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[whitespace] Left Bank
Christopher Gardner

Laissez le Bon Appetit Roule: Left Bank, a new arrival on Menlo Park's dining scene, promises to draw patrons from all over the South Bay.

There's nothing gauche about Menlo Park's Left Bank

By Andrew X. Pham

THERE WE WERE, decked out like truckers in defiance of pinstripe, pomp and polish, facing a maitre d' standing guard like a yuppie bouncer. "Reservations?" she smacked. We grinned, shrugging. She thinned her lips into a smile and pointed toward the bar, although we noticed several canceled slots on the reservation chart.

Eventually we relocated to a bar table, where we eased into appreciating our surroundings. The bar that separated our kind from those with reservations was made of glass. Speckled yellow light rained from a cinema-sized skylight screened in false stained glass, drenching the restaurant in the color of Monet's haystacks. Below, a well-heeled throng buzzed with grand talk, penned inside a corral of booths and thick wooden columns. Tables were a tightly packed flutter of linen. Brass coat racks sprouted from walls, recalling an era when the genteel donned hats. Hanging glass lights, rendered in modern chic, offset the turn-of-the-century lamps and prints of old French advertisements.

A few glasses of nutty Domaine Ruet Beaujolais-Villages ($5.85) warmed our palates, aided by a basket of breads and a cold, hard puck of butter which had plenty of time to thaw. Courses arrived at intervals of 20 minutes. Lunch patrons should plan on lingering.

Pour commencer we ordered la tarte lyonnaise ($5.50), a savory leek and onion tart with applewood-smoked bacon, and les moules ($8.25), steamed Prince Edward Island mussels. The tart, a shallow quiche blanketed over a flaky wedge of pastry, seduced the taste buds into a game of peekaboo. Smoky undertones covered and then revealed the vegetables hidden within the filling. To the side lay a garnish of cherry tomato, gherkin, olives and alfalfa sprouts.

Jade spinach and pearly strings of onions were strewn over stony outcroppings of purple mussels sitting in a sweet pool the color of buttermilk. A toast duo on the side waited to be dipped in the broth. Tucked into their shell, the evenly sized mussels took some coaxing to emerge. Once pried open, the little sea tongues spoke volumes in taste. The peasant-style broth, while wine-splashed, relied primarily on lemon, garlic and butter to assert its countryside wisdom: augment subtly.

A veritable marketplace sampler, le thon sur thon ($10.25) was a meal in itself: a salad of seared rare ahi tuna (almost sashimi), haricots verts, avocado, boiled egg, roasted red peppers, capers and tapenade. Texturally, this tumble of produce accentuated tender over crisp. Potato, avocado and egg echoed the yielding bite of the fish, chewable enough for any Provençal granny.

La bouillabaisse Marseillaise ($16.50), the traditional seafood stew of southern France, teemed with a generous sea harvest: fish, scallops, shrimp, mussels and clams, all bejeweled with ruby-red diced tomatoes. Although the bouillabaisse rated among the valley's most full-bodied, the want of crab left us somewhat unfulfilled. Fortunately, the culinary seesaw between salt and sweet balanced perfectly.

Our second entrée, la plat du jour ($14), revealed a braised lamb shank besieged by a stewlike moat, a kingly scoop of garlic whipped potatoes flagging its territory. Atop these was the generous lamb shank, the meat hiked up to reveal the bone, layers bunched like a pinafore. Chive, celery, onion and tomato frills clung to the skirted bone. Though not the most tender, the lamb compensated with a deep, sylvan flavor.

Rubbing our bellies like sated feudal lords, we opted for what promised to be a light dessert: warm apple upside-down tart served with vanilla ice cream ($4.75). To our surprise a dinner-sized plate arrived almost fully draped by a pastry square overlaid with two halved apples. Soft as poached pears, the braised apples--as well as sliced strawberry and fig--lay under a frost of powdered sugar. One taste and we understood why Eve couldn't resist.

Already a favorite of Menlo Park's smarter set, Left Bank promises to be a hit big enough to draw patrons from all over the South Bay.

Left Bank
Cuisine: "Grandma's" French
Ambiance: Lively and haute couture
Prices: Starters $4.75-$9:50; entrees $6.75-$19.75 (prices reflect lunch menu)
Hours: Sun.-Mon. 11:30am-10pm; Tue.-Thu. 11:30am-11pm; Fri.-Sat. 11:30am-midnight
Address: 635 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park
Phone: 650/473-6543

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From the November 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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