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.

berkeley food #16: triple rock

1920 Shattuck Ave
Berkeley, 94704
(510) 843-7625

Leslie and I have been to Triple Rock many times now. I’d say it’s our favorite brew-pub in Berkeley. Since I’ve had so many experiences there, I’ll just give an overview of the experience. The main event is the beer, which is all brewed on-site and features seasonal specialties. Probably the most infamous is Monkey Head, an exceptionally alcoholic arborreal ale (8% i think…) that is served in a large bottle with, well, a monkey head on it. You drink it socially, everyone with a little glass. It promotes toasts. There’s even a card that you get stamped each time you buy a bottle, and at 10 you get to keep the bottle and you get a t-shirt. How can you beat that? The catch is, monkeyhead is only served on Thursdays. Other good beers include Titanium, “light but strong,” and the Triple Rock classic, Red Rock. If you go, I’d suggest trying at least two or three different kinds.

The food consists mainly of burgers, with a few standard bar appetizers like wings and nachos. It’s not the greatest, but the burgers in particular are quite good, and by all means when you order one spend the buck fifty to upgrade your cole slaw to fries–they are light, crispy, with just the right amount of salt.

The biggest problem with Triple Rock is its popularity. They’ve recently installed two huge flat screens that are constantly playing the sports game du jour. Most nights of the week the place is packed, and there is no hostess seating, so you’re out of luck unless you want to stand around for 15-30 minutes stalking a table (although you might get lucky). We prefer to go around 6-6:30, when there’s almost always tables available and the atmosphere is a bit quieter.

berkeley food #15: sushi california

2033 Martin Luther King Way
Berkeley, CA 94704
510-548-0737

Leslie and I went to sushi california last week as celebration for studying German. It got a couple of good reviews on yelp, so we decided to check it out. We wanted to go for a mix of cooked Japanese and sushi (a change for us), so we ordered grilled saba (mackerel) and fried clams along with a assortment of sashimi.

We weren’t impressed. The mackerel, while tasty, was overcooked. The clams were nice but too oily for my tastes. The sashimi was pretty flavorless and unremarkable. I don’t think we’ll be going back any time soon.

berkeley food #14: taste of the himalayas

I posted a while ago about Kurry Klub, a great Indian place in the gourmet ghetto. I loved this place, and now it has been replaced by “Taste of the Himalayas,” and equally tasty if more northern Indian-focused restaurant. When we were there, we had several dishes, including curries, samosas, and momos. We ordered plenty of garlic naan to eat it off of. The food was delicious, and heavy. We didn’t come close to finishing off all that we ordered, and took home leftovers. Not many options here for a light meal, but if you’re down for some delicious (if not very spicy) N. Indian, check it out.

berkeley food #13: fontina caffe italiano

I’ve been to Fontina twice now. Once I went just with Leslie, on a whim. The second time was with my parents and some friends on our moving day. Both were great experiences. I would describe the place as your basic slightly-nice Italian restaurant, with all the attendant dishes. Bare cloth on the tables, $15 entrees with some real effort and creativity put into them. I’ve had their bruschetta, caprese salad, chicken parmagiana, and grilled salmon. They were all interesting. The appetizers were fresh and hot (or cold, in the case of the caprese) with good quality ingredients. There was creativity in the entrees even though they are fairly conventional italian fare. I like the place but probably won’t frequent it just because I can’t spend that much on dinner often.

berkeley food #12: oscar’s hot dogs

You thought I’d given up, didn’t you? How wrong you were.

Oscars is a place I went once last year and have gone several times since we moved to Berkeley; it’s so close. It is a straight-up burger joint. It’s kind of like a Dairy Queen but not a chain, and without the frozen treats. It’s dirty, simple, and cheap. But when what you want is a burger and fries, it really hits the spot. Not a fancy, 1/2-inch-thick, ranchero-style restaurant burger. No. What you get is a thin, flat slice of beef (or turkey or veggie) cooked in front of you with some good fries (if you like high fry to potato ratio), optionally with quite decent non-chemical lemonade. I will go back.

berkeley food #11: Viengvilay Thai

2505 Hearst Ave
Berkeley, CA 94709
510.540.9791

This is a little in-and-out quick Thai place near, but not quite in the “food court,” a group of about 7 restaurants on Hearst east of Euclid. I ate here a lot while I was working on SIGGRAPH, so I think it deserves mention. The best thing about the place is their yellow curry, which is delicious and creamy while not being too heavy. I like it especially with chicken, though they don’t always restrain themselves to using the best parts. Once you leave the realm of coconut milk, though, the place has less to offer. It’s cheap, it’s close to Soda, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit. Plus, in Berkeley, you can usually throw a rock from one Thai restaurant to the next, so your choices aren’t limited.

1515 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94709
510.883.0222

Monday was a triple feature, and the finale was C├ęsar, a tapas bar on Shattuck next to Chez Panisse. Very nice atmosphere for a bar; the music was not too loud and as always in cali, no smokers! We went with the intent of getting some strawberries and cream, but I guess they are already out of season, so we had to settle for some chocolate pudding which was so think and rich it was almost like fudge. But somehow, it managed not to be heavy. It was covered on top with fresh whipped cream. I had a sour cherry soda to drink which was absolutely delicious. Definitely a nice place to chill out after some other activity. I’m not a big fan of tapas for meals because it would cost me about $100 to get full. But in this case, it was the perfect fit.

berkeley food #9: truly mediterranean

1984 Shattuck St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 540-9997

Another winner here. I had dinner there on Monday with Stefani–it wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time that I rememered in time to write a fair impression. The interior of the place is pretty plain, with maybe 20 tables and a few booths. It does have an open kitchen, which I always find encouraging. It was pretty empty when we went in around 9, so the service was fast. The staff is very helpful and attentive (I’m no expert at this kind of food). We started with some “arabic tea with mint” that was delicious. I’m not sure what kind of tea it was but it came with several fresh mint leaves floating in it that I let infuse until I was done drinking it–very soothing. I had sabanekh (lamb and spinach stew) with saffroned rice on the side, and Stef had roasted chicken. Previously I’ve had roasted lamb, falafels, dolmas, hummus, baba,
tabouleh, cucumber salad, and kanafeh for dessert, which is sort of a spin on baklavah.

It’s all been very tasty. Fresh, hot, and convincing enough to fool a neophyte like me into believing it’s “truly” mediterranean. I’ve already been back to this place twice, and I can see the pattern continuing. Cheap, fast, filling, friendly.