Beauregard's, the newest restaurant to open on the rapidly upscaling Solano strip, is buying into the restaurant trend that's surpassing the small-plates format as the New Thing for the new old economy: Bistro Lite. It looks like a bistro. It feels like a bistro. But you're not quite eating bistro food, and you don't quite pay normal bistro prices. Everyone's doing Bistro Lite across the Bay, some restaurants going as far as changing their names to reflect their new, cut-rate identities. Even the big names over here are docking prices to keep tightfisted diners coming in.
Owners Gary Beauregard and Barry Gilmartin became friends working in Berkeley restaurants back in the early 1970s. Both spent more than a decade as muckety-mucks at California Pizza Kitchen, and returned to Berkeley once they left the corporation to start their own venture together. Beauregard, who was VP of food and wine at CPK, runs the kitchen; Gilmartin and Debra Beauregard, Gary's wife, oversee the front of the house.
The influence of their former employer is evident. Dinner salads, pizzas, and pastas make up the bulk of the huge menu. Most of the pizzas and pastas cost less than $10. But sitting in a low-lit room facing an empty wine glass and two kinds of forks next to your plate, you're likely to order at least one appetizer. Then maybe a dessert. The wines look decently priced, so there's no reason not to order a glass -- and soon you've spent $30 to $35 a person. Cheaper than Bay Wolf, sure, but not necessarily easy cash.
Beauregard's California comfort menu makes forays into Italian and 1980s-era Southwestern cuisines. It's casual, familiar, and occasionally good. But not with any consistency. I expected decadence from the deep-fried brie coated in panko (fluffy Japanese breadcrumbs), but the cooks only submerged it under the oil until the panko turned light gold. The center of the wheel heated but didn't melt, and we had to cut it with our forks to top our croustades. The mixed green salad we paired it with was overdressed in a sharp sherry vinaigrette.
However, a similarly potent Dijon vinaigrette was exactly what a salad Niçoise needed. Too many Californian chefs dress the eggs, roast potatoes, green beans, and tomatoes in this composed salad with a too-subtle hand. I wasn't sure that I approved of the fact that the tuna on top was actually a big dollop of mayonnaise-bound tuna salad, but it combined with the dressing to flavor the starchiest, blandest ingredients in the mix. An appetizer of gnocchi made with pâte à choux instead of potatoes turned out so delicate that they almost lacked texture. Yet the thick, cheesy Parmesan cream sauce they were gratinéed in more than compensated for any illusion of lightness. An entrée-sized portion (also on the menu) might have killed me, or at least bloated me past recognition.
Other pasta entrées yielded mixed results. I ate two bites of the fettuccine with chicken, peppers, and a purported tequila-cilantro cream sauce. I added a lot of salt. When I tried another forkful and only tasted cayenne and raw peppers, I gave up. On my next visit, I couldn't necessarily identify the flavors of the nine ingredients the menu told me the spicy shrimp linguine contained, but at least I tasted something. The pasta -- faultlessly al dente -- was tossed with shrimp, tomatoes, and roasted sweet peppers in a bright, peppery sauce.
Something's not quite right with the pizzas. The twelve-inch rounds are pulled from the oven right before the cheese blisters and before the round roll of the crust cracks and browns. Like California Pizza Kitchen's -- hell, Beauregard's wild mushroom pizza and the BBQ chicken pizza are almost identical to the CPK originals -- most eschew tomato sauce, so the focus is the toppings.
It's risky going when you don't rely on the garlicky tang of tomato sauce to pull the disparate tastes of the pie together. Beauregard puts together some lively multiculti combinations. Once we culled a few bombastically flavored sun-dried tomatoes from a duck sausage, tomato, roasted garlic, and spinach pizza, the savory house-made sausage, whose flavor began with thyme and ended with cayenne, emerged triumphant. Sweet roasted red peppers, feta cheese, and caramelized red onions played against plump, shell-pink shards of Hobbs applewood-smoked chicken on the smoked chicken pizza. But the bright flavors in both combinations were smothered in pools of chronically bland, just-melted mozzarella and fontina. It was pizza -- we were all Americans, so we ate it -- but nothing more.
Beauregard's offers four bistro-style entrées, all served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. The pork we tried showed the most finesse. Two moist, pink pork chops were brushed with adobo sauce, a sort of mole colorado redolent of toasted chiles, garlic, and spices. The mashed potatoes underneath had been beaten soft and smooth, and the chefs treated the vegetable medley alongside with respect. I don't often encounter this. I kept picking the crisp-tender, perfectly seasoned cauliflower, chard, zucchini, and golden squash off my friend's plate until he pushed it across to me and told me to take over.
What Beauregard's does well is foster the feeling of a neighborhood restaurant. The walls are painted in dappled golds, which, with the lights dimmed, bring a casual intimacy to the room. Stretch and you may find yourself fondling the guy at the next table over, but the large, open space soaks up his conversation so you don't have to listen in. The sixteen-year-olds mooning at each other over their salad next to us looked as happy to be there as the sixty-year-olds canoodling by candlelight across the room.
Gilmartin and the Beauregards have taught their young, chipper waitstaff the details of bistro service, outperforming what I would expect for $9 entrées. For example, when I ordered a bottle of red wine, the waiter performed the ritual in full -- the showing of the label, the presenting of the cork, the pouring of the first sip -- without embarrassment or fluster. Cutlery was replaced during the changing of the courses. And the buser came around regularly to fill water glasses.
I love what Beauregard's wants to be: a family-friendly, neighborhood restaurant where you can go and feel comfortable spending $10 or $50. It looks like a bistro. It feels like a bistro. But there's work to do before it tastes like one, too.