Northern Comfort 

Pinole's new bistro gets high marks.

Our waitress brings out our salad to split at the table. "They hate it when I ruin the presentation," she explains, displaying a rustic-looking (but beautifully mounded) chopped-romaine salad with pears, blue cheese, and caramelized walnuts. The two crab cakes that preceded it were artfully perched against a tangle of red and green cabbages, surrounded by a squizzle of red-pepper aioli and evenly set mandarin slices, and topped with a frilly bundle of microgreens.

All the food at Pear Street Bistro is lovely to look at, molded and towered and ornamented. Yet once it hits the mouth, the food doesn't seem overly fussy. The placard outside the bistro proclaims that Pear Street serves "Comfort Food," and indeed, it is turn-of-the-millennium comfort food we receive.

When Christopher Wong, the owner of Pinole's Hunan Villa, wanted to open a second restaurant, he chose to remain in town -- an obvious choice for the president of the Pinole Chamber of Commerce. Wong found a spot downtown, on Pinole's rapidly redeveloping section of San Pablo Avenue. The actual Pear Street, along with its sister streets Plum and Prune, runs behind the restaurant, the last remnant of the orchards that once grew there. Wong hired Walter Escobar away from the Marriott in San Francisco to run the bistro's kitchen.

After seven months, the restaurant is still new enough to have a banner out front, but the decor inside aims for an up-to-date, yet clubby feel. The room is as lovely to look at as the food, all done up in russet-hued wood panels and browns with brass touches. A large bar with a plush couch and stylish stand-up bar tables blocks it off from the entrance. In the open kitchen the line cooks wear spotless chef's whites and tall paper toques, which I haven't seen since I last visited the California Culinary Academy years ago.

Each table is set with a large, capped bottle of Pellegrino. Even though I hate the Pellegrino trick, I fall for it every time. Is sparkling water the house beverage, one thinks hopefully? No, it's just planted there as a bill-inflating strategy, to be whisked away with one's drink order and replaced either by tap water for the resolute or a fresh, cold, uncapped bottle for the suggestible.

Our appetizers turn out to be substantive as well as stylish. The salad is brightly dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette. The pears are fully ripened and the walnuts lightly caramelized, not candy-coated. I can't get the sugary mandarin segments surrounding the crab cakes to square with the crustacean flavor, but the spicy aioli complements the crispy, meaty cake just fine.

Pear Street Bistro's entrées are inexplicably divided into Italian courses --"Pasta," "Secondi," "Panini," and "Contorni" (side dishes) -- since, apart from the pasta, each dish is Californian to the core. The menu changes every three months and is augmented by a couple of daily specials. Along with the Italian, there's a little French here, a little Asian there, reined in by a desire to keep the food hearty and simple.

But not dumbed-down. My friend's salmon sits high atop a thick dollop of mashed potatoes, with a sunburst of orange and chive oils radiating out from it. A thin layer of fruity mango-and-red-onion salsa is spread out on the salmon filet, just enough to perk up each bite. My huge burger is medium-well, not the medium I ordered, but it's topped with sautéed onions and thick slabs of bacon and cheese, and comes with a pile of addictive thick skin-on fries.

The fries that come with our mussels a week later have slimmed down and shed their peels. They stay crisp and delicate right down to the bottom of the paper cone they're served in, and withstand fervid dunkings in the mussels' garlicky, oceanic broth. The mussels themselves have been cooked just till they opened, but lack the plump flesh and clean, mineral cast of R-month mollusks.

Nevertheless, they go quickly. We're not the only ones who are quick on the draw -- we have to fight for our bowl of broth when our server comes around to collect plates much too soon. Despite our best efforts, half of the wide "signature" cracker-crust pizza, smothered in melted gorgonzola, creamy caramelized onions, and crisp, sweet pears, is still on the plate when the server returns bearing entrées. She simply pushes it to the side to make room.

For a quicker, lighter take on the classic, Escobar's "risotto" replaces arborio rice with tiny, chewy rice-shaped pasta. Earthy sautéed mushrooms play off red bell peppers and sweet corn, all bound together with a little cream and Parmesan.

Three lamb chops, salted just right and grilled to a hair shy of medium-rare (better less than more, we all agree) lean up along a row of broccolini sautéed with a little garlic. The broccolini, as green as kale, release a bit of broccoli rabe's pungency when they crunch in the mouth, but without that jolt of bitterness that can overpower the flavor of rabe. Roasted potatoes have been cooked until tender and then dipped into the deep-fat fryer so they acquire an all-around thin, golden crust.

I couldn't resist ordering the baby back ribs, the entrée with the most enthusiastic description: "SO TENDER it falls off the bone!" Sure enough, they had been braised more than roasted, so that I hardly needed to use my teeth to eat the meltaway meat. The flavor improved dramatically when I scraped off most of the quarter-inch-thick layer of bottled barbecue sauce to taste the pork beneath. I used the sauce to coat the stack of fries below. A tart, crisp slaw of mixed cabbages and jicama slices cut the meat's richness.

Despite the hyperbolic prose that describes each one, desserts seem to be the weak link. As usual, though, they look good. A pear-merlot sorbet -- one of two pear desserts on the menu -- is tinted faint pink by the wine. But neither the merlot nor the pear, a mild-mannered fruit at its best, come through strongly. A Sacher torte, chocolate cake with a layer of raspberry in the middle, is surrounded by swirls of clear mint and raspberry syrups.

Despite a few flubs here and there, Pear Street Bistro hits all the marks it's aiming for: comfortable, attractive bistro food at bistro prices, served by friendly servers. It's more than a welcome addition to Pinole's growing downtown -- once discovered, it's sure to become a culinary magnet for the northern part of the East Bay.


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