NEWS & EVENTS
Contra Costra Times & MercuryNews.com
Review: French Bistro La Sen lands in Concord
By Jessica Yadegaran,
Photo: Jose Carlos Fajardo
For years, La Rose Bistro was a fixture in the downtown Berkeley culinary scene. Theater goers, 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.
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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
We don't let restaurants know that we are coming in to do a review, and we strive to remain anonymous. If we feel we have been recognized or are given special treatment, we will tell you. We pay for our meal, just as you would.
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
San Francisco Chronicle & SFGate.com
La Sen Bistro: A smooth move to French
By Nicholas Boer
Photo: John Storey
Transforming an all-you-can-eat sushi joint into a French bistro sounds daunting. But it seems to have been surprisingly easy for chef Hai Tat Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who opened La Sen in Concord with partner Thanh Dinh.
Their method? Install sultry crimson lighting and antique chandeliers. Break out the white tablecloths and wineglasses. Pipe in some French jazz, and pop some veal bones in the oven. And in less than two months, escargot, steak frites and creme brulee were being served.
Dinh and Nguyen didn't start from scratch, however. The menu and much of the decor, including two prominent Impressionist canvases, were borrowed from La Rose Bistro - a creaky downtown Berkeley restaurant that Nguyen previously owned and recently abandoned.
The former watch repairman demonstrates precision in his sauces and plate presentations. Thick slices of duck breast stay moist napped with a peppery gastrique of honey and robust stock ($19). Whipped parsnips and teaspoons of sherry sauce play into the succulence of seared scallops ($20). And the filet mignon ($25) draws flavor from reduced and enriched veal stock. All of these entrees are attractively and purposefully arranged.
The French cuisine here is traditional, yet neither tired nor expensive - especially at lunch. The Lambwich ($10) is loaded with rosy meat and slathered with garlicky basil mayo. The moist and crispy crab cake salad is just $6. And a lively toss of spring lettuce, Roquefort and apple comes in at $5. If you're "splurging," go for the salade Nicoise: French green beans, new potatoes, and a generous fillet of seared tuna, all with a powerful anchovy kick ($9).
The busier the dining room is, the cozier it feels. On a night when all 35 seats are filled and almost everyone is warmed with wine, the ambience is mesmerizing. And with Dinh at the helm and La Sen's lead server covering the dining room, it's a smooth operation.
But most of the staff needs more training. Time and again servers waited on us with their hands full, and once our table was used as a holding area for another table's wine. As for the wine list, stick with the French selections, especially when ordering by the glass.
While La Sen calls for lingering, the tabletops could use padding, and the chairs are hard (one diner brought her own cushion). And with the restroom past the kitchen and Brenden Theatres across the street, La Sen crosses over to casual (we witnessed one backward baseball cap).
Nguyen, however, takes few shortcuts. I could quibble with the coq au vin ($20); it had depth of color and flavor, but the sauce had a distracting raw wine flavor. The quality of the rib eye ($23) was a grade too low. And the chocolate pot de creme ($5) was grainy and deflated.
La Sen is doing a good business, and I hope it only grows stronger. You needn't spend much. A basket of Semifreddi's ciabatta and Nguyen's signature cilantro dipping sauce is free. The French onion soup ($6) is rich beyond compare. And the perky salmon tartare ($8), served with crisp, oil-rich toast points, sets you back for less than the price of a large popcorn. The desserts, including warm chocolate cake and fruit rissoles, top out at $6.
There is one element left from the sushi bar that defies the new French spirit: The fish display case sported a few lonely oranges and lemons. It would be a prime place to showcase desserts or artisan breads.
On the whole, however, the transformation is remarkable.
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La Sen Bistro2002 Salvio St. (at Concord Avenue), Concord; (925) 373-7870. www.lasenbistro.com.
Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Beer and wine. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Parking lots nearby.
OverallRating: TWO STARS Atmosphere Rating: TWO STARS Food Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS Prices & ServiceRating: ONE AND A HALF STARSNoise Rating Noise Rating: THREE BELLS
RATINGS KEY: FOUR STARS = Extraordinary; THREE STARS = Excellent; TWO STARS = Good; ONE STAR = Fair; NO STARS = Poor
$ = Inexpensive: entrees $10 and under; $ = Moderate: $11-$17; $ = Expensive: $18-$24; $ = Very Expensive: more than $25
ONE BELL = Pleasantly quiet (less than 65 decibels); TWO BELLS = Can talk easily (65-70); THREE BELLS = Talking normally gets difficult (70-75); FOUR BELLS = Can talk only in raised voices (75-80); BOMB = Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
Prices are based on main courses. When entrees fall between these categories, the prices of appetizers help determine the dollar ratings. Chronicle critics make every attempt to remain anonymous. All meals are paid for by The Chronicle. Star ratings are based on a minimum of three visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit.
Reviewers: Michael Bauer (M.B.), Nicholas Boer (N.B.), Mandy Erickson (M.E.), Amanda Gold (A.G.), Janny Hu (J.H.), Allen Matthews (A.M.) and Carey Sweet (C.S.)
Nicholas Boer is a Bay Area freelance writer.