Your French Grandmother Would Approve of Pompette

"Pompette" means "tipsy," and a few drinks might get you to that point, at this successor to Berkeley's Cafe Rouge.

Mussels (Nathaniel Williams)

Chef David Visick doesn’t look anything like a French grandmother. Mid-meal he wandered by in a gray apron and denim colored shirt on his way back to the kitchen. Nevertheless, after finishing a hearty, rustic supper, we left the restaurant certain of having glimpsed the shadow of a Gallic grand-mère silently waving good night. Dish after dish, Visick served comfort food the way you imagine he serves it to guests at his private dinner parties. His friends must leave his house feeling warmed and content.

Visick, with his wife Caramia, have opened Pompette where the former Café Rouge served memorable burgers and frites for more than a couple of decades. The new owners have softened the red accent color to a rosy gold. The long, hammered-aluminum bar stayed put even if the famous burger did not. The decor is minimal, white and mirrored, so the bar remains the central focal point for the eyes of the diners.

A woman nearby ate dinner alone and un-self-consciously: a true testament to how welcoming Caramia’s presence is. She reads the room well, never hovering, but stepping in when a server is otherwise engaged. People mostly dined in pairs though, from the trysting to the platonic. The Florent ($12) a pink cocktail, and one of many on the extensive wine and spirits menu, continually fizzed up and then departed from behind the bar. Filled with rum, grenadine and orange bitters, it eased conversation away from a day of strained nerves. Pompette means “tipsy” — and a single Florent gets you there.

Beets and carrots (Nathaniel Williams)

The trio of appetizers arrived all at once, along with the slightly crisped Acme Levain & House Made Butter ($3). Is it lamentable to be charged for bread? Yes, and it is a necessary evil required for mopping up sauces. Plump Mussels Escabeche ($12) peered out from beneath a rise of fennel and celery shavings. They were dressed with citrus and heaped upon a crunchy toast. Drops of pesto reinforced the color green. There was nothing fussy about the plating, a recurring theme that only encouraged the quick cut of knife and fork.

The tenderest of artichokes ($11) didn’t linger long on the plate. Without any undertone of bitterness, they were lovingly paired by a hunk of baked ricotta and nicely cooked farro (no mean feat). Both this dish and the Chioggia beets & Nantes carrots ($11) employed classical French technique while incorporating less traditional flavors. The chef baked stunning colors into the beets and carrots, livening them up with Moroccan spices and chili oil. A bed of thick yogurt tamed down the heat while enhancing the flavor of the vegetables.

If you’re a vegetarian though, your luck runs out when you reach the list of entrées. If you’re a pescatarian, it does not. Bolinas black cod ($27) is a misnomer unless you read the ingredients on the next line. Served in a bowl of tomato saffron broth, with clams and shrimp, the dish veered happily towards a bright seafood stew. The cod was impeccably prepared, succulent, soaking up every bit of broth.

The only dish that wasn’t a success was also not a failure. The beer-braised Heritage Pork ($24) simply lacked the punch and clarity of the other plates that had come before it. Also served in brodo, the sauce was blandly seasoned. It lacked pepper, salt, garlic, lemon, fresh herbs or wine. And it was a fatty cut that could have been browned more. Despite its lack of distinction, the plate returned to the kitchen emptied of its contents without a single flageolet left to pierce.

Neither the pork nor the cod were particularly pretty plates at first glance. But Pompette is winning the battle of substance, simple and straightforward, over style. French grandmothers everywhere would approve.

Pompette, 1782 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-356-4737 or pompetteberkeley.com

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