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San Francisco Bay Area Berkeley Trip Report

Two Weeks in Berkeley (trip report, long)

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Two Weeks in Berkeley (trip report, long)

Prabhakar Ragde | Sep 1, 2003 05:13 PM

We returned to Berkeley for our annual two-week summer visit intending
to eat, drink, and cook as usual. But the visit turned out a bit
differently than we had expected. Diligent searching of Web sources
(chowhound.com and others) turned up fewer than usual new prospects,
and over the last couple of visits, we had been striking more old
places off our list than adding new ones, a trend which sped up on
this trip. In addition, two sets of cousins (with associated parents)
showed up, creating all manner of logistical hassles and
conflicts. Below are reports on our experiences, which probably will
come across as grumpy and disappointed overall. Wear your
rose-coloured glasses while reading. --PR

-----

Cactus Taqueria: Continues to be a good source of decent, inexpensive
impromptu meals (eg on the way back from the airport at 8:30pm)... and
I continue to be appalled at how parents let their kids run around,
splash other people with fountain water, and get in the way of people
carrying loaded trays. (My kids are appalled, too.) Sooner or later
this will drive me away, though the tamales will probably bring me
back. They've stopped putting the salsas in little pots (I always
worried about people dipping their half-eaten food in them) and let
you ladle them into very small plastic containers, a definite
improvement.

China Village: Sichuan is not about hot. It's about several grades of
hot (fresh chiles, whole dried chiles fried in oil, coarsely powdered,
finely powdered, chili bean sauce) interacting with a number of other
flavours (Sichuan peppercorns, vinegars) via some unusual cooking
techniques (eg dry-frying). The "Szechwan" craze of the '80's brought
dishes like ma po dou fu and gong bao ji ding onto many Chinese menus,
but what we got was a simplified version of the cuisine as interpreted
by mostly Cantonese cooks, as I realized upon visiting Chengdu in
1987. Eating at China Village set off little memory bombs in my brain
through combinations I haven't had since then. My wife, who taught
English in China (Hunan province) for a couple of years in the early
'80's, says that this food tastes like the food in China did. You
can't judge a book by its cover: nothing about this restaurant is
remarkable except what appears on/in the dishes they bring you, and
that's really all that matters. I won't go into details, because I
took recommendations from other posts on this board, and you can do
the same. But my kids thought it was all terrific: my ten-year-old
claimed all the leftover spicy boiled beef the next day ("addictive
but numbing"), and my eight-year-old fell in love with the
fire-bursted mustard greens. We ate there very early in the trip,
before the relatives arrived, explained to them why they wouldn't like
it (condescending, perhaps, but I think accurate), and chose it for
our final meal after they had departed. Very highly recommended.

Vik: Last December I praised the food, but wondered why they didn't
spruce the place up just a little. My prayers were answered! New
marble-topped tables (still self-bussed and so still dirty, but these
can be cleaned fairly easily with napkins and water), new floor,
renovated bathroom (though still only one, and still left in a rather
dismal state by patrons). I even saw someone wielding a mop, when a
patron knocked over a glass! The food is still excellent -- we ended up
eating here three times with various permutations of relatives,
ordering different dishes each time, and everything was good. (This is
my number one spot in the world for masala dosa.) They have started to
offer rice plates (which look less appealing to me than the chaat
menu, but seem to be a hit). Interesting note: the guy with the
microphone sometimes speaks to the guys on the fry stations in
Spanish...

Thai Temple: We got there at 10:15 and all the long tables in the
shade were taken. I hope this place doesn't collapse under its own
popularity. There were a few minor disappointments (portions on the
rice plates were a bit skimpy, and the pad thai noodles were
undercooked and chewy), but on the whole the experience is holding
up. Coconut and taro flake, fresh off the griddle, were particularly
good. On a second visit, arriving just after ten, we snagged shaded
tables, but boy, did it pack out by 10:30 (all schools started that
week). I tried the fried chicken for the first time (good, but the
sticky rice was a bit dry) and the soup (good, but kept me from eating
much of the other stuff). The taro flakes seemed to be coming out at
one serving every fifteen minutes on the second visit. I have to keep
reminding myself that these are volunteers; faced with this many
patrons, I would drop my ladle and run.

Yank Sing: The atrium of the Rincon Center is a nice space, and this
time we were seated at an overflow table outside of the main
restaurant. Unfortunately, that was the highlight of the whole
experience. Nothing sparkled -- the food was not outright bad, merely
ordinary. I wasn't crazy about their putting expensive ingredients
(lobster, scallops) into dumplings and then only putting two in a
steamer, or about their piling them onto plates offered by roving
servers. A large chunk of sea bass may be tasty, but it's not what I
want when I go out for dim sum. All the fried items were on one cart,
and they looked really tired, with oil soaking into the paper doilies
on the plates. The kids had a good time, as did the adults who come
from places where they can't get good dim sum. If I had been able to
order from a menu, I might have forgiven the food's shortcomings, but
having to watch for carts (and then refuse them when we were full)
kept me on edge. My sense is that they're catering to people who don't
care as much about the food as the concept.

Ferry Plaza Market Building: "Gastroporn," said my wife when I caught
up with her, as the crowds flowed and ebbed around us. The building is
clearly a work in progress, but I don't like the direction in which
it's heading. Having a whole retail space devoted to a single olive
oil producer is a bit much; it looks like a temple of hedonism, and
it's not alone. At least the stalls outside (at the Saturday market)
gave the impression of a proper farmer's market, even if the prices
made me gasp. I bought an ounce of smoked onions from Tierra
Vegetables (at the urging of my eight-year-old -- how can you refuse a
request like that?) and a small jar of Frog Hollow nectarine conserve,
and still had change from a ten, but an armload of produce would have
cost me a week's salary. Yeah, I know, it's organic, it's free-range,
it tastes real. But it's being sold to people who drive luxury SUVs by
people who look like their sons and daughters. Three weeks earlier I
walked the length of the Richard Lenoir Sunday market in Paris, buying
from immigrants of all descriptions as well as people who looked as if
they were tenth-generation French peasants, and felt a lot better
about it.

Mitchell's Ice Cream: The glassed-in counter, tiny waiting space, and
chaotic presentation of our options were definitely off-putting. The
ice cream was pretty good, but I don't know if it was worth driving
across town for. Some of us had the halo halo drink, which was
definitely an experience.

Tartine Bakery: Okay, I confess. I just don't get Tartine. Every time
I go there, the selection is completely different. On this trip, we
went on Saturday about three p.m, the place was packed out with people
having coffee, but all they had were a couple of cream cakes, some
frangipane tarts, some eclairs, apricot bread pudding, and
croissants. We got the middle three to go, but they didn't quite
translate well to the East Bay. The almond pastry cream went missing
from the frangipane tarts, leaving only sliced almonds on the top; the
eclair filling was a bit runny, so they had to be eaten in a vertical
fashion; the bread pudding was great, but they would have to be
completely incompetent for it not to be. I have never seen an actual
loaf of bread for sale at this place (and I notice they've taken the
list of items they offer out of the window). What is the protocol
here? Do you have to live a block away and drop in ten times a day to
make sure you get what you want, are you supposed to be satisfied with
pot luck, or is there some big conspiracy to hide the truth from me?

Emeryville Food Court: We made an unscheduled visit there when trying
to feed nine people lunch and forgetting that Vik was not open on
Monday. One of the kids had Korean dumplings, and the rest of us
gravitated to the Persian side of Pamir. Not bad, but not
transcendent. This food court underachieves, and has done so
consistently since it opened -- it looks better than it
actually is, which is surprising considering the average income of
Emeryville and the general food consciousness that permeates this
area.

Kirin: Not my choice, but my suggestion -- for a party of thirteen who
couldn't get their acts together until half an hour before
dinnertime. This place is the equivalent of chinoiserie -- superficial
exoticism for people who like their creature comforts and don't really
wish to be challenged. The contrast with a place like China Village is
like night and day. There's no point in my trashing the meal, it's
like shooting fish in a barrel. My kids worked up a good head of
indignation.

Mondo Gelato: This is not really gelato; the texture is wrong, too
firm and too much butterfat. It's premium ice cream. The flavours are
not bad -- hazelnut (nocciola) lacked the chemical taste of a typical
inferior version, black sesame had some intensity to it, pistachio was
not overly sweet -- but they're not worth $2.75 for a small cup. Why
are there so few real ice cream options in the Bay Area? I remember
Vivoli's of Berkeley fondly, but I wonder if I would be similarly
disappointed by them today, having since been to the best places in
Florence and Rome. If someone asked me where to go for ice cream in
the Bay Area, I'd tell them to hit the nearest Trader Joe's for their
bargain-priced Double Rainbow and Gelato Classico.

Phuping Thai: This used to be the best option I knew of for Thai food
in the East Bay, but our meal this time was dull, dull, dull. The
worst offender was a seafood curry that appeared to just have coconut
milk in it, nothing else. No one wanted a second taste, they packed it
for us to take home, and it sat in the fridge until we threw it
out. Duck in red curry and chao phraya salmon looked terrific but were
muted to the point of vanishing. For some reason, some of our party
decided to have dessert in, so our end of the table ordered a couple
to share. I don't know what was going on in the kitchen -- the
desserts (the same ones they always have) came out one at a time, with
several minutes between each. The other end, who were served first,
packed up their children and left. Thai food, Thai food, everywhere,
but not a single place I want to visit...

Crixa: We picked up an amaretti cream cake and something called
"soprano tiramisu", with chocolate mousse. Real cream, no chemical
flavours or textures, but the sponge cake in both was merely ordinary,
and the faux tiramisu didn't really work for me. Construction was the
same in both cases, fairly simple. The selection was rather small;
they had another quite similar cream cake, some small "Boston cream
pies", and some Bundt-style apple and ginger cakes.

Dona Tomas: The first time we tried to call and book for nine, they
said they only do one "large" party a night, and they already had one
booked. The second time we booked for thirteen, and they seated us in
the room with the bar at two separate tables. The menu had not changed
in any substantial way from our last visit. Service was deadpan to the
point of being contemptuous. The carnitas were as good as ever, and I
suppose I could come here once a year to just eat those, but the
thought just makes me sad. My eight-year-old had to fight to get the
"adult" enchiladas, instead of the kid ones, and then she said to me,
"They're good, but it's the same mole that came with the chips at the
beginning," and she was quite right. The chocolate-cajeta bread
pudding lacked any trace of cajeta, leaving it crumbly and dry beneath
the dollop of whipped cream, and the nectarine-berry crisp lacked any
trace of crisp, leaving it a bowl of compote with a rapidly melting
ball of ice-cream in the center. I think this place has dropped below
my threshold; I'd rather go to Cactus and brave the brats. Pity.

Burma Superstar: Quite a find, as Green Apple Books on Clement is one
of our favourite destinations (including the relatives) but I hadn't
found a really satisfying meal in the vicinity (Patricia Unterman has
an inexplicable soft spot for Taiwan). Ginger salad and tea leaf salad
were quite similar in composition, and the minuscule amount of
fermented tea leaves couldn't compete with the bite of fresh shredded
ginger. The kids enjoyed the samusas; I only had them crumbled up in
samusa soup, which is good, but best enjoyed in small portions. Shan
noodles were quite good. We had a few more mains, all good; even the
sangria was saved from cliche by the use of Asian pear and other
exotic flavours. The meal was varied, filling, and relatively
inexpensive. I used to think of Burmese food as failed Indian
cuisine, but Nan Yang in Rockridge and this place have convinced me
otherwise. Burma, like Singapore, is a culinary crossroads, and when
done properly it's a whole fusion cuisine. We'll visit this restaurant
again, definitely.

Your Place Thai Cuisine: Highly recommended by an out-of-the-blue
Internet correspondent who had just returned from six months in
Thailand. Maybe I should have told the server that I had just done the
same; I might have gotten more interesting food. All the starters --
spring rolls, fish cakes, taro/bean cakes, seafood salad -- came with
exactly the same garnish of shredded cabbage and carrot, and the same
sweet-hot dipping sauce (varied slightly with the inclusion of chopped
peanuts or cucumber). Pad thai was just sweet and insipid, panang beef
bore no resemblance to the dish as I've cooked it or had it elsewhere
(here it was thin strips of beef thrown into a peanut sauce as one
might get with satay). Grilled eggplant with shrimp (a special) had
nice texture, but it was underspiced. The decor and atmosphere is nice
(tinkly gamelan music on the stereo) and service was congenial.

Vanni's Innovative Cuisine: An impromptu lunch for five, when our
first choice (Cafe Raj on Solano in Albany) turned out to be closed
for renovations. Lovely, peaceful room; friendly and gracious
service. The menu is a little sparse; several of the dishes are slight
variations on each other, and the descriptions are pretty
minimal. The innovation is supposed to be the use of high-quality
ingredients, with some tinkering by the chef. Lumpia arrived straight
from the deep fryer, with a complex and interesting filling, and it
was served with a sweet-hot sauce commonly associated with gai yang
(boxing stadium chicken). Unfortunately, everything else we ate was
marred by excessive sweetness (even by the standards of North American
Thai restaurants, who like Chinese restaurants before them have
discovered how much we like sugar). There was clearly some depth to
the food -- the red curry was the most promising I've had in some time
-- but I had to grope for it through a sucrose haze. Sweetness has a
place in savoury cooking, but it needs to be in balance with other
flavours. It's a shame -- this place isn't going to change their
approach, because they'll do just fine. Just not with me.

Zax: They actually welcomed a reservation for thirteen, unlike just
about every other place we tried, and our greeting and service
throughout was friendly and aimed directly at the kids, instead of
pretending they didn't exist. They're playing up the post-dot-com
comfort food theme just a bit too much for my tastes. My kids were
sorry to not see the panko-crusted fish on the menu; the Alaskan
halibut wasn't quite an adequate substitute. My lamb shank melted off
the bone, partnered with nice baby bok choy and a nice reduction at
the bottom of the bowl. But they're skirting complacency less than a
year after moving from SF; nothing on the menu acknowledged that it
was summertime, and what was a solid and satisfying meal at Christmas
seemed just a bit too stodgy with the sun shining outside. I once said
of Mazzini (which used to occupy this space) that it was a good place
to take your parents, and I wonder if I now have to label Zax in the
same way.

Lulu: Was good, then was bad, now is good again -- or so say everyone
else. I've never eaten here before, frightened away by the thought of
a place so large and loud that the cooks have to wear radio headsets
to communicate with each other. One set of in-laws wanted a farewell
dinner in SF before driving to the airport, and I suggested The Public
in SOMA (on the strength of an SFBG review) because it seemed that the
combination of being able to seat nine on fairly short notice and not
having insane parking was just right. But they said they wouldn't seat
parties larger than six under any circumstances, so I suggested Lulu
as a nearby alternative (keeping The Last Supper Club in
reserve). They put us in the north room, right by the rotisserie,
which kept the noise away for half the meal, at the cost of some heat
(and coming out smelling as if we'd been grilled over mesquite). Our
server was trying to be Parker Posey and failing utterly at it. But
the food was good, if a bit over the top: a double order of roast duck
arrived piled intimidatingly high on a platter. Wild mushroom and
heirloom tomato pizzas had a decent crust (not quite crisp enough for
my taste, but not soggy) and well-balanced toppings; sand dabs a la
plancha had terrific flavour, but were overcooked. Fritto misto of
artichokes and lemon was well done, but I missed the tiny bursts of
salt from the little anonymous Venetian fish. Desserts were
surprisingly modest; I could finish my frozen nectarine mousse without
exploding, and the coffee ice cream in my eight-year-old's
profiteroles was heavy on the coffee flavour and light on cream and
sugar. I could still hear the person across from me (and the jerks at
the next table) when the bill came, but it was a relief to get out
into the comparative calm of Folsom St. traffic. I don't know if I'd
do it again (Azie next door is more interesting) but I enjoyed the
evening.

Kirala: They didn't know, and wouldn't have cared if they had, but
this was the last chance I was giving Kirala. I've watched the lunch
specials go from inspired and a great deal to pedestrian and
stingy. This time we tried a dinner, something we haven't done in
years, at five on a Sunday. And this time I ordered a la carte sushi
and robata for everyone (except the kids, who had their own sushi
dinners). Our server wasn't one of the grumpy older Japanese women, or
the charmingly incompetent younger Japanese women; he appeared to be
Hispanic, and he was desperately overworked. We ordered the kids'
sushi without wasabi (go figure, they can eat Sichuan food, but are
scared of wasabi) and all of ours arrived without. Okay, no big deal,
there was a lump of it on the plate we could stir into our soy
sauce. The robata was merely okay, except for the miso-marinated black
cod and halibut, which arrived looking very similar to each other (you
had to prod them to tell the difference; they flake differently);
those were quite good. The sushi was decent. I had ankimo for the
first time, which tasted to me like gentle mi-cuit foie gras. So: for
thirty-five dollars a person, you can have a good meal at Kirala, if
you can ignore the crowding and the hungry eyes of those in line
waiting for your table. I guess it's still on my list, but I don't
know how often I'll visit from now on.

Desiree: I learned about this little cafe in the Presidio from the new
edition of Patricia Unterman's book. Since we were taking the kids to
the Exploratorium, I thought we'd try for a late lunch. Not
surprisingly, there were no tables at 1:30 (well, one person was
taking up a four-person table, but she did arrive first), so we got
box lunches. The kids opted for ham and cheese; we wanted goat cheese
and grilled vegetables, but there was only one left, so I went for
turkey salad. The family went off to scout for a spot to eat, and I
watched them make the sandwiches; the others' press-toasted, mine made
on fresh toast, the salads assembled and mixed individually by hand,
four little bags of three cookies put into the communal bag with
napkins and forks. The woman doing the assembling kept an aloof
attitude with me, but addressed many of the other patrons by names;
perhaps they were regulars from the SF Film Institute in the building,
or other nearby organizations. I began to feel like I was
intruding. The four lunches totalled forty-seven dollars and
change. The family had found a couple of benches near a commemorative
flagpole; the heat had broken, the wind was up, and the main thing I
had to worry about was dripping mayonnaise and keeping individual
mesclun leaves from blowing away. The family was impressed; I thought
it was okay, maybe not worth twelve bucks. I might have thought more
of it if I'd had it sitting at a table, sipping a beer, watching
others take out their lunches. Maybe next time.

Lalime's: An impromptu early walk-in for five worked; the place was
virtually empty, though it had nearly filled up by the time we
left. No real surprises on the menu. So why was I so much more
satisfied than at Zax or Dona Tomas? Because the place
delivered. Gazpacho was light and refreshing; rack of lamb was
generous (four thick chops) and perfectly done. My eight-year-old had
a pizzetta which she couldn't finish; it was taken away to be packed
and did not reappear. My dessert was a peach tart with creme fraiche
ice cream, a very simple tart built on a rectangle of puff pastry, but
it was just right. Then, when the bill came, so did the package of
pizzetta, courteously kept in the kitchen so as not to clutter our
table. It was a lovely touch, a grace note to a fine evening.

Ryowa Ramen House: I've read that this place is Kobe-style
authentic. I wouldn't know. I like ramen, and I've had some bad ones,
a lot of mediocre ones, and a few good ones. This was one of the good
ones. The noodles were properly chewy, the broth was complex with a
hint of spiciness; I didn't have to resort to any of the condiments on
the table (which looked interesting). We ordered the fried chicken for
the table to share, and it was good also. My only question is how do
you eat ramen without breaking out into a complete sweat? I was
dripping from every orifice when I finished. Not date food, that's for
sure. Also really too much for lunch.

Rivoli: Another impromptu early walk-in. We hadn't planned to go to
Rivoli at all; we had decided that a light, casual meal was in order,
and pulled up outside Nizza La Bella, only to discover that they were
closed due to a power failure (traffic lights on lower Solano were out
also). I suggested Sushi Sho, which someday I will get to, but our
Kirala meal was too fresh in everyone's mind. So somehow we ended up
at Rivoli. I was startled by the view of the garden, and realized I
had only been there in the wintertime. I could have had a glass of
wine and stared at the view for an hour or so. But I didn't; I had a
glass of stout and three full courses. My starter was two soups in one
bowl, made from Yellow Boy and smoked Early Girl tomatoes. It was
terrific, but I only ate half of it before yielding to the pleading
eyes of my eight-year-old and switching it for her portobello mushroom
fritters (which were as good as always). The whole table ordered the
Maine crab lasagne as a main course, and after a few bites, my wife
said, "It's a good thing we all ordered this -- the person who didn't
would be kicking themselves." It was incredible, probably the best
single dish of the trip (okay, maybe tied with the Sichuan boiled
beef). It was rich, but not overly so; bisected Sweet 100's added a
tart note, and I could definitely taste the sweetness of the crab
through the pasta and bechamel. The portion size was perfect; smaller
and I would have wanted more, more and I would have had to leave
some. Desserts were simple but intense, blackberry and plum sorbets,
and for me a cornmeal cake with blueberry compote and whipped creme
fraiche. Again, no real innovation on the menu, but they have kept up
standards, perhaps even improved them. It was an unexpectedly
delightful meal.

-----

That's it, though we made our usual visits to Cheeseboard,
Andronico's, Berkeley Bowl, Trader Joe's, and Peet's, and I cooked
cassoulet for fourteen (I know, wrong season, but tell my
eight-year-old that). We didn't make it to Athithi, Baraka, and Sushi
Sho; these will be on the list again for December, along with whatever
other new finds you good people discover. --PR

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