Decent liberties

Posted by Anita on 08.03.06 7:23 AM

liberty cafe (c)2006 AECAfter 8 months of keeping The Liberty Cafe in the penalty box, we decided to give it another whirl. See, we talk a good game as unforgiving food snobs, but we’re really good sports. (Actually, we’re just desperate for better food close to home…)

Here’s a review I wrote on Yelp last year:

Food was good, but not amazing. The butter lettuce salad’s bleu cheese was bland, hazelnuts were a touch rancid, but pears were lovely and the vinaigrette perfect. On the other salad, the too-tough mache was garnished with grapes, walnuts, pecorino.

I’d had the chicken pot pie before, and I also make it at home from the recipe that the Chron published a few years back. It was just like homemade — decent, nothing special — only I don’t burn my puff pastry. The “fancy mac-and-cheese” was short tubes (nice) with arugula (nice, but skimpy) and pine nuts… which sounds like a good idea but ended up tasting like uncooked peas. Bleh.

There wasn’t anything wrong with our pale caramel pot de creme, but it would have benefitted from deeper, richer caramel flavor.

Service was all over the map. One server was sweet and clueless, the other was sharp but snarky.

Maybe it’s just a matter of ordering well. Or that they do better with summertime produce. Or we caught them on a good night. Or lowered expectations… But we had a pretty good dinner last night. Still not worthy of the endless praise that gets heaped on this place from near and far, but good, solid neighborhood chow.

I started with the heirloom tomato salad ($9): Ripe but not perfect tomatoes, solid slices of mozzerella (which needed more salt), fresh basil leaves and a cloying basalmic reduction. In theory it was supposed to be garnished with grey salt, but I only noticed it on one bite. Cameron opted for the mixed greens ($8.50), which featured hazelnuts — happily, not rancid this time — nectarines, and a fromage-blanc crouton, which he said were very nice.

Cameron’s main course — a pizza ($10) with taleggio, proscuitto and arugula, plus a small scattering of Sweet 100 tomato halves — was tasty. Although the crust (like all of the bread products) was heartfelt but a tad amateurish, the toppings and preparation were spot-on. My flank steak was cooked to a perfect medium rare, but its presentation was rather scary: the entire plate was covered by a quarter-inch pool of (very tasty) infused oil. Slices of steak scattered with herbs sat atop a small stack of sauteed spinach and a few potato halves. Needless to say, it’s a good thing I am not on a low-fat diet… and I still was taken aback.

Overall, the food was good, if slightly homespun. It’s the sort of thing that if you cooked it at home, you’d be delighted. You’d turn to your partner and say “Hey, that’s pretty good! Let’s make that again.” But it doesn’t feel like restaurant food, which is a blessing and a curse. I’m not sure I’m willing to regularly spend $75 for a dinner that I (or most of my friends) could make at home just as well. On the other hand, if they can keep the food as consistently good as it was last night… well, I’m obviously torn. But I am glad to have had a nice meal there, if only because now I see why everyone says we’re so lucky to live so close.

Service, once again, was a bit off the mark. One of the waiters (the snarky one) was familiar to us; the other may also have been the “sweet but clueless” lad of our previous visit. Although there was no snarkiness on offer tonight, the older waiter did seem to be a bit bossy to his co-workers; the younger one was having a rough night, coming back to ask us our order after having forgotten what starters we ordered, and then again with the wine. I heard him do the same to the people at the next table over. And then at the end of the meal, he bumped the table and sent a glass of ice water sailing toward Cameron’s lap.

Which brings us to the setting: It’s cozy in there, to be sure. But it’s also a tad cramped and not a little unfomfortable. The chairs are hard and awkward, and the tables placed just a touch too close together. Liberty’s well-known for its tolerance of smaller patrons (notice the stack of highchairs in the bathroom), and our dinner was interrupted numerous times — even approaching 8pm — by shrieks and howls from a tot seated across the room. I realize this isn’t strictly the restaurant’s fault, but it is something to keep in mind. If you have a low tolerance for screeching during dinner, this probably isn’t your place.

The Liberty Cafe
410 Cortland Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94110

Bernal, restaurants
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