Viola looks like an enchanted cottage from the outside; inside it proves to be a pleasantly casual restaurant, with a wide-open kitchen, a large enclosed patio (without which it would be very small), and just a few too-obvious decorative touches. Dining on the patio has a rather different feel than dining inside -- the former is sparse, spacious, and a bit isolated -- but both provide a satisfactory experience.
And Viola is several cuts above the average neighborhood bistro. Executive Chef Mark Zeitouni has worked with George Morrone, and obviously that's paid off: The food here could not be better. The Cal-French menu has a good balance of classic pairings and unexpected good ideas, and manages to be creative without requiring that the diner perform detailed calculations to figure out how a particular dish might taste. In the Berkeley style, the ingredients used are of magnificently good quality, while the techniques, though subtle and refined, remain discreet, and don't mute or distort the ingredients' pure notes.
Bistro Viola's pot au feu ($14.50) is the epitome of this type of cooking. Marvelously eloquent and pure, it consists simply of perfectly fresh baby vegetables -- carrots, tiny heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, miniature sweet onions with a hint of brininess -- in a brilliant clear broth, outstandingly flavorful but minimally seasoned, with just a few leaves of fresh thyme and rosemary visible in the depths. The vegetables are cooked long enough to make them tender, but not enough to destroy their integrity. Each mouthful of the soup has a unique assortment of gently harmonizing flavors, depending on what one's spoon contains, but the dish's elements are gently balanced, synergetic, and democratic, with no one trying to take the lead.
Let this pot au feu be Exhibit A in defense of that truth too often denied by flashy chefs: No flavor is as purely good as the unadulterated, unobscured flavor of truly excellent ingredients speaking for themselves. And that sets the tone. Most of the dishes on the menu could contend for the Exhibit B slot. A large, gorgeous, deliciously grilled steak of local yellowtail ($17.50), moist but never rare, pleases the palate with its meaty texture and delicate flavor. It is triply complemented by the bitter heat of tender broccoli rabe, the sweetness of adorable baby vegetables, and the fruity acidity of a squeeze-your-own Meyer lemon.
Equally eloquent -- though it speaks in a vernacular -- is the moules frites entree ($13.50). Again, the outstanding feature of this dish is the perfection of its components: marvelously fresh mussels, without a hint of brine or toughness, in a plain marinière broth (dry white wine, shallots, parsley, and just a little butter) with lemon. Though there are plenty of mussels, you will not find it difficult to get to the bottom of the pile. The accompanying frites are excellent too, deeply golden, with a crunchy exterior, and tasty whether or not you choose to dip them in the broth. Heaped loosely but plentifully on their own exposed plate, they do tend to get sadly cold, though not limp, as you work your way slowly through the mussels.
The menu evolves to accommodate both the changing palette of available ingredients and the chef's growing repertoire. Unlike some more established chefs, Zeitouni evidently encourages a vigorous feedback loop between the dining room and the kitchen. If on one visit a particular dish displeases you (like, for example, the distastefully strong and sweet beet reduction on the steak frites last autumn), try it again on a subsequent trip and it may well be quite improved (the steak [$18.50] now has a simple and much more complementary red wine butter). The strong bond between chef and diner is underscored by the alacrity with which service is provided. A dish like the Dungeness crab and kabocha squash omelet ($16.50), an intricate concerto of flavor and texture, is rushed to the table, a mere dozen seconds after it leaves the pan, by an eager server obviously well-briefed in the necessity of speed. Such meticulous care adds greatly to the value of a dish like this, a composition of three types of delicate softness (not to mention the bursting of the caviar) in which consistency is paramount.
Among the starters, the onion soup gratinée ($7) stands out. The chef has a nose for cheese (a few choice cheeses are available a la carte, by the ounce, during or after the meal), and the nutty, full-flavored, cave-aged Gruyère used here makes the dish a success. An abundance of the cheese tops a traditional bowl of saturated croutons in a dark, rich broth with great onion flavor. A subtle knack for fusion is evident in the salmon rolls ($8.50): Thin slices of slightly sweet cured salmon are wrapped around leaves of peppery cress and dressed with a blood orange crème fraîche, which gives the dish a very proper appearance.
Some of the side dishes, such as the olive plate ($3) and the radishes ($2.50), also make excellent starters, with a European feel. The radishes are cool and crisp, and come with aioli for dipping. In addition, winter has brought a lovely risotto appetizer ($9): black trumpet mushrooms, slightly chewy, in a small smooth risotto with a vivid truffle scent. The dish is miraculously light enough to serve as an appetizer, where nine out of 10 risotti, no matter how small the portion, would not. But the list goes on. To make a meal of Viola's starters would be perfectly satisfying.
It must be acknowledged that there are some occasional glitches. An amuse-bouche of hot parsnip-and-apple purée, intended to be sipped from espresso cups, was heavy, starchy, and bland -- while it might have accompanied a pork loin suitably, an amuse-bouche is intended to intrigue and stimulate the tongue, and this did the opposite. The pricing is also a bit steep for a restaurant that presents itself this casually, which in fact may turn some diners away, but the ingredients and skill are well worth the money.
The wine list is small, and notable for its inclusion of less famous domestic wines. It's a good opportunity to try a reasonably priced bottle of something you may love. Also available is a nice variety of uncomplicated French wines, with the listing conveniently ordered from less body to more.
Less creativity has gone into the desserts than the rest of the meal, though they are quite nice. A crepe-soufflé ($5) is flavored with raspberry, then folded over bittersweet chocolate cream and fresh strawberries. In fact, the crepe-soufflé is a specialty of the house -- it is also sometimes visible on the starters menu, filled with blue cheese. The chocolate terrine ($5) is cold and layered and chocolatey. A trio of seasonal ice creams ($5) is excellent, and warm Gorgonzola with honey and truffle oil ($6) is very pleasing as well for those who like strongly flavored cheese desserts.
For a young restaurant, Bistro Viola is remarkably virtuosic. One of its major strengths is its flexibility in reconfiguring dishes and applying unexpected techniques to French classics. What is truly outstanding, though, is the purity and depth of flavors here. Viola is already a mainstay of the up-and-coming northwest Berkeley scene, and clearly has the potential to become a Bay Area landmark.