After not one but two miscues with catching CalTrain and BART on the way to Berkeley for the day, my plans to check out the neighborhood around UC Berkeley and to stop into what I’m told is a very cool bike shop were by necessity foreshortened. Instead, there was just enough time to take a quick walking tour up Shattuck Avenue and through the Gourmet Ghetto, stopping off for a quick macchiato at Guerilla Café, before hitting a few of the food and wine cornerstones of the Berkeley scene.
Enough has been said about Alice Waters’ impact on the history of modern California cuisine and the emergence of locavorism that I won’t bore you with a detailed history of her culinary ventures. What I will say is that I headed to lunch at Chez Panisse Café with very clear expectations of the food but little idea of what to expect from the rest of the experience. In the end, neither the space nor the food came with any surprises. Reservations at the Café, set upstairs from the original, more formal Chez Panisse, are not so difficult to come by as at the flagship; in fact, I had no problem securing a same-day rezzy for lunch. The space is casually elegant, lit primarily by the ambient sunlight entering through skylights and louvered shades in the front windows, with white tablecloths offset by comfy cushions and rustic wood flooring and beams.
The food is every bit as simple as I’d expected, yet proves that in simplicity the purest of expression can be found. The day’s three-course prix fixe lunch – a good value at $24, just a couple of bucks more than the average entrée price – included a salad of delicately dressed mixed greens straight from the CP garden; a zesty, piquant and quite traditional interpretation of spaghetti all’amatriciana; and delivered unfussy comfort in a finishing bowl of vanilla ice cream with bittersweet chocolate sauce. The greatest surprise, and a welcome one, was the wine list. Offering little in the way of ostentation, the list is adventurous yet centered on a clear understanding of the importance of food-friendliness. I could have been happy as a clam with the offerings by the glass – Muscadet from Marc Olivier; Tempier Bandol rosé; the new red, “La Ritournelle,” from Catherine and Pierre Breton; and Arianna Occhipinti’s Nero d’Avola/Frappato blend, SP68, to name just a few – but I’d already set my sights on a half-bottle of Huet’s 2007 Vouvray sec “Le Mont.” If only I'd noticed the '02 Clos des Briords, quite fairly priced on the reserve list....
Curiosity, thirst and appetite sated, I had just enough time remaining for the long downhill walk to North Berkeley’s unofficial gourmet ghetto, the corner of Cedar and San Pablo shared by Acme Bread Company and Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. My mission at Acme was simple: to score a loaf of their walnut-currant bread for the next morning’s breakfast. Said goal quickly achieved, it was on to the more economically perilous allures of Berkeley’s bastion of vinosity. I’d entered KLWM with every intention of having the crew there put together a mixed case for me to ship home. What I hadn’t figured on – rather naively, in retrospect – was that, as a direct importer, KLWM has very little business interest in shipping direct to consumers, preferring instead to let their nationwide customers purchase from the three-tier distribution systems in their own local markets. The cost of third-party shipping to the east coast, estimated at about $90/case, quickly put my original plans to rest. No worries though, as that left plenty of time to talk biz with Clark Terry, the KLWM staffer behind the new Kermit Lynch blog, and just enough time to select a few bottles to enjoy over the following couple of days.
Details, perhaps, to follow, assuming I can get my blogcationing butt back into gear….