Ganesh Is Watching 

Le Bistro Elephant has its great moments, but an awkward space reveals some flaws.

The Hindu deity Ganesh hangs like a humongous medallion high up on a wall, gray and shiny, and as squiggly-looking as the tentacle-faced guy from Pirates of the Caribbean. He's iconic of what's odd about this place.

Physically, Le Bistro Elephant barely differentiates itself from the Oxford Street branch of the Indian restaurant Khana Peena. Barely six weeks old, Elephant is a spinoff from Taste in north Berkeley, part of the Aggarwal brothers' growing stable of plush dining places. With Taste they nailed it, thanks to good design, even better food, and a great mix of wines.

Garrett Martindale is executive chef at both Taste and Le Bistro Elephant. He says the new restaurant is an attempt to tweak Taste's stylish, shared-plates formula to appeal to a younger crowd. Good thing, since Elephant faces the western edge of the Berkeley campus. Its prices are lower and the portions slightly bigger than at Taste. There's a graceful, value-oriented wine list and half a dozen draft beers. And Martindale has welded together burlier offerings, such as onion rings and panini.

But like a mopey adolescent in some ABC After School Special, Elephant seems to be struggling to find an identity. The flip-flop-and-hoodie university crowd seems content with Bongo Burger around the corner. And the tweed-and-pashmina Berkeley Rep crowd seems content with nearby Downtown. Between the two, Elephant seems lost.

Don't get me wrong. There are good dishes — even one or two great ones. But the physical space has issues, and they get in the food's way.

A red velveteen curtain separates Elephant from Khana Peena. Call it reclaimed space, with a presence as unsatisfying as some cool old theater chopped up into a multiplex. It's got strange dimensions and hard surfaces, soaring height, and a view straight up into Khana Peena's mezzanine dining room.

Martindale says curtains will soon screen that view. But they won't be able to screen the aromas wafting in from Khana Peena's kitchen. There was an aura of cumin and coriander one night. On another, a brown scrim of fenugreek and asafetida hung in the air. It can be distracting — it makes you wonder if there isn't better food happening on the other side of the red curtain.

But taste a few dishes here, and it's clear that the balance of accomplishment is on the Elephant side. Martindale and his line cooks score with flavorful braises. The Niman Ranch short ribs were so good they registered as archetypes. Soft and stringy, with a braised-in sauce both deep and a little tangy, they tasted American to the bone. So did the accompanying blob of white polenta — dense, a little dry, sour from the cheese. More like cheesy grits.

Another braise — the duck confit at the heart of three little tacos — rocked just as hard as the ribs. Duck carnitas are a better description: soft strands of moist, dark flesh frizzled chewy-crisp at the edges. A chipotle-laced tomatillo salsa lent the deep-tasting meat some shimmer. So did chunky guacamole — even though the Brentwood corn the menu said it'd contain had somehow bailed. But the duck in these tacos was so good it didn't need corn kernels to taste amazing.

The menu organizes itself into three very Berkeley-sounding slots: There's veggie-friendly Earth; Land, all meaty and cheesy; and Sea, which speaks for itself.

Land is the rockiest terrain. After those transcendent braises, a dish as clunky as mini Niman Ranch lamb sliders felt like a major stumble. The three tall burgerettes registered a gray, unappetizing medium-well. They breathed an oniony smell and had a texture as solid as overmixed meatloaf. And the pale buns were so dried out in places they chipped like cinders.

Named for a brand of organic, free-range chicken, Spicy Rosie chicken wings represented a postmodern shuffling of the Buffalo formula. The meaty winglets tasted as if they'd been blanched in hot oil and allowed to sit, then fried again to order and tossed in vinegar and spicy pimenton (smoky-tasting paprika). The effect was as if they'd been rewarmed — they were a tad faded, despite the jacked-up coating.

Earth holds its secrets. Yukon Gold pommes frites were goofy, but in a way that worked. A finely powdered, herb-flecked microcoating clung to the skinny fries the way cool ranch clings to Doritos. It's an apt comparison. Elephant's fries are salty in a suspiciously familiar way — Martindale admits the coating is a blend of powdered ranch dressing and something else he won't reveal.

But when bathroom access cuts through the kitchen, secrets can be hard to keep. That's how I learned that the queso cotija buttermilk onion rings come from the freezer. They're not bad onion rings, just average ones. And a heavy drift of finely grated Cotija cheese doesn't help them catch fire.

A salad of heirloom tomatoes, housemade mozzarella, balsamic essence, and smoked sea salt is the kind of dish that'd probably be better at Taste. Stacked up into a Jenga tower, it seemed a little fussy in Elephant's surroundings. And the flavors — firm, acidic golden tomatoes, chilly mozzarella, and tart vinaigrette — were austere. It was all a bit hard to penetrate. Same with Maine peekytoe crab cakes. They were good at Elephant. But the ones I tasted the week before at Taste had a better sauce than the lime-spiked cucumber and avocado puree here, sharper textures, and a more refined presence.

Crispy-skin wild King salmon tasted fresh, and its soft, moist interior was just right. But the skin, while crisp, was almost painfully salty. Pan-fried dayboat scallops kept salt in check. They were sweet and nutty, but their sauce — a puree of smoked tomatoes — tasted watery and seemed to lack salt altogether. And a little disc of fried pancetta was a grease sponge, as if it'd been crisped up and then allowed to sit in its rendered fat.

Blame the fact that Elephant is a satellite kitchen — with his responsibilities at Taste, Martindale has to rely on his two line cooks to pull off the whole menu solo. Dishes are simple, but some have complex preparations that call for getting the textures just right. And the awkward surroundings make things worse. Plop this restaurant down in a softer, friendlier space with an older clientele — on Solano Avenue, maybe, or in Lafayette — and the food's flaws might seem less noticeable. But here, under the fierce gaze of Ganesh, everything's on display.


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