Inspired by an intriguing review in the East Bay Express (linked below), I've stopped in here (the former Bison Brewery at Telegraph and Blake, a couple of blocks south of the main Telegraph Ave. strip) for lunch twice over the past couple of weeks, and have been impressed on both occasions. I've had only one dish each time: the pricing structure of the menu is such that it discourages ordering more than that unless you're really hungry, really curious, or really prosperous. I've walked out neither hungry nor prosperous ... but always more curious than before, and eager to try the other interesting-sounding dishes on the menu.
Though a sample menu online at http://www.bisonbrew.com/menu.htmand gives some idea of the chef's sensibility, it's not totally up to date, in terms of either variety or pricing. (Add a buck to each of the items there for a more accurate picture.) Here are some items from the current menu:
- Whole pasilla chili stuffed with crayfish, ground pork, onions, garlic, and cornbread, served on a zebra tomato sauce
- Vietnamese imperial rolls filled with chicken, crayfish, vermicelli, black mushrooms, carrots, onions, and cilantro, served with a traditional dipping sauce [one assumes nuoc mam]
- Homemade chorizo quesadilla with roasted peppers, green onions, tomatoes, queso fresco, and cheddar with guacamole, sour cream, and salsa roja
- Pizza with roasted shiitake, crayfish pork sausage, grilled asparagus, Swiss cheese, and herb topping on marinara sauce
- Fried black squid-ink ravioli stuffed with smoked salmon, ricotta, and fresh dill, drizzled with sour cream
- Thai red coconut curry simmered with duck, orange tomatoes, onions, eggplant, pineapple, and Thai basil, finished with kafir lime leaves
- Vietnamese banh cahn soup with large clear potato noodles, roasted sliced pork, grilled prawns, carrots and onions in a seafood broth
- Seafood gumbo with crayfish and pork sausage, catfish, and grilled chicken simmered with okra, bell peppers, tomatoes, and garlic
- Chorizo chile with red beans, pasilla chili peppers, tomatoes, green onion, and hominy, topped with cheddar cheese and baked
- Roasted clams or mussels with shallots, herbs, anise liqueur, and butter
- Clams, mussels, prawns, or snails simmered with tamarind, garlic, and green onions in a clay pot
Several more items are available under each price heading, including some of those discussed in the Express review.
I had the roasted pasilla on my first visit. A perfectly roasted large pasilla was stuffed with a savory mixture that was lighter in texture than I would have assumed (feared?) from the menu description. It was served on a six-inch-tall square platform made of some kind of hard ceramic substance, a presentation that was certainly striking, though it made manipulating cutlery just slightly awkward. My only cavil was that the pepper was indeed served *on* the zebra tomato sauce (essentially a tomatillo sauce), which had been applied with a squeeze bottle decoratively but rather parsimoniously; I wanted more.
On my second visit, I had the seafood gumbo, and it was pretty terrific. The coffee-colored broth was marvelously complex, with that kind of sneaky heat I really appreciate. (A blend of cayenne and white pepper, the chef told me.) It glistened as though thickened with a light cornstarch liaison, an effect more likely the artifact of a proper, long-cooked roux. Served in a deep bowl full of boiled (I believe) rice, accompanied by a wedge of decent cornbread, it was immensely satisfying and very filling. My only criticism, and it's very minor, is that the kitchen might better have substituted good-quality canned tomatoes for the diced out-of-season fresh ones used here.
On my first visit I was offered a tasting sampler of three of the "hard teas" the place specializes in; none of them knocked me out, although the red hibiscus was interesting. On my second trip I had a 16-ounce glass of weizen beer, which hit the spot with the gumbo. There are precisely two wines on the beverage list -- a Rhone-style red I've never heard of (Spencer Roloson '99 Palaterra), and a 2001 Fume Blanc from Dry Creek Vineyard -- but I'm not sure that wine would be the ideal beverage for many of the menu items anyway.
Service was attentive and friendly, and since the place was nearly empty on both visits, the food came promptly. A superb background (actually, foreground) soundtrack of post-Parker bop was much appreciated by yours truly on both visits, but others might find it overloud. I'm sure the friendly staff would tone it down on request.
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