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Restaurants & Bars 27

Two weeks in Berkeley and environs (report, long)

Prabhakar Ragde | Jan 9, 200308:51 AM

Our Christmas visit to Berkeley lasted from December 20 to January 4
this year. Usually we have a dozen new places to try, some of which we
don't get to; this time our list was much shorter, and the awkward
timing of the holidays (with Christmas and New Year's falling on
Wednesdays) made it harder than usual to eat out (or in, for that
matter -- Berkeley Bowl seemed a madhouse every time I was there). I
was also coming off a difficult term at work and lacked the energy to
plan, make reservations, or look for parking. Still, we managed to
make it to a few places, and here are some brief capsule descriptions
of them. --PR


Picante (Sixth near Gilman): The only thing that has changed here is
that they seem to have finally justified their name by stocking
habanero salsa. There was a time when this place was exciting, but now
its main virtue is that it's open late, meaning we can land at SFO in
the evening and still have something decent to eat before going to bed
without having to feel that better food is being wasted on our
jetlagged, dehydrated selves or worry about timing of reservations.

Wat Mongkolratanaram (aka Thai Temple, Russell near Ashby): Not as
much fun in the winter when it's cold, but the cheery banter of the
volunteers is warming (with the exception of one nasty, stingy woman
at the steam table, watch out for her!), and the food reheats fine in
the microwave at home. There seems to be a Thai restaurant on every
block now, though few can beat the temple food. In fact, I don't
believe I've ever had a green papaya salad as good anywhere, though
I'd pay just to watch them make it, never mind getting to eat it

Vik (Allston near Fourth): Holding their own while other places seem
to dwindle and wither. This time we tried going just before closing
for an early dinner, and boy, is the place a mess by then: slippery
tables and overflowing trash cans. Saving graces are the terrific
food, which I keep expecting to slip in quality, though it never does
(though I haven't seen any new menu items lately), and the fact that
this is the only place I know of in North America where they can
pronounce my name correctly over a public address system. Prices as
low as ever. I'll repeat my wish that they raise them twenty-five
cents and put the money into improving the logistics every so slightly.

Udupi Palace (University at Milky Way): The paternal side of my family is
South Indian, and this great cuisine (these great cuisines, actually,
because the regional variation is still considerable) is severely
neglected in North America. So I had high hopes for this
restaurant. There are a number of nice touches: pretty authentic lemon
pickle, kohlrabi in one of the thali dishes. But what is chole batura,
a northern dish, doing on the menu, why was there a bland
northern-style dal in my thali, and why is there so much potato in
everything? Perhaps it's the equivalent of putting steak or burgers on
a menu for the unadventurous. Rava dosa is quite hard to find, but
their rendition is too crispy: it shatters rather than breaking off
nicely. Footprints on the toilet seat indicate expatriates are
frequenting the place, but that's hardly a consolation... disappointing.
I wish Athithi had been open while we were in town.

Cactus (Solano near Alameda): Tamales are still great, but you need to
time your visit to avoid fathers talking on cellphones who let their
children scream and run around. I took the trouble to teach my kids
how to behave in restaurants, and I make sure they don't forget how
even for a moment. Just because one is paying about five bucks for
good food served cafeteria-style doesn't mean one can shirk one's
responsibility to other patrons and the human beings who bus the
tables. Anyway, I wish Cactus would stay open until ten so I can stop
going to Picante. Nice homey food, but hardly a destination.

Kirala (Shattuck at Adeline): Perhaps going for lunch on the day after
Christmas was an unfair test, but here's what I had for the $9.75
sushi special: four fingers of nigiri (snapper, tuna, yellowtail, and
cooked shrimp, which I consider filler), three small pieces of
cucumber roll (more filler) and three of tuna roll, and a spicy tuna
hand roll. Seems to me I remember paying about two-thirds as much and
getting half again as much. The fish was good, but I felt
cheated. This is what I want: a place where I can go in and get a nice
assortment of nigiri, say seven fingers plus three pieces of roll, for
a decent price. Chef's choice, whatever is best, but no egg or surimi,
and I should be able to sit at a table with my kids, not perch at the
sushi bar repeatedly until I become a "regular" in order to get
treated properly. Kirala used to be that place for me. It gets one
more chance.

Zax Tavern (Telegraph): Inside hasn't changed much (if at all) from
when it was Mazzini. Friendly service. No pyrotechnics, just solid and
comforting food. Quite nice rose from the Languedoc by the glass (a
bold move in rainy December). Bean soup could have been a bit perkier,
but it hit the spot. Goat cheese souffle was unexpectedly light. Mains
were all great: dark lamb stew with a good assortment of vegetables
and a chunk of crispy polenta on top (though my family loyally
whispered that the lamb stew I made a couple of days previous was
better), a couple of fishes rarely seen on menus (hake and striped
bass, the latter with Asian touches such as bok choy and horseradish
in the garlic mashed potatoes). Desserts were terrific: warm apple
galette with caramel ice cream, tangerine sorbet, and a lemon souffle
tart that for once wasn't cloying.

Jimmy Bean's (Sixth and Gilman): This is one of those places where I
always order the same dish, in this case their roast leg of lamb
sandwich with grilled eggplant and pickled red onions. Last time it
was chewy and soggy, and I was tempted not to go back. But this time
it was nearly perfect: bread grilled just right, tender lamb, eggplant
neither overly firm nor mushy. The calzone special my wife had, on the
other hand, only passed muster because she decided to think of it as a
wrap with cheddar cheese (?) and roasted vegetables.

A Cote (Rockridge, Oakland): Fries with aioli were as good as ever, as
was the flatbread we tried (soppressata with pecorino and caramelized
onions); butternut squash ravioli in sage brown butter was quite nice,
and crab salad with shaved fennel and fuyu persimmon worked well,
though splitting it five ways was frustrating. Only the cassoulet let
us down, as the beans lacked depth of flavour (perhaps I am being
unfair here as well, since my last restaurant cassoulet was in
Toulouse, and cassoulet doesn't really fit into their format). Still,
the place feels more like a bar than a restaurant: the lighting is so
dim one can hardly see the food.

Gou Bu Li (San Pablo at Moeser Lane, El Cerrito): We used to frequent
this small place a decade or more ago, but it dropped off our radar
screens for some reason. Still in the same location, with the same
proprietors. The northern-style dim sum (no delicate rice wrappers and
seafood, more bready and meaty) was a bit greasier than I remembered,
but the homey and quiet atmosphere (other patrons appeared to be
regulars) and caring service more than made up for it. They had a
number of cold dishes plastic-wrapped at the front, and my kids chose
one with tiny dried fish, salted black beans, peanuts, smoked tofu,
and carrot chunks, and polished it off before the xiao long bao

Kirin (Solano): The bottle of Kirin Ichiban I ordered did not come
from Japan, but was made in the US by Anheuser-Busch. That is a
perfect metaphor for this place, which reprises the Szechwan-Hunan
craze of the '80's but with shiny surfaces, high ceilings, clean
Formica-less tables and a good wine list. (Yes, I know it's spelled
Sichuan, but that's how everyone spelled it in the '80's.) It seems
almost churlish to remember that in Chengdu, dan dan mien (called "tan
tan noodles" here) didn't have green peas and mushrooms in it, and no
one used cornstarch as thickener, or put sugar in the kung pao. This
place isn't about Chinese food: it's about bourgeois comfort, and it
does a pretty good job of that: though we only went here because Sushi
Sho turned out to be closed for the holidays, it salvaged the
evening. (If Shen Hua in Rockridge is geographically more convenient
for you, go there, as the two places are clones.)

Piperade (Battery, SF): Pastis was one of those underrated places we
steered people to, but Piperade has taken its place. Fortunately, the
same chef (Gerald Hirigoyen of Fringale) is at the helm, having
shifted focus to his Basque roots. From start to finish, the meal was
a standout success, not a dud among the three appetizers, five mains,
and five desserts we had. Sample: "terrine" of slices of sheep's milk
cheese and crisped serrano ham stacked into a rectangular prism and
laid atop a bed of frisee; steamed Pacific snapper topped with
caramelized slices of garlic and served atop spinach drizzled with
olive oil; and an amazing walnut and sheep's milk cheese gratin for
dessert, savoury and sweet at the same time. Only off-note was the
trip hop on the sound system.

Isa (Steiner at Chestnut, SF): We walked in without reservations on
January 2. Luke was off that night, but Kitty was there, and although
I don't think we'd ever exchanged two words with her and hadn't been
there for months, she welcomed us back. Those two have a serious
memory for customers. The food was as good as ever (good to see the
kitchen can function in Luke's absence), especially the seared dayboat
scallops with black truffled poached asparagus, and the lamb
tenderloin "crepinette" with sofrito, zucchini, and
artichokes. Desserts are good but not up to the standards of the rest
of the menu, and I haven't seen any new ones lately. But the patio was
relaxing and warm.

Ton Kiang (Geary at 22nd, SF): Lunch on January 2nd at quarter to
twelve. Half our dumplings were oversteamed, and the har gow were
dull. We were seated upstairs, and there seemed to be fewer
interesting items coming around. It was one of those meals where I was
tempted to keep eating to try to get more satisfaction, but realized I
would just get fuller and unhappier. Clearly I should have paid more
attention to the Dim Sum Civil War reports.

Grasshopper (College at Alcatraz, Oakland): Full by 6:30 on a Friday
night, no recession here. Somehow we ended up with more foods that
were difficult to eat by oneself, let alone split as they suggest:
12-spice pork ribs, grilled quail in tangerine sauce, Indonesian
satay. My younger daughter insists on going here just for the spiced
cashews, but my older daughter points out that the menu hasn't really
changed over the past year. We had all five desserts, all of which
were great, even the one that could have been the dullest (cranberry
upside-down cake, a hint of cornmeal in it, and almond ice cream on
the side). Good for them for having a tapioca dessert. I was ready to
order the sake flight, but the server dashed off with our food list
(which my daughter had carefully written out), so I didn't bother.

Cheeseboard (Shattuck at Vine): This place was crucial to my
cheese education, but I don't buy much cheese here any more (none on
this trip). They do have a decent selection of well-aged crottins, but
their selection isn't as discriminating or comprehensive as I'd like
(they'll have Cantal, for instance, but not Salers, the artisanal
version). I find myself coming here more for the baguettes (which I
consider superior to Acme and definitely superior to Semifreddi) and
the regular scones. Plus I have a soft spot for their ideology. Oh,
and the pizza is nice, once a trip (too rich to have too often).

Tartine (18th at Guerrero, SF): Okay, I have a question about this
place: when am I supposed to visit it? Their pastries are too rich for
breakfast, and if I eat them at any other time of day, I endanger
either lunch or dinner, or have to give up a restaurant dessert, or
something. In the end we managed it by buying pains aux chocolats at
eleven but eating them after an early lunch. They didn't improve by
sitting in a cool trunk for a couple of hours, but they were still
damn good (love that Scharffen Berger chocolate). Also, when do they
have bread? I've never seen any.

Sweet Maria's (64th near Hollis, Emeryville): This isn't really a
retail store, but a small warehouse space out of which is run the best
Internet source for small quantities of green coffee beans you roast
yourself. I arranged a pickup to save shipping and customs
hassles. Nice people who go through very careful cupping of estate
coffees to select the best ones; I haven't had a dud coffee from
them. Check them out at

Some random food notes:

-- Andronico's on Shattuck finally wised up to the fact that everyone
was waiting to buy their panettone at half price on December 26, and
ordered almost none this year. Fortunately, Zarri's on Solano has
inexpensive panettone (with real butter and natural yeast) year-round.

-- Berkeley Bowl has organic French green lentils in bulk for
ninety-nine cents a pound. They also have Scharffen Berger eight-packs
of the one-ounce bars for $12, and if there is a better price for this
anywhere, you should tell me about it.

-- Duck confit is $12/lb at the meat counter at the back of Cafe
Rouge. I'd be buying it every two weeks if I lived in town. (Of
course, if I lived in town, I could get cheaper raw duck legs from the
same source and make my own confit.)

-- Bay Wolf didn't have cassoulet on their December menu, and they
were closed in January until after I left, so I had to make my own
(using confit from guess where). It turned out to be surprisingly
easy: like bread, it only takes a few minutes here and there, though
total time from start to finish is quite long. The real trick is to
not load it down with fat. I probably should have put a bit more on
the fresh breadcrumbs (Acme levain), which didn't brown.

-- Why don't places offer nigori sake as an alternative to port and
dessert wine after dinner?

-- On New Year's Eve I got to cook whatever I wanted, which turned out
to be: gougeres, crab cakes, gobo cooked in dashi and mirin, Brussels
sprouts plucked off the stalk and briefly steamed, Asian mix salad
greens dressed with olive oil and Trader Joe's balsamic vinegar, and
profiteroles. Yes, none of it went together, but all of it tasted

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