Restaurants & Bars

Two weeks in Berkeley and vicinity (trip report, long)

Prabhakar Ragde | Jan 9, 200405:20 PM     2

The calendar gods smiled on us this Christmas, giving us two full
weeks in Berkeley. Fallout from the poor economy is still evident;
everyone seems to be in let's-just-get-through-this mode, and
seemingly worried that bold gestures will be interpreted as
desperation. We ate well, though; it's hard not to in the Bay
Area. Here are brief reports on our meals.

New finds:

Dopo -- Tiny place! The kitchen takes up most of it, leaving enough
room for a half-dozen small tables, none seating more than four. In
good weather they may be able to fit a couple of tables on the
sidewalk. No reservations, so get there when they open at 5:30, or be
prepared to either stand outside and wait or (as we saw two parties
doing) berate and bother the staff until they agree to let you squeeze
into a too-small table. The menu is also tiny; it fits onto a
half-sized sheet of paper, three or four appetizers, a few main pastas
and pizzas, with wines on the back (all available by the glass, and
served in sensible tumblers). Portions are small but tasty: we had an
appetizer platter with a frittura of cardoons and red onions, crostone
with fresh marinated anchovies, and a salad of blood orange, shaved
fennel, and chopped olives; then a really solid spaghetti with braised
Monterey Bay squid, and three pizzas, of which the surprise favourite
was spicy cauliflower (good thin, crisp crusts on all). There were
three dessert choices, from which we opted for a flourless chocolate
cake and a sultana-cranberry tart that was much, much better than it
sounds. We'll be back, and I hope this place gets successful enough
that they can tell the rude gimme-that-table people to get
lost. (Piedmont near Echo in Oakland)

Baraka -- Potrero Hill is getting more and more attractive, though the
kids were a little apprehensive at how much higher the left side of
the car was than the right in our perpendicular hillside parking
spot. Baraka is also attractive but a bit uncomfortable; it's awkward
arranging one's legs under the tables, and the bench seats along the
walls slope backward, perfect for lounging but not so good for
eating. The food is Chez Papa gone Moroccan: small plates which pretty
much all work quite well (fresh fava falafel; dates stuffed with
chorizo, cabrales, and jamon serrano; fritture of fresh anchovies) and
some slightly larger dishes (tagine of monkfish or rabbit; lamb kebab;
sauteed dorade) which are also tasty. Some of the dishes are a bit
precious -- $4 for a small dish of couscous about three inches in
diameter and an inch high; $10 for three quarter-sized scallops
"Catalan style". Our server, a young Asian woman, was quite
incompetent; I was not impressed when she brought a $6 bottle of Evian
in response to our request for water, and our mint tea at the end was
lukewarm. (The other staff, young men with French accents in Chez Papa
style, appeared more capable.) Desserts were all good -- fresh
beignets with jam, warm pistachio tart, surprisingly light and airy
mint chocolate cake -- and generous (though $7). There's a booth at
the back seating six which we'll ask for next time; it's a bit out of
the fray, but perhaps also out of the serving loop, so beware. Much as
I liked Baraka, there's something a bit dislocating about it when
compared to the couscous platters we had in Paris last summer at
places that were genuinely North African. It's not trying to be
"authentic", but still... (Connecticut at 18th in SF)

Bosphorus -- This Turkish restaurant smack in the middle of the East
Indian strip on University below San Pablo in Berkeley still has the
elephant pillars and folk figurines left over from the previous
inhabitants. There's an all-you-can-eat buffet for $8.99 (a couple of
bucks cheaper at lunch), which appears to be mostly stewed vegetables
and legumes (a good selection). We ordered off the menu. The meze
platter came with four spreads (taramasalata, roasted eggplant,
spinach-and-yogurt, cucumber-dill-and-yogurt), plus feta filo "cigars"
and thinly-sliced dried spiced beef, all excellent (I would suggest
this alone as a decent lunch). We followed that up with four types of
kebabs, all of which came with the same sides of rice with raisins and
nuts, salad, grilled tomato and grilled pepper; these were also
uniformly good. There isn't much ambience (it's as if they sneaked
into an empty storefront and set up shop intending to disappear
tomorrow) and service is pedestrian, but it's worth braving these for
the food, particularly given the lack of Greek competitors in the East

Le Regal -- A typical Vietnamese menu of vermicelli bowls, pho, and
rice plates. The difference here is that the servers are genuinely
friendly and helpful (something unheard of in most Vietnamese
places). Portions are generous and well-prepared; spring rolls were
fresh, crisp, and tasty, vermicelli was properly soaked and separated,
lots of mint (could have used some basil and coriander, also). The
nuoc cham was too sweet with not enough fish sauce and lime, but
that's typical, too. The rice plates that went by looked enormous. A
good option in downtown Berkeley (Center near Shattuck in Berkeley).

Saigon Sandwich -- A visit to the Asian Art Museum finally gave me an
excuse to try their banh mi. Good bread, very generous with the meat;
I would have preferred a more complex spicy sauce instead of the
sliced jalapenos. Dodgy-looking characters on the streets; my kids
were spooked (in a way that they are not by the panhandlers on on
Telegraph in Berkeley) when we waited in the car while picking up
sandwiches enroute to the airport (which is a nice idea, but they get
a bit soggy -- if you do this, remember to ask them not to heat the
bread). I pity da fools who visit Cafe Asia instead of this place. But
the banh mi joint in our little town has a friendlier proprietor,
places to sit, and the sandwiches (admittedly somewhat smaller) are $2
CANADIAN! (Larkin near Eddy in SF)

Sa Wooei -- My quest for good Thai food in the East Bay continues
without success. I liked the setting (an odd second-floor room over a
cheap motel, with windows looking onto glamourous San Pablo Avenue)
but the food was merely decent, and service (by a couple of apparent
adolescents) merely competent. We ordered "medium", and the food was
not at all spicy. I gather from reports that you can talk them into
making the real stuff, but I don't want to work that hard. (San Pablo
north in El Cerrito)

Zatar -- Excellent falafel sandwich, perhaps a bit pricey at $6.75
(lunch) but large and quite tasty, with hints of anise and a good mix
of vegetables, expertly wrapped in crisp lavash. Don't expect a quick
meal; the place was nearly empty but we waited over half an hour. The
organic, homegrown ideology leads me to suspect that the food is made
pretty much from scratch to order, so it's a good thing that the place
isn't large. (Shattuck at University in Berkeley)

Old favourites:

Cactus -- Our standard fresh-off-the-place-luggage-still-in-car
dinner. "This is so good," my wife said, as we made our way through
burritos with roast duck in orange-chipotle salsa, washed down with
aguas frescas. You have to understand that the only decent Mexican
food we can get where we live is what I make myself. Cactus doesn't
break any new culinary ground, but it's inexpensive, reliable, and
heartwarming. We returned for an impromptu lunch to find it full;
takeout avoids the unsupervised kids (as a parent of supervised kids,
I resent them) but the tamales suffer.

China Village -- Two orders of the sesame flatbread was probably a bit
much. Sichuan homestyle chicken was good, but not up to the heights of
the spicy combination or the spicy diced rabbit. We had to have the
boiled beef again, the dish for which I bought Fuchsia Dunlop's book
(which has to be interpreted, too much use of cornstarch, but
nonetheless most inspiring); the "pork feet" wasn't shoulder for us,
but ham hocks, and quite intimidating in its size but reasonable once
we took off skin and removed bone. We didn't make it back for a second
visit as planned, but they seem to be doing well, and I'm not as
afraid of their vanishing. The contrast with the fluorescent
white-folks food being served to some other diners is still jarring,
but we weren't the only ones ordering off the Sichuan menu, another
good sign.

Lalime -- We didn't challenge them much this time; all five of us
ordered the duck confit with duck sausage and lentils, which was good
enough that I recreated it for New Year's Eve (Berkeley Bowl has
organic green French lentils in bulk). This restaurant has settled
into a rich, comfortable middle age. The January/February menu
(received in the mail after our visit) looks distinctly slimmed down,
perhaps in acknowledgement of all those austere resolutions.

Vik -- Renovations are clearly on the way; the kitchen has expanded
outward, the opposite wall has been stripped of its covering, and
there is pounding going on behind it. Maybe they'll add some
insulation; this place is pretty cold in the winter. The food is as
good as ever, though the rice plates look a little skimpy to me
(haven't tried them, just saw them going by). Examining the masala
dosa closely: the potato curry inside is much more substantial than
the usual offering, flavoured with onions, carrots, and peas, properly
spiced and salted; the accompanying sambar had a chunk of the
traditional South Indian vegetable called drumstick (muringakkai),
which is pretty rare, and this isn't even a predominantly South Indian

Thai Temple -- Quite chilly out there early on a December Sunday
morning, and the rice plates were even skimpier than on our last
visit. We tried the whole fish ($7 special), which was good. The next
weekend, it was 40 degrees, so we skipped it in favour of an early
visit to Green Apple Books in SF, followed by lunch at --

Burma Superstar -- Rainbow salad was a hit; samusa soup was even
better than on our last visit, though the shan noodles were less
exciting than I remembered them. The "nan" that came with the poodi
(potato curry) were really pooris (deep-fried, not tandoor-baked;
unleavened whole-wheat, not yeasted white flour); I thought the curry
was a bit simplistic, but it wasn't my choice. The catfish curry
worked better. Friendly service, and the place is clearly doing well.
I think if I could wave a magic wand and live anywhere in the Bay
Area, it would be just off Clement; the vitality and diversity of this
neighbourhood is astonishing.

Ryowa Ramen House -- Even better than our last visit, perhaps because
the weather was more suitable. My wife had the vegetarian ramen, which
looked terrific; I will try it next time. I had to talk her out of
going back for a second visit several times. Skateboard videos on the
TV, our waitress reading manga; this place has atmosphere to burn,
though perhaps not the atmosphere most people seek.

Cafe Kati -- We hadn't been there in several years, but I remember
rather audacious fusion food, with a strong vertical/architectural
component. Things have been toned down somewhat, in both dimension and
style. Some of the same elements (daikon sprouts, fried rice noodles,
beet shreds) showed up in several dishes, both appetizer and
mains. The owner/chef was quite visible, going from table to table
chatting, taking phone calls, seating people. My grilled pear, endive,
and goat cheese salad was decent if not exciting; the miso-marinated
black bass with udon was better, though still not a revelation. Others
at the table were happy with their choices (especially my younger
daughter, who ordered the signature dragon roll appetizer as her main,
and it turned out to be larger than any of our dishes). The server
comped my Meyer lemon tart because it was too runny (it was more like
Meyer lemon soup en croute) and then the owner comped all our desserts
and apologized profusely for "running behind", even though it was no
worse than at many places we've experienced (eg Rivoli on this
trip). Bottom line: caring staff, loyal clientele, but not quite up to
the standards of, say, Azie. Afterwards we went over to the Kinokuniya
Bookstore and picked up the Japanese DVD of "Nausicaa of the Valley of
the Wind", which is as terrific as I remember it from the fansub I
watched years ago.

La Farine -- I finally visited when they had their legendary morning
buns out, and I don't see what the fuss is about -- too much
granulated sugar for me; if I'm going to eat something like this, I'd
rather choose a Cheeseboard pecan roll. I think La Farine's hazelnut
twists (or whatever those are called) are much better, more subtle (as
subtle as puff pastry can be, that is). This may be my last visit to
the Oakland location, which is damned inconvenient to visit by car;
with luck, their Solano Avenue annex will be open next time.

Tartine -- Luck, luck, luck. Scored a kitty-corner parking space (I
should have reserved at Delfina!) and a loaf of bread, for the first
time. Good taste, hole structure, and texture (perhaps a bit too moist
inside). I was surprised that it didn't keep well compared to Acme or
Cheeseboard breads; we made it into bread pudding (much less rich than
the bread pudding they make). A frangipane tart was still delectable
the next day.

Rivoli -- Their menu was in serious comfort mode: pot roast, risotto
cake, roast chicken, leg of lamb. Potato/celeriac soup with truffle
oil and Dungeness crab cream was a soothing antidote to the cold,
rainy day. But perhaps we should have ordered starters that took some
work; there was a huge gap between soup and our mains. The pot roast
was a serious portion with serious flavour; my grilled mahi-mahi was a
fairly dull slab of fish, but the accompaniments (grilled grapes,
dried cherries, gnocchi) were nice. Instead of dessert I had a very
nice glass of Madeira Bual, and nibbled everyone else's, again in the
same mode (eg Sierra Beauty apple pie, Meyer lemon tart). Good
vibes. Their Jan menu (on their Web page) is, unlike Lalime's, more
adventurous, now that all the visiting relatives are out of town.


Plus our usual visits to Berkeley Bowl, Andronico's, Peet's, Trader
Joe's, and the Cheeseboard. Some notes: Cafe Rouge has great duck
confit, but their chorizo is just too genteel; Berkeley Bowl's bulk
chorizo is more like it (though perhaps too lean). Trader Joe sells a
bag of "southern greens", great if you don't want to buy four bunches
of greens and wrestle with them (I can't seem to wash collards without
soaking myself and the whole kitchen). Their Two-Buck Chuck is a
little too mild for drinking, but is about perfect for cooking wine. I
know Muir Glen is organic agrobusiness but their fire-roasted tomatoes
are terrific, ideal for the pantry. Cheeseboard pizza is still the
best, but it's going up $2 when they reopen after their January
break. I keep forgetting to put lemon zest on my homemade
pizza. Cassoulet works much better if you cook the beans the day
before with a smoked ham shank, bake for the full four hours with
proper attention to the liquid level, and use fresh breadcrumbs made
from Acme pain au levain instead of commercially-bought ones. If I may
be momentarily immodest, my rendition this time was the equal of the
ones we had in the southwest of France, perhaps better for being less
caloric without sacrificing flavour.

Still didn't make it to Athithi, Sushi Sho, or Angelfish, and I was
going to schedule a visit to Kabuto A&S but SF Weekly went and
reviewed it (I hate when that happens), so we had our first sushi-free
visit in a long time. Perhaps by August a few more places will have
opened up to tease our jaded palates (any chance of a Chowhound event
about then?). Keep me informed, everyone, I do appreciate it. --PR

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