Bernal Heights has been, as real estate agents like to say, up and coming for years, and the Liberty Cafe is, for better or worse, a glimpse of what the future might hold for Cortland Avenue. On the plus side: first-rate food and service in a setting of simple elegance. On the down side: people flocking in from other neighborhoods, overwhelming a restaurant with just a handful of tables and tightening up an already precarious parking situation.
The restaurant doesn't quite take reservations, but if there's a wait for a table, guests do sign in and are called in order as space opens for them. This semireservation regime averts complete chaos, but it also means that you show up at the restaurant not knowing for sure if you'll be seated immediately or told there will be a 30-minute wait.
We were told the latter, and camped out for the duration on the sidewalk benches in the autumnal cool of a September evening. Passers-by (couples with small children, an elderly pair with matching canes, mix-and-match sets of young adults) almost always took an interest in the restaurant, pausing to examine the menu posted in the window, then quietly consulting about whether to add their names to the list.
Although the chill sharpened our appetites, neither the Wag nor I was quite prepared for the scale of the first courses. I'd assumed that the eggplant pizza ($8) would be about the size of a pita round (four modest slices), but it was a good 10 inches in diameter -- a big disk that overflowed the platter beneath it. The crust was marvelously thin, crisp, and blistered, and the seductive topping included (besides roasted eggplant) a blend of fontina and feta cheeses, bits of sun-dried tomato, and a scattering of chopped basil. Why is it that the best pizzas in the city are usually found in restaurants that don't make a point of them?
The squid stew ($7) gave an unexpected treatment to those calamari rings that are almost invariably battered and deep-fried these days. Here they were simmered until tender in squid's ink, which became a savory, lobster-colored sauce garnished with golden aioli. Wafers of crunchy bread on the side were good for dipping, like giant tortilla chips.
Either of these courses would have made an adequate lunch, but this was dinner, and that meant even bigger plates of food. The guinea hen ($12.50), served in pieces, was surprisingly meaty -- bigger than a poussin. Gentle roasting had turned the bird's skin golden but not really crispy, and we left most of it on the plate. Everything else, though -- the medley of wild mushrooms, roasted potato quarters, red mustard greens, and bits of bacon -- we devoured.
Slices of lamb sirloin ($13.50) were cooked rare and dressed with avgolemono sauce -- the egg-lemon combination that flavors the famous Greek soup. Here the sauce carried a rich citrus tang -- bright but not at all sweet -- that tempered the meat's gaminess. A mound of rice pilaf on the side reminded me of a creamy risotto, and two stubby summer squashes had been stuffed with chopped spinach; these were more interesting to contemplate than to eat -- they broke up too easily into their constituent parts.
We'd been seated next to the dessert case and spent much of the meal fantasizing about a slice of the chocolate cake ($4.50) behind the glass. The Wag really got into it -- "Chocolate cake and coffee!" he was heard to exclaim exultantly -- but I thought the cake was ordinary if moist. The banana cream pie ($4.50) was also unremarkable -- a dinerish dish that seemed to be out of its depth.
For lunch, we were seated without a wait and started with a bowl of potato-escarole soup ($5). Greens (other than spinach) don't get cooked often enough in this town; the heat turns their sometimes bitter grassiness into something richer and more smooth. Without the escarole, the soup would have been simply chicken broth with a few chunks of potato -- the sort of desperate dish that must have helped drive the Irish forth a century and a half ago. With the escarole, it became subtly irresistible.
The star of the Early Girl tomato salad ($6.50) was a coarse tapenade -- seasoned with lemon zest and ground almonds -- on slices of toasted baguette. Tapenade can so often be aggressively salty and garlicky, but the lemon and almond combined to make Liberty's version fresh and light. The tomatoes themselves were just what one would expect in late summer: deep red and juicy (and also, for Early Girls, large). The cheese was bland and forgettable; the plate would have been just as good without it.
A lamb sandwich ($7) was stuffed with slices of meat cooked medium-rare instead of the usual well-done, and the accompanying aioli and slices of roasted red pepper finished the sandwich without making it overbusy. But orecchiette ($8) -- while tossed with onions, cranberry beans, red mustard greens, and bread crumbs -- tasted mostly of bacon, which to me meant mostly of fat.
Desserts were better than at dinner: a good, straightforward Granny Smith apple pie ($4.25) -- not too sweet, with a fine pastry crust -- and caramel pots de creme ($4.25), a ramekin of pumpkin-colored pudding with deep, pure flavor.
It's easy to see why the neighbors are protective of their little cafe; any more popularity and the place will be overwhelmed. I wish I could say that that's reason to avoid it. But it isn't.
The Liberty Cafe, at 410 Cortland, is closed Mondays. Lunch is served Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 9 p.m.; and brunch Saturdays from 9:30 a.m to 2:30 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 695-8777.