menlo Park and, in October of 2000, Pleasant Hill. More recently, he’s added locations in San Jose and San Mateo. The busy Passot is also cofounder of San Francisco’s renowned La Folie. In early 2006, Diablo updated its review of Left Bank and had less-than-stellar things to say, citing “soggy, bland sweetbreads; burned, dry gnocchi; and gummy, under-braised blanquette de veau.” At that time, Left Bank was undergoing personnel changes. Its director of cuisine had recently left, and Passot had not yet hired Joël Guillon, a fellow French master chef and Passot’s longtime friend, to oversee the food at all five Left Bank restaurants.
Guillon immediately got to work, and he’s kept up the heat. Every week, he spends an entire day at each location, working on technique and developing special menus.
Early last year, Pleasant Hill’s Left Bank finally got its own chef de cuisine, Erik Romme. Like Guillon, Romme found his work cut out for him. “The kitchen was in disarray. There was a lack of trust, a lack of teamwork. The cooks were taking shortcuts that negatively affected the food. It took a lot of work to get the kitchen where I wanted it.” Recently, Romme brought in a new sous chef, Dustin Joseph.
Happily, the skills of this new team are evident in the food. Briny-fresh oysters arrive with well made mignonette. The green salad—whole leaves of butter lettuce with herbs and a sheen of mustard vinaigrette—proves how gratifying something very simple can be. Skirt steak, grilled and juicy, is accompanied by lively, deep orange carrots, braised to ideal tenderness, and more of those delicious fries. The kitchen has redeemed itself on one of the very dishes Diablo criticized in the dark days: Perhaps the best offering on a recent visit was the flavorful, meltingly tender butternut squash gnocchi with pine nuts and wild mushrooms.
There are, however, a few small problems we hope the new kitchen team will solve. The whipped butter accompanying the artisan bread tasted strongly of the refrigerator. A ponderously large serving of noodles and the presence of sharp bone chips threatened to mar the deep, authentic flavor of the coq au vin, and both the Meyer lemon and apple tarts need work.
In spite of the occasional stumble, Left Bank seems to be enjoying its golden moment. Its famous molten Valrhona chocolate cake is ever excellent, and patrons gather in droves on Fridays and Saturdays to hear hip, French-inflected live music from such groups as Duo Gadjo and Le Jazz Hot. I wouldn’t hesitate to stop by Left Bank for a glass of wine and some oysters, or simply for “ze hamburger”—a big, juicy burger accompanied by—you guessed it—a pile of those glorious, golden fries.
Contact: 60 Crescent Dr., Pleasant Hill, (925) 288-1222, www.leftbank.com
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday
Price: Appetizers $7–$12, entrées $9–$32
Alcohol: Full bar