Beckett's Becomes BEC Bistro 

New restaurant offers fine French cuisine and myriad distractions.

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For nearly a decade, 2271 Shattuck Avenue was the home of Beckett's, an Irish pub/eatery/hangout known around Berkeley for its live music, high conviviality quotient, and skilled tap-pulling barkeeps. After the owners decided to pack it in about a year ago, the place landed in the hands of Jean-Yves Duperret, a San Francisco restaurateur. In mid-March it reopened as BEC Bistro, a ... what, exactly? Cal-Med dining venue? Happenin' nightspot? After-work watering hole? Or, best intentions aside, an Irish pub forevermore with some fancy vittles thrown in? A month into its residency, BEC (acronym TBD) has an identity problem, embodied by a flatscreen-and-lemon-drop-laden bar overflowing into a dining room fragrant with cilantro, aioli, and goat cheese; and by throbbing music from the upstairs DJ rendering intimacy improbable. Given all these distractions, then, it's surprising how tasty and satisfying many of the (mostly French, predominately organic-sustainable) dishes turn out to be. There's obviously a culinary sensibility in the kitchen fighting to get out.

At many a restaurant the highlight of the meal is the appetizers, with desserts a close second and the entrées a frequent disappointment. The opposite is true at BEC: The main dishes are the best things on the menu. Take the Farm Wife's Bounty, a pan-roasted chicken breast from Mary's free-range antibiotics-free poultry ranch in the San Joaquin Valley. This corn-fed, air-chilled fowl was full of pastoral flavor, perfectly cooked until moist and fork-tender and served with a rich, cheesy potato gratin and al dente Brussels sprouts with a nicely caramelized crunchy-toasty exterior: a beautifully realized example of Cal-French country cooking. Also impressive was BEC's skirt steak, grilled medium-rare and drizzled with a smoky balsamic-caper vinaigrette that didn't distract the taste buds from the meat's juicy texture. Here again the kitchen handled the accompanying organic produce with skill, serving up tiny candy-sweet roasted tomatoes and slender spears of asparagus accented with nutty brown butter.

The restaurant also bakes a few different pizzeti every night, rectangular and strudel-like in appearance and built upon a wonderfully chewy yet delicate flatbread crust. The Jean Noel Tarte combined fresh Roma tomatoes with basil and Dijon mustard — always a winning combination, if seldom encountered atop a pizza — and although the love apples were too thickly sliced and abundant for the slender crust, it made for a fine snack.

Sliders and tacos in several variations are mainstays of the happy hour/bar menu. The seared tilapia taco could've used more tilapia and less filler, but what was there was tasty, especially with its sweet-snarky hint of mango salsa. The pork pastor was a better option — lots of moist, tender, slow-roasted pigmeat bursting the seams of a fresh tortilla. The sliders weren't as impressive. Both the chicken breast (with lettuce, tomato, and aioli) and the portobello mushroom (with bell pepper, greens, and aioli) had too much bun and not enough filling. The French onion fondue was another disappointing starter: rich in flavor but nearly impossible to eat fondue-style with its light broth and limp strands of onion. But the Farmers' Market Soup du jour was a winner, a refreshing, invigorating purée of leeks, green garlic, and asparagus that actually tasted like leeks, green garlic, and asparagus, bright and sweet as a vegetable garden.

Desserts were hit and miss. What makes a classic crème brûlée distinctive is the contrast between the hot, crackly top crust and the cool, creamy confection beneath; in BEC's version, the crust was tepid and overly delicate and the pudding was warm and gloppy, like it had been sitting out instead of whisked from the cooler and freshly torched. The chocolate in the chocolate fondant was dark and earthy and of obvious high quality, but we expected a molten volcano of gooey fudge instead of a dry, chalky quasi-brownie. The apple tarte was irresistible, though: a slender pastry of tender fruit, buttery caramel, and the most delicate, flaky crust this side of downtown Vienna.

Although there are no meat-free dishes on the brief entrée menu, vegetarians can find enough sustenance to keep the belly satisfied. Starters include the French onion fondue, the Portobello slider, and the Farmers' Market Bowl, plus a chipotle Portobello taco with pine nuts and smoked mozzarella and an "underground" salad of beets, fennel, onion, and mixed greens. In addition to the tomato-Dijon pizzeta, there's a springtime version with asparagus, rosemary, purple potatoes, and goat cheese. One could also complement things with sides of the brown butter asparagus, caramelized Brussels sprouts, and French fries (plain, garlic, or BEC's garlic-herb-Parmesan house varietal).

BEC has tried to move away from the old pub concept by shifting its focus from ale and stout to the sort of rainbow-hued cocktails you'd equate with ... well, DJs. But unlike the carefully crafted, intricately balanced libations so prevalent nowadays, BEC's are on the sugary and insubstantial side, with barely a buzz between them: a vodka-grenadine pineapple martini that's one-third froth; a French 69 considerably less potent than the venerable 75; a cobalt-blue Bear Bomb that barely cuts the encompassing sweetness of tequila, Curacao, and orange juice with a squirt of lime; and an equally sweet Sour with no hint of (advertised) ruby-red grapefruit vodka. The wine list is fairly sizable, though, the beer selection's good, too, and there's a staff barista to whip up your after-dinner macchiato or espresso.

And the setting is as attractive as ever, a rambling circa-1925 French Provincial beauty (it's on the National Register of Historic Places) with lots of stonework and exposed brick, a forty-foot chimney leading to three cozy fireplaces, a warren of bars, lounges and private spaces upstairs, a nook for live music (but — oddly — no real dance floor), enough exposed beams, low ceilings, and Tudor trappings for two or three pubs, and a very New Orleans upstairs balcony leading down a wrought iron staircase to a little brick courtyard. Although BEC feels more like a bar or a nightclub than a destination restaurant, you'll be better off focusing on the table d'hote. 

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