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I learned how to drink brandy and soda by reading Hemingway; "The Sun Also Rises" to be exact. Jake Barnes would meet with his friends at the bars on the Left Bank in Paris and share life -- the good and the bad and the ugly. It is a familiar scene acted out every day in the taverns and cafes of every city.

"Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name ..."

On the West Side of Buffalo we have our own Left Bank. The restaurant and bar that bears the name is a haven of sorts. It is not on a busy street. It is in a fairly quiet neighborhood. The building was erected in 1885 as a barrel-making facility. The original brick walls are part of what makes the Left Bank one of Buffalo's great dining rooms. Still, there are many other ingredients that go into the mix.

Maybe it's the neighborhood firemen who come in after work to have a beer. Or the young professionals out for a martini and conversation. Then there are the college students who frequent the place, as do a group of ladies coming in after going to see the Monet exhibit. It's a place where more often than not you run into someone who knows your name. The Left Bank is all of those things, but let's not forget why they came.

The food of executive chef, Mark Weatherbee, is a main attractions. Like the man, the food is quietly elegant. Along with a tried and true menu sure to satisfy the less adventurous diner, his daily specials are the real watermark of his cooking. He fuses classic French cooking with modern style.

Wednesdays, for example, are Asian night. Great spring rolls with dipping sauce, Soba noodle dishes and very fresh seafood highlight the menu. Whatever night, the foods are allowed space; the meats and seafood aren't so adorned as to lose their own characteristic flavors. And that's just how Weatherbee likes it.

"The recipe I made for this article is herb-crusted sea bass with potato risotto and a gingered-carrot broth," says Weatherbee. "You don't see sea bass enough on menus. It must be fresh. It's almost sweet. The potato is creamy. The crunch of the crust on the bass. The broth is flavorful but light. It cleanses the palate."

Weatherbee began his culinary exploits early in life. It was his father's love of cooking in the home that got a young Mark thinking about cooking as a career. He got his start with the four-year culinary program at Emerson Vocational High School. It would eventually lead him to the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA). Work at Mothers, Sienna, Brick Alley Bistro, and Le Metro are all on his resume.

He is a young man who wants to learn more, travel more, taste as many new flavors as he can get his hands on.

"When I graduated from the CIA I couldn't wait to get out there and learn. There is so much to look forward to. So much to learn."

Mark is quick to point out that the success of the Left Bank is multi-faceted. Owner Michael Christiano, has put together a terrific team that consistently pulls it off culinary success night after night. The friendly bartenders greet you when you come in. The lovely and unflappable house manager, Mai Lien Walters -- who has been there since the restaurant opened -- keeps things going. The wait staff is attentive and unobtrusive; sometimes the food appears at your table without you noticing anyone placing it there. And let's not forget the kitchen crew.

Add to this the help and presence of sous chef and kitchen philosopher Paul Daggett -- he likes to get to the essence of things, whether it's the meaning of life, or the sweet potato risotto. And dining at the Left Bank is just what it ought to be: a pleasant, relaxing time spent with friends and family.

Lois Baker's Gourmet stories will return in the October First Sunday.

The Left Bank

CUISINE: Bistro fare with intriguing daily specials.


ENDURING FAVORITES: Mussels with chorizo, hot stuffed peppers with San Marzano sauce; artichoke-stuffed portobello mushrooms with port wine and green peppercorn reduction; chicken with rosemary risotto.

LOCATION: 511 Rhode Island St.

PHONE: 882-3509.

HOURS: Open for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. Also serving Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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