berkeley food #18: downtown

2102 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 649-3810

Here’s another one I’ve been putting off. We’ve been to downtown now three times, the first of which was on my 25th birthday last year. We went again with Leslie’s parents, and then again with a group of friends on a whim.

Downtown was started by some chefs from Chez Panisse, and it shows in the food: it’s amazing. A couple of important differences for me are that the prices are a bit lower, and you can walk in nearly any day of the week and get a table without a reservation. The interior feels upscale… cloths on the table, careful lighting, usually a jazz band of some sort playing in the corner. It does make me feel a bit underdressed sometimes, but it is Berkeley after all; at least I have pants on.

I think of the food as being prepared by people with the skills and legacy (French, I guess) of Chez Panisse but without the strictures imposed by its ideology. That is, everything is delicious, soaked in butter, well-presented, etc, but the ingredients are not all local, the dishes change less frequently, and on the whole I would say the food feels more familiar. My most memorable entree was braised oxtail, which was so rich I think I could have survived for a week on each bite. The serve many things along these lines (duck confit, roasted chicken, heavy pastas), changing things up seasonally. The vegatables and sides are always inventive and sometimes end up the highpoint of the dish. Also, they do a good job with the beer than most upscale places, even serving one on draft from our favorite pub down the street, Triple Rock. Downtown also introduced us to Ayinger Ur-Weisse, which has become one of my favorite dark wheat beers. As usual I can’t comment on the wine list, but I’m sure it’s super-duper given the number of pages it has.

The bar gets great reviews on Yelp as well, with its variety of exotic liquor and oyster selection, but again I’m not qualified to comment.

I would say this is another great special occasion restaurant, where the occasion needn’t actually be all that special. A great place to go before a play or concert or something.

berkeley food #17: chez panisse

1517 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, California 94709
(510) 548-5049

I’ve been to Chez Panisse four times now spread out over the last year and a half. Every time has been a blast, and delicious, and (believe it or not) not terrifyingly expensive (though I’ve yet to foot the bill). The restaurant is split into upstairs (the cafe) and downstairs (the restaurant). In the restaurant, there is just one menu that everyone gets, which changes daily. In the cafe, the menu also changes each day but you can choose between several options for starters, entrees, and desserts. All of the times I’ve been there have been in the cafe because (1) it’s more fun to get a bunch of stuff and share and (2) it’s actually possible to get reservations upstairs with only a couple of weeks of notice (or less, if you’re willing to eat at 5pm on a Wednesday).

The restaurant has a lot of history behind it. It was opened by Alice Waters in 1971. The website sums up the philosophy:

Alice and Chez Panisse have become convinced that the best-tasting food is organically grown and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound, by people who are taking care of the land for future generations. The quest for such ingredients has largely determined the restaurant’s cuisine. Chez Panisse has tried for years to make diners here partake of the immediacy and excitement of vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the sea. In doing so, Chez Panisse has stitched together a patchwork of over sixty nearby suppliers, whose concerns, like the restaurant’s, are environmental harmony and optimal flavor.

I guess these aren’t uncommon ideas these days, but probably they were in 1971. It’s a French restaurant, but the food (I think) is really Californian–mostly familiar and with amazingly fresh and well-matched ingredients. Some claim the restaurant was actually the birthplace of California cuisine, but since I’ve been here just three years I won’t try to pass judgement on that.

All of my experiences at this place have been wonderful. The atmosphere is very casual, with lots of dark wood and natural light coming in. Butcher paper on the tables invites you to make a bit of a mess passing food around–which is really the only way to experience the variety of the daily menu–but the attitude, knowledgability, and attentiveness of the waitstaff let you know you’re in a “fancy” restaurant from the start.

We usually start with things like fresh salads, baked goat cheese, toasted breads, and so forth. The entrees range from pizza and pasta to duck to awesomely rare cuts of beef–my last trip (with my parents) I had the best flank steak of my life. Every thing is swimming in butter, of course, but it never feels like a mask for flavor–maybe something more like a foundation. The desserts are probably the most unique, with lots of fresh fruit incorporated into tarts, sorbets, and cakes. One dessert we had in prime citrus season was two unpeeled oranges and three figs–and it was such a perfect match of flavors.

I guess at some point if I really knew what I was talking about I would comment on the wine list, but we all know that would be absurd. They have… lots of wine! Of all sorts and colors. Usually we get a red one. I do like the local beer they keep on tap, which I can attest is always seasonal and yummy even if the selection is fairly narrow.

Prices are of course on the steep side, with entrees from $15-35 and a complete dinner for four hovering around $300 with all the accoutrements. But honestly the food is so great that it doesn’t seem unreasonable, and I’m sure they could keep the place full at twice the price. For a special event or just a reunion with good friends or family this place is awesome. Just be sure to call exactly a month ahead (that’s as far out as they take reservations) if you want that Saturday night spot.

The greatest song ever?

This weekend I set my self the task of finally, conclusively merging my music collection with Leslie’s. All told we’ve got about 11,500 tracks unique tracks, though it did take me most of the day to determine what parts of collections overlapped and which didn’t.

The ways we have come by our music differ drastically. I actually started with my collection of CDs (remember them?). I owned about 250 of them when I got to college and heard about MP3s. I spent my first winter break carefully ripping them all, with nice, uniform tags and metadata. I started to accumulate more music through swapping, mostly with people as careful as myself. Years went by, and I had my beautifully cared for collection, complete to a fault (why not have the complete Scorpions discography? I liked “Rock You Like a Hurricane”).

Then there was Leslie. In the free music orgy that was the honors dorm, she cherry picked the very best songs her friends and napster (and, later, limewire) had to offer. Unfortunately these little orphans didn’t come meticulously packaged like my music–sometimes the tracks weren’t tagged at all! So, I’m currently going through the merged collection, trying to repair all the songs with partial information. This must be done, for archival purposes, you see. Never let us forget that Sir Mix-a-lot’s classic “Baby Got Back” was issued on his 1992 masterpieceMac Daddy.

I have to share with you one song I found. The file name of the song is (all spelling lovingly preserved):

Dave Mathews Band, Phish, Guster, John Popper, Bela Fleck, Vic Wooten, Santana, Peter Greisar, Butch Taylor, Rusted Root, and Ben Harper – Two Step (live, rare).mp3

Sounds pretty amazing, huh? The song, when played, is the original version of the “Who’s the Boss?” theme.

the rigors of academic life

The fall semester is now in full swing. I’ve managed to stick with two of three of my intended academic classes (Machine Learning! Computational Geometry!). Problem sets have not hit yet; I predict they will begin to deal their damage in the middle of next week.

I upgraded my self one level of hardcore-ness in swimming to a class that is also earlier in the morning. The dull ache throughout my upper body serves as a reminder of labors past. The setting for the class really couldn’t be better, though: it’s at Hearst pool, an open air, second-story pool with a solid marble deck that looks out directly over rolling green hills of campus toward the bell tower. This has the pleasant effect of making me feel like I’m in some movie from the 1950s about social challenges facing kids today set against the backdrop of the swimming team that brings them all together. Come on, you can hear the voiceover.

Yesterday Les and I went for some retail therapy at IKEA. Our main intent was to replace the rug in our living room which, while rug-like and on the floor, satisfied virtually no other requirements as far as cleanliness, tastefulness, etc. We failed mostly in this endeavor, mostly because of our stinginess, but generated many incidental purchases that brought them that classic American feeling of comfort that can only come from consumer goods. I got a little shaving mirror attached to one of those scissor-arms, and we got several random things for around the kitchen that we simply can’t wait for our wedding guests to buy for us.