In past postings, I recommended the former Zax Restaurant in the City...after the lease ran out this summer, the owners closed the SF location. With two new partners [formerly from Lalime's, I think] working the front of the house, the husband-and-wife Zax team now has taken over the Berkeley space formerly occupied by Mazzini [Telegraph Avenue, 1-1/2 blocks north of Ashby], and renames it Zax Tavern. We paid our first visit last night, and had a wonderful experience.
The Space: The new owners haven't done too much to change the decor left over from Mazzini; but what they have done has refined and enhanced the setting. The dining room walls have been painted a sort of creamy/buttery yellow which softens the light and the feeling of the room. Carpeting has been installed to reduce noise; there remain the sounds of a busy restaurant, without the harsh din. If you are like me--of a certain age, and having left a lot of your hearing behind in various clubs and concert halls--you'll appreciate that you can hear your dinner companion across the table, but still enjoy the ambience of the whole restaurant.
Much of the menu from the SF restaurant has been brought over to the new place. The signature goat cheese souffle appetizer remains; the Lyonnaise-style duck liver, frisee, poached egg-on-top salad was on the menu as well. I had that salad, My Beloved Karen had the souffle--both good.
Entrees are reasonably priced--I think everything was under $20.00, with ample portions. I had roast chicken--1/4 of a bird with nice crisp skin, moist flesh--basmati rice and sauteed greens finished the plate. My Beloved Karen had a lamb stew that she said was delicious [she couldn't finish the portion]. The new menu adds some lighter items, including three different grilled Italian-style sandwiches, and a hamburger. [I particularly like the addition of these light items, because the new place has a full bar (yahoo!). Providing a place to drop in for a cocktail and a snack is my idea of a public service].
The Wine List: The wine list is rather limited, but well chosen. There are interesting wines by the glass--both domestic and imported--that match up with the food. With the addition of the full bar, it's easy to go from a cocktail or aperitif, to a glass [or two] of wine; those younger and heartier than I could keep it up after dinner--more power to you.
Desserts: Desserts are made in-house [except for the vanilla ice cream which may be Hagen Daz or similar]. Most are transplanted from the SF place. Mark, who does the desserts is rightfully known for the warm apple gallette. There is a new dessert concoction--the name of which I forget because it consists of a mixture of champagne and vodka with a small scoop of lemon sorbet floating in it--it was slightly sweet, slightly tart, and slightly potent from the booze, but very tasty.
OVERALL: The restaurant has been open only a week or two, but it's already becoming known and popular. I think the owners are trying (wisely) to control the number of reservations they take at the beginning, so that they can let the service staff and kitchen get comfortable. The servers are friendly and helpful, and seem knowledgeable about the menu and wines.
Around me in the dining room I heard several good comments from other tables about the menu and the food. I only heard one complaint from a party that didn't like her risotto. Otherwise, I think this is going to be a very good dining stop in the East Bay. As an E.B. resident, I've been hoping for a place like this.
You can check it out now, or wait until any opening jitters settle; but I recommend it.