Restaurants & Bars

San Francisco Bay Area Trip Report

Trip report (Bendean, Delfina, Saigon City, Unicorn, etc -- long)

Share:

Restaurants & Bars 11

Trip report (Bendean, Delfina, Saigon City, Unicorn, etc -- long)

Prabhakar Ragde | Mar 23, 2005 06:59 PM

Here is a brief review of the places we ate at during an eight-day
visit to Berkeley. Because our stay was shorter than usual, we did
less eating at home.

Cactus Taqueria, Berkeley: Our standby on the way back from the
airport, when it feels like eleven o'clock at night. The old
handwritten menu has been replaced with the same slick board I saw at
the Rockridge location last summer, but the rest of the decor is the
same, including the kids wandering around unsupervised. I had my usual
tamales and my usual Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Cactus isn't a
destination, but if I had a location at home, I'd eat at it once a
week.

Genki, Berkeley: I'm a fan of downscale Japanese, but Genki was less
impressive this time. The chirashi didn't have much fresh fish in it,
and my father-in-law pointed out that the tempura zaru soba came with
only one dipping sauce for both shrimp and noodles, instead of the
typical two.

La Rose Bistro, Berkeley: I'm also a fan of small operations trying
for high quality, and I enjoyed this meal at La Rose better than the
last one I had there. The duck strudel works better as an appetizer
with less rice in it; my red miso-glazed sea bass was quite good. Not
everyone was as happy; the panko-encrusted scallops across the table
numbered exactly two, and the pad thai-style noodles that came with it
were too sweet. The chef herself served some of our dishes, and came
to ask how we were enjoying our meal, always appreciated. I think it
would be nice to be a regular here. Instead of an in-house dessert, we
went across the street to:

Gelateria Naia, Berkeley: The texture is still wrong (more
superpremium ice cream instead of gelato) and they didn't have the
black sesame, my favourite. But the flavours of nocciola and dark
chocolate were good. It was the fruit flavours I was disappointed in
last summer, and they didn't have many on this visit. (Anyone know
where to get hazelnut extract in the East Bay? We struck out
everywhere we looked.)

Vik's, Berkeley: "The only thing that's changed is the coconut
chutney; there's more of it," said my wife. Also, they seem to have at
least two people on the masala dosa station; our five orders came out
really quickly, and there were still tables when we left just before
twelve on a Saturday. They sell the dosa dough next door in the store,
but don't be tempted; it's hard to get the thickness and the
crisp/soft ratio right at home. These days when it seems that
everything is slowly going downhill, Vik's is holding its ground.

Ryowa Ramen, Berkeley: This was probably the meal we were looking
forward to the most. The original ramen was as good as ever. I ducked
out to pick up some discs at Mod Lang and when I got back, the table
had eaten all the gyoza, so I didn't try any. The fried chicken came
later and was only so-so. Curious fact: the kimchi, in little
rubber-seal jars with the rest of the condiments, is really good
here. I thought that the Japanese sports channel shown on the TV above
the entrance was on satellite, but oddly enough it's on videocassette.

Cafe Sophia, Albany: Very good falafel, moving to #2 on my East Bay
list behind Zatar; light, made fresh, properly seasoned. The rest of
my meze plate matched it: baba ghanouj with proper smokiness, grilled
eggplant salad, hommous, tahini. The pita was a bit of a letdown,
rather white-bread and fluffy. Housemade hamentashen were quite
good (usually these suck). Tiny place, so get there early, or get
takeout and sit under the BART tracks.

Bendean, Berkeley: It was already too noisy as we walked in at six on
a Sunday night. Another industrial hard-surfaced California
restaurant. The early prix-fixe which we were too late for was potato
salad, steamed mussels, and poppyseed cake, for $13. Not very
exciting, but a good deal compared to the $12 we paid for seven spears
of admittedly perfectly cooked asparagus in vinaigrette. (The tomato
soup was good, but not exceptional.) The signature dish here is pork
rojo with hominy, a large serving in a deep bowl, with housemade fried
tortilla strips and a scoop of guacamole; it was terrific, a dish I
will try to recreate at home. Oricchiette with duck ragu was too rich,
and the "formaggio tartufo" had lost whatever essence of truffle it
once possessed; the thick, chewy pasta and the cheese dominated,
meaning the duck was wasted, it might as well have been pork for all
the impact it had. Apple/almond crisp with vanilla bean ice-cream
wasn't too sweet or rich, but was more soggy than crisp, in fact quite
soupy, with the apples a little too firm; it was downright
amateur. Service was rushed and inconsistent; sometimes plates were
whisked away almost before the last bite, sometimes they sat. Lalime
and Rivoli set the standards this restaurant aspires to, but it has
some way to go yet: one good dish does not a restaurant make. Quite a
disappointment.

Berkeley Bowl, Berkeley: Picked up ingredients here for a meal my
daughter had to cook for the family as a school assignment; she was
smart enough to improvise based on what we could find, and passed up
the meat and fish counters for the vegetable section. We did get a
container of Chocolate Millennium Denali chocolate sauce out of the
freezer, which proved to be high-quality, though too rich for me. But
why is the parking lot full at 9am Monday morning, and manoeuvring a
cart through the crowded aisles all but impossible? Don't these people
have jobs? I used to shop at the old location regularly when I lived
in Berkeley, but it was reasonable at off-hours. I'm not sure I could
endure this frustration every week.

Ba Le Banh Mi, El Cerrito: A hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese sandwich
joint in a strip mall on San Pablo just north of Central. The
sandwiches are credible, though not as good as at Saigon Sandwich in
SF. Papaya salad and fresh spring rolls are available premade, and the
cooler contains some Vietnamese bean-and-jelly dessert drinks. A
decent option for lunch if you find yourself in the area.

Bittersweet Cafe, Oakland: Dropped in at 5pm and the place was overrun
with kids and caregivers, surely not the intended audience for their
high-quality chocolate concept. I didn't try their European-style hot
chocolate (generally these are too rich for me) but I did buy a bar of
Michel Cluisel from the small selection on display in wall racks. It
seems like a thin concept, not quite as bad as the Scotch Tape
Boutique but verging on it; however, I'm not a good judge of what will
survive and what won't.

Pearl Oyster Bar, Oakland: The main thing to remember is that they now
have a reservation service on their website, which I discovered only
by chance. We snagged a 5:30 same-day table, but watched parties being
turned away throughout our meal. Despite the trendy design, we in our
schlumpy clothes were never made to feel unwelcome or out of place. On
our last visit it was frustrating to split dishes such as the trio of
tartares among five people, so this time we ordered two orders of our
selections: spicy tuna poke (with cubes of cucumber in a Korean-style
sesame/chili dressing), spring rolls (made with rice paper and briefly
deep-fried, containing a fish mousse green with herbs), Maine peekytoe
crabcakes (properly made with just enough binding to hold them
together), misoyaki black cod (the portobello fritters that came with
this were the one part of the meal that didn't work). Desserts at
Pearl are unexpectedly good: an heirloom apple and huckleberry crisp
with Tahitian vanilla bean gelato ("This is what Bendean's should have
been," my wife said), a light, tall Meyer lemon cheesecake, and a hot
fudge sundae that beats renditions at Rivoli and Dona Tomas.

Cheeseboard Pizza, Berkeley: There's only one choice, and the changes
they run on it are subtle, at least as far as I can tell from sampling
it every few months. It sets the standards for takeout pizza, but I
think if I had it more often, I'd want a little more variety. However,
at my present rate of consumption, it's damn good. (We also dropped in
on the Cheeseboard for scones; we have the cookbook, but can't
actually bring ourselves to put that much butter into anything.)

Saigon City, Berkeley: Interesting things are happening on the block
of Telegraph just south of Dwight. We hadn't been to Unicorn (see
review below) or Tandor Kitchen yet, but the promise of Saigon City's
upscale Vietnamese tempted us with memories of Slanted Door back in
the early days before it became an institution. For starters, we had
imperial rolls (well done), banana flower salad (nice presentation,
with a composed salad of shreds of grilled chicken, banana flower, and
other ingredients served in a huge petal), and calamari cake (a daily
special variation on a deep-fried fish cake). Mains were all good and
the portions were generous. Lemongrass chicken was not a typical
hasty stir-fry, but had a reddish-brown complex sauce. The clay pot
sea bass was properly cooked, with caramelized sauce; we also had
daily specials of bo kho (beef shank stew) and red curry
duck. Desserts were an unexpected bonus: tiramisu which wasn't soggy
or heady with alcohol; kaffir lime creme brulee which had the right
ratio of brulee to creme, being served in a wide shallow dish; and a
comped vanilla bean flan with the right texture and sweetness (not to
excess). The chef came out to chat with us; his mom is in charge of
the front room, and was also quite friendly. This was the find of the
trip, and we'll be back.

Spices! II, San Francisco: Welcome to the New China: loud, brash, but
not quite on top of things. The food was good, but like the decor,
lacked a certain subtlety, and service was pretty much nonexistent. We
had dry-braised string beans, which came out first, and which we
finished completely before the next dishes came along: spicy tofu and
fish fillet, served in a shallow chafing dish, and shredded eel and
vermicelli (really bean thread noodles, whose elasticity resulted in
sprays of red oil whenever anyone attempted to serve any of
them). Good spicing. Probably our choice for lunch after a visit to
Green Apple Books, vying with Burma Superstar.

Delfina, San Francisco: Their forte, as always, is in excellent
renditions of Italian standards, filtered through California
sensibilities, that don't depend on hyperbolic adjectives or lists of
suppliers to impress us. For starters, we had salt cod mantecato with
fennel flatbread (basically their brandade -- all the baccala
mantecato we've had in Venice has been served cold, and is whiter and
fluffier than this), Jewish-style artichoke (trimmed and deep-fried in
the Jewish-Roman style, matching the ones we had at Da Giggetto in
Rome), grilled calamari with white bean salad and a tangle of frisee.
Mains were California swordfish with aioli and warm lentils, the
swordfish perfectly done, without a trace of the chewiness or dryness
that plagues most preparations, the lentils enhanced with crunchy
mirepoix, and slow-roasted pork shoulder (thin slices in a reduction)
with roasted peppers and polenta. Dessert was Meyer lemon crostata
with whipped cream, nothing like the usual lemon curd tart, since it
was thick with fine shreds of candied Meyer lemon peel, and pinenut
biscotti with vin santo. As on all our previous visits, the service
was exceptionally friendly and unpretentious.

Jimmy Bean's, Berkeley: They've expanded slightly to the north,
adding a few more tables in an awkward space, and they seem to be open
for early breakfast and dinner now. The kitchen has always been
inconsistent, and this visit was not impressive. Putting orange
cheddar into a tomato tortilla made for a rather lurid quesadilla
presentation. My leg of lamb sandwich lacked structural integrity, the
condiments, sliced tomato, and grilled eggplant having reduced the
bread to mush. I had to use a fork and knife to eat it. Falafel in
lavash was "all right", according to my wife. I think this place may
have slipped below threshold.

La Farine, Berkeley: There's more space at the Solano location, and
parking is easier than in that terrible block on College. On the other
hand, most of their breakfast pastries are very slight variations on
the same puff pastry dough (admittedly quite good). The surprise was
the raspberry "croissant" (really a flat rectangle) whose
dull-coloured, mushy filling turned out to have a surprisingly intense
raspberry flavour. We picked up one of their rustic baguettes for
sandwiches for the flight home, which was decent, but not up to Acme
or Cheeseboard standards.

Unicorn, Berkeley: Our last night, and the menus at Rivoli and Lalime
didn't look all that appealing. So we ended up trying Unicorn. The
room was clearly high-concept, with a waterfall (down a guiding clear
sheet) facing us on entry; altogether more upscale in appearance than
Saigon City across the street. Our server didn't quite get it; he
seemed more like an engineering student playing at being a server,
with a crispness verging on smug. We ordered the roll sampler
(customizable by number of people, but we got it for two): mango roll,
Unicorn roll, crispy mango prawn, imperial roll, chao zhou roll, prawn
spring roll. This came with a total of five dipping sauces (one did
double duty) explained to us by the server. All of this fuss actually
worked; the rolls and sauces had distinct flavours, and when I got one
wrong, it didn't work as well. We also ordered the lotus rootlet salad
with prawns, which worked, but wasn't a revelation. The table shared
four mains. Five-spice duck mosaic with came with a tower of baby bok
choy concealing a duck leg, while the breast had been sliced and
arranged. The other three were caramelized bass fillet, "seafood
baked" (scallops, prawns, calamari, and vegetables in jasmine rice),
and smoked eggplant with scallion, the last one particularly good
(even my nine-year-old admitted it, and eggplant is one of the few
things she really doesn't care for). Desserts looked unexceptional, so
we returned home to polish off the Denali chocolate sauce with Double
Rainbow ice cream. The food at Unicorn was impressive, and the only
reason I don't rank it with Saigon City is that the atmosphere was not
as friendly. Unicorn was trying too hard to be a destination; they
need to relax a little. We'll still return.

Emporio Rulli, SFO: Our last treat on the way out Saturday morning. I
have the feeling they ship yesterday's pastries to the airport, but if
you choose stuff that doesn't stale quickly, it tastes fine, and it's
so much better than the usual crud served at airports. Also, the staff
are nice. It gave us the courage to refuse the meal on the plane
(okay, the smoked mozzarella sandwiches helped), which let us remember
our past meals a while longer, and dream of our next visit.

--PR

Image: http://db.uwaterloo.ca/~plragde/z-spi...

Want to stay up to date with this post?

Recommended From Chowhound