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EATS: Restaurant Reviews and News | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Tokyo-Style Bistro

Eatery at Westlake Water Court adds Japanese flair to French fare, served from a prix-fixe menu.

September 25, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When I said I was going to dine in the Water Court, a friend gushed, "It's the most beautiful office complex I've ever seen!"

This Westlake complex certainly is artfully landscaped with ponds and flowering shrubs. The restaurant, Bistrot by the Water, is among the ponds, one floor below street level.

Heather and Masao Itakura, new owners of this small, boxy space (once an Indian restaurant called Jag), have completely transformed it. You may not notice all the subtly Japanese appointments immediately, but here they are: bamboo screens and basketry, Japanese chest of drawers (tansu) and kimonos on the pale yellow walls.

But it's not a Japanese restaurant. The small tables are covered with light brown butcher paper. Soft jazz filters through the air. This is a French bistro--or rather, it's the kind of French bistro you would find in Tokyo.

Many of the wines in that cabinet are boutique French; a '95 Morgon (Beaujolais), a Co^tes-du-Rho^ne from primo Berkeley wine importer Kermit Lynch, and the venerable Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape of Le Vieux Telegraph. They're fairly priced at $15, $25 and $30 dollars, respectively.

You'll want to order a good wine to do justice to the excellent food. Masao Itakura cooks country French with swatches of Japanese and Pacific Rim.

The format is a seasonal prix-fixe menu of four courses. At each you can choose among about half a dozen dishes. The portions are delicate, but everything is exquisitely presented. It can make for a wonderfully satisfying meal--if you overlook the spotty, disorganized service.

Among the cold appetizers, marinated oven-dried tomatoes with basil, virgin olive oil and goat cheese are remarkable because the tomatoes are fleshy and flavorful. There's also a superb vegetable terrine: eggplant layered with leeks, dressed with two herb-infused olive oils.

The best hot appetizer is shrimp and scallop fricadelle, a tiny seafood cake beautifully balanced by a puree of peas and a nicely tart red-wine vinegar sauce. Soupe de royale, described as a savory custard with a shiitake mushroom consomme, is really the Japanese appetizer custard chawan mushi minus the shrimp and chicken.

It's tough to follow the hot appetizers, but Itakura makes a valiant attempt. His pork tenderloin is about as tender as I have ever had. The meat is presented in three tiny pieces coated in a star anise/green peppercorn reduction. Veal cooked two ways is (1) standard piccata, paired with (2) too small a piece of delicious stewed veal shank, which positively melts in your mouth.

I've had a nice piece of grilled salmon with sauteed leeks and a red wine sauce--your classic red wine with fish dish. For a $7.50 surcharge, you can order an excellent rack of lamb with a potato Napoleon (mashed potatoes layered between flour crisps) and pistou sauce. This is about the heartiest dish the restaurant serves.

Desserts are appropriately small for a four-course meal. You can get a warm flour-less chocolate cake served with a tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream, or a beautifully rich creme bru^lee with assorted berries lurking beneath a crackling sugar crust. The richest dessert is probably dried apricot and pear bread pudding with rum sauce; the lightest is a lemon sabayon with raspberry sorbet.

Let's hope this highly promising restaurant doesn't do a vanishing act any time soon. It's a brilliant addition to the Westlake dining scene.

BE THERE

Bistrot by the Water; 860 Hampshire Road, Westlake. Lunch, noon-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner, 6-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, $40-$50. (805) 381-0094.

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