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Dinner at Liberty Cafe, Bernal Heights, SF (long)

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The food chain tables got turned on me this last week, and the flu bug ate a big piece of me. Since my immuno-compromised state and sushi was not a good mix, I had to put aside my uni cravings for something more along the lines of chicken soup. So I went to Liberty Cafe, a small charming Grandma's cooking-on-steroids place with a quaint cottage feel located up in Bernal Heights.

I'm usually a late eater, but this time I got there early (around 6ish) since I didn't spend much time in lab today. The place was still mostly empty and I picked a strategic table slanted towards the kitchen window and the salad/dessert prep area where I could watch all the stuff coming out of the kitchen. I was lucky, because the place was packed an hour later, with a short line outside the door (no reservations taken). Nevermind that it was only Tuesday!

These guys do their own baking and there's an attached bakery that opens till two in the afternoon. That's probably why the small rosemary flecked rolls filled with a light hazy perfume from the herb were still warm when I picked them up from the basket.

I had made up my mind about the chicken pot pie when I picked Liberty Cafe, but I couldn't decide between the eggplant and tomato puree soup or the tomato tart for my appetizer. The waitress was unequivocal - the tomato tart - so I ended up with a wonderful American retelling of Insalata Caprese - perfectly balanced layers of beautiful and bright-tasting heirloom tomatoes, lightly baked mozzarella and just enough pesto for that savory depth. The final layer, the crust, was perfect in its crisp thin flakiness, a great textural contrast to the tomato and the soft cheese. This came with a side salad of frisee for a hint of bittery counterpoint, and sweet summery halves of cherry tomatoes. The feeling of this dish was almost Chez Panisse-ish.

Next was the made to order chicken pot pie (it took about twenty minutes or so, maybe more), superheated on the inside. It's chicken pot pie without any variation, but it was well executed - the chicken bites were succulent but not too soft, and there were good sweet pings from the carrots and peas. Nothing fancy at all, just the homey gooey goodness that I needed to nurse that flu.

Next, dessert. From my vantage point, it looked like all the desserts were pre-made - the prep cook took something out, maybe cut out a hunk and added the the whipped cream or berries or whatever the dessert called for. The waitress steered me toward the banana cream pie - "It's our signature dessert" - which confirmed what the reviews said. I got that instead of the summer berry pudding that I was curious about.

The banana cream pie is a worthy signature. Rich unctious strata of banana under a thick layer of whipped cream, set in that same miracle crust from the tomato tart. Guess that tart wasn't a one-shot fluke. I'm guessing that pie must have been baked today, because the crust was dry and crisp despite the weight of the moist filling. A dusting of chocolate shavings at the edge of the pie made a nice finish, just enough to summon that taste memory of chocolate (along with the accompanying pleasures) during the strategic last bites. It's only a slice of banana cream pie on a plate, even sans mint garnish, not some cutting edge dessert, but it's one of the best of its kind that I've had.

The prices are very reasonable, with the most expensive entree topping out at $16. I'm curious to find out what that flan like structure on the steak dish is (potato or polenta or something else?) - forgot to look at the menu on my way out - maybe I'll try that the next time.

From my small survey of the menu, there weren't any relevatory flavor combinations, just good straightforward food, cooked and presented simply, but executed fantastically. I think it's a great deal.

P.S. has anyone been to the Hungarian place across the street from Liberty Cafe?

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    Andrew Raskin

    I've been there twice. The first time I was rushing off to the airport, so my friend and I got chicken paprikash to go, plus the special salad of feta and vegetables. Despite getting the paprikash all over my steering wheel and car seats, I liked that it was creamy but not school-lunchroom-chicken-tetrazinni creamy. I think it had mushrooms too.

    The second time I went, I sat down and got to enjoy the piano/bass jazz duo playing standards out of the Real Book. I got the schnitzel, which was a huge portion. It was a little dry, but maybe schnitzel is supposed to be like that. I got the salad again, and also an appetizer plate of Hungarian sausage. I don't remember the exact taste of it, but I remember really being into the sausage. Spicy, I think.

    Overall, it's a nice relaxed place that is a good change of pace. Hey, that rhymes.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Andrew Raskin

      There was no sausage I loved more than Hungarian Debrecen in my sausage-consuming days; indeed, on a brief sojourn in Iron Curtained Buda Pest, the only truly delicious bite was the "hot dog" of that I ate at the train station (no, the trains didn't run on time--LOL). However, schnitzel sounds like a Viennese snuck into the kitchen.

      1. re: Fine

        One of our favorite places to eat during our years in Budapest was the Becsi Szelet which translates to the Wiener Schnitzel. Delicious, friendly and cheap.

    2. nice retelling of your meal at the Liberty Cafe...the chicken pot pie is worth venturing over to the city for...and then there is the banana cream pie. I made this from the recipe that was printed in the Chronicle - with great results. One change I did make was to brush the pie crust with melted chocolate before filling with the pastry cream and bananas...this keeps the crust from getting soggy and adds the always welcome element of Chocolate! it's a shame that good neighborhood cafes like this aren't more common.