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berkeley (ca) and environs: where to eat
If you’re headed to or near San Francisco and love good food, consider a stop in Berkeley, home of the famous Gourmet Ghetto. This area contains restaurants, boutiques, and grocery stores that will cause you to drive loved ones to distraction once you return home, bemoaning the fact that you can’t find their equals where you live. I’ll list some of the places I was lucky enough to visit below, in no particular order. Unless otherwise noted, all of these businesses are in Berkeley; for more information, see www.gourmetghetto.org. If you’re staying in San Francisco, as I did, Berkeley is an easy ride away on BART (take the red line toward Richmond).
Epicurious Garden, 1511 Shattuck Ave., http://epicuriousgarden.com. With the admirable goal of being “the Rolls-Royce of take-out”, this is a collection of small stands, each with different specialties. I wasn’t able to try anything from most of the boutiques (including Soop and Picoso Tacqueria), but I can highly recommend Alegio Chocolate (www.alegio.com) and Lush Gelato (www.lushgelato.com). The latter is a stand run by Federico Murtagh, an Argentinian who fell deeply in love with gelato sometime early in life. How else to explain the fact that he makes all of his varieties from scratch, while almost every other gelato/ice cream manufacturer in the US starts with a pre-made base? Organic and local ingredients are used whenever possible (and it’s possible much of the time; this *is* California, after all). Even the cones are made fresh daily. If the Cognac & Orange Marmalade Gelato is available, be sure to try it (even the orange marmalade is made in-house). You can also find a lovely, slightly tart Orange Zest Yogurt Gelato and a terrific Cowgirl Creamery Fromage Blanc & Chocolate Chunk Cookie Dough Gelato. And then there’s Alegio Chocolate (full disclosure: I wrote up Alegio for another site some time ago. Co-owner Robbin toured me around the community, gave me samples, bought me two meals, and drove me to the airport to catch my flight home). Dark chocolate rules the roost in this corner dedicated to cacao. To me, what distinguishes this business from many other chocolate shops is the thoughtfulness I see in everything. Alegio has their own line of beautifully-crafted chocolates; I’m a big fan of the Grapefruit (blended with soft caramel), the Orange, and the Espresso. You can also find two other product lines here, both difficult (if not impossible) to get elsewhere in this country. Claudio Corallo and Enric Rovira are world-renowned chocolate artists, and, like many artists, have reputations for being somewhat temperamental, but their efforts are well-represented at Alegio. Robbin and her partner Panos are exceptionally knowledgeable about chocolate, an added bonus.
Masse’s Pastries, 1469 Shattuck Ave., www.massespastries.com. All pastry shops should be like this one. It’s just a small neighborhood place, with a few tables and chairs---nothing fancy. But this business has many regular customers, and once you taste the pastries, you’ll know why. If the Blood Orange Torte is around when you are, get it! Dark chocolate cake, a chocolate Bavarian cream, and blood orange mousse. It’s absolutely beautiful, you can taste the various flavors, and, although it’s rich as Croesus, the torte somehow manages to seem light in nature. Other offerings include Coffee Crunch Cake and, in honor of the Lunar New Year (about to start the day I was there), a Green Tea Opera Cake. These specialties are available in both individual and large sizes, though it’s wise to pre-order if you want anything particular for a celebration. Also on offer are cookies, eclairs, French macarons in a handful of flavors, and tarts.
Cheese Board Collective, Bakery & Cheese, 1504 Shattuck Ave., www.cheeseboardcollective.coop. If you’re a cheese fan, opening the door of this place is a little like unlocking the gates of Paradise. It’s not a huge shop, but the sheer number of cheeses in their cases is overwhelming. Cheeses are organized by categories (Cheddars, Blues, Gruyeres, etc.) as well as by type of milk used (Sheep, Goat, etc.) The staff is knowledgeable, friendly, and happy to give samples. They also make a wide variety of breads, including one called a Wolverine. Next door, at 1512 Shattuck Ave., you’ll find Cheese Board Collective Pizza. What began as a Friday night experiment in the mid-1980’s has expanded to lunch and dinner five days a week, with live music at both meals. Pizzas, salad, cookies, soda, wine, and beer, and, as you might guess, lines are often long, though supposedly they move quickly. Toppings can include ingredients such as cauliflower or Mexican key limes. This is a worker-owned collective.
Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Ave., www.chezpanisse.com. Chez Panisse has been around since 1971; Alice Waters has been a true American culinary pioneer in insisting on ingredients that are fresh, local, and/or organic/sustainable, and that attitude continues to this day. There are two parts to Chez Panisse: a more moderately-priced café upstairs, open for lunch and dinner, and the pricier restaurant downstairs, which has a set menu. The first-rate quality of the ingredients used here is unmistakable; even a simple garden lettuce salad is something special, and I’ve found the pastas to be excellent.
The Local Butcher Shop, 1600 Shattuck Ave., #120 (entrance on Cedar St.), www.thelocalbutchershop.com. This is the kind of butcher shop I’d like to be able to patronize. For starters, it’s sparkling clean. Additionally, they buy whole animals directly from farmers; the animals have all been raised on pasture (with no hormones or antibiotics) within 150 miles of the shop. There are sausages, pates, confits, stocks, sauces, rendered fats, eggs, and a small but nice selection of accompaniments---and that’s not counting the meats in the cases! Don’t forget their tempting sandwich of the day.
Vintage Berkeley, 2113 Vine St., www.vintageberkeley.com. Located in a former pumping station, Vintage Berkeley focuses on small-production, good value (under $25 a bottle) wines from all over the world, and that makes me happy. Everyone knows the bigger names in wine, and, while some of them turn out fine products, why not turn your attention to the smaller-scale producers some of the time? Smaller-scale vintners are turning out excellent wines at reasonable prices these days, so it’s nice to see that these wines are getting their due. Check the site for upcoming special events and dinners.
Off the Grid Food Trucks. Every Thursday, there’s an Organic Farmers’ Market on Shattuck Ave. at Rose Street. But on Wednesday evenings from 5 to 9 in the same location, the food trucks take over. I was there on a chilly January evening, but there were at least ten food trucks present, as well as a good crowd. Food trucks in attendance rotate, but you’ll always find a variety of decidedly upscale street food. A lot of fun.
Not in the Gourmet Ghetto, but also worth considering
Ici, 2948 College Ave., www.ici-icecream.com. A very popular ice cream place. All dairy used is certified organic. Organic ice cream cones, the ice creams themselves, and the Dark Caramel, Dulce de Leche, and Bittersweet Hot Fudge Toppings are made in-house. Along with the ice creams, they offer ice cream sandwiches, ice cream bon bons, root beer floats, and ice cream bombes (I haven’t seen anyone offer bombes in decades; they’re a dessert that deserves a comeback). Even the “plain” vanilla here is something special. This establishment is (pardon the pun) pint-sized. I’ve read that lines can become lengthy on hot days, but I’d wait happily for ice cream like this.
Berkeley Bowl, two locations (Oregon St. and Heinz Ave.), www.berkeleybowl.com. I love these markets! They have everything a regular supermarket has (albeit with an emphasis on organic/natural/sustainable products), but their produce sections contain much more variety than normal (Berkeley Bowl claims to have the largest produce department in northern California, in fact). You’ll find “every day” fruits and veggies here, in addition to those that can be hard to locate elsewhere. Allow yourself plenty of time, especially if you haven’t been here before.
In San Francisco…
Wyndham Canterbury, 750 Sutter St., between Taylor and Jones, www.extraholidays.com. The Wyndham Canterbury is one of the Wyndham Vacation Resorts (in short, it’s a timeshare). If you’re not a member of this club, and I’m not, you might be able to book a place by going to the website I listed. I had a One Bedroom Deluxe apartment, which included an under-the-counter fridge, a microwave, a mini-dishwasher, and a large bathroom with an equally large shower. The bed was very comfortable, and, even with some street noise (unavoidable in large cities), I slept well. There’s an exercise room and a room with two computers on-site. A no-charge washer-and-dryer is available on every alternate floor. The concierge staff couldn’t seem to do enough for me. If you like to walk, the Ferry Building is only about a mile away; if not, they’ll be happy to hail a cab for you. I would absolutely stay here again.
Ferry Building Marketplace, One Ferry Building, www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com. There’s an appealing line-up of mostly-food permanent stores (and smaller kiosks) here (make sure you get to El Porteno Empanadas Argentinas at one end of the building). But even more appealing are the thrice-weekly Farmers’ Markets. The Saturday Farmers’ Market is the biggest and most crowded, but the Markets on Tuesdays and Thursdays are great, too (the Tuesday market, at least, has food stands as well as produce and is a common lunchtime destination for those who work in the Financial District).
Perbacco, 230 California St., http://perbaccosf.com. Well-known and popular. We started with the Fritto Misto (a mix of rock shrimp, green and yellow string beans, olives, and fennel---all fried, served with a lemon aioli). Although fried, the ingredients were light and not greasy, and the aioli was a perfect accompaniment. For a main course, we shared a Bis---a tasting of two pastas. We chose the Raviora (pasta filled with roasted butternut squash, with Parmigiano, pomegranate, and sage butter) and the Coujette (potato gnocchi with quail ragu and black chanterelles). Both pastas came to the table with too much black pepper atop for me; surely it would be an easy matter to leave the pepper off and bring the pastas to the table with a peppermill, then ask the individual diners if they even wanted pepper on their pasta? Otherwise, the gnocchi were light-textured and beautifully prepared, and the butternut squash filled pasta blended well with the Parmigiano and other ingredients. Dessert was a Warm Caramelized Pear Crostada with Cardamom Zabaglione and Crème Fraiche---outstanding! Be warned: this is not the place for quiet conversation, at least not on a Saturday night! This restaurant gets crowded, tables are set close together, and the noise level is high.
Galette 88, 88 Hardie Pl., www.galettesf.com. On Kearny Street, between Bush and Sutter, there’s a short alleyway; this is Hardie Place. At the end, you’ll find Galette 88. At this writing, it’s open for lunch on weekdays and dinner Wednesday to Friday only. The specialty here is, of course, galettes, the buckwheat crepes of Brittany. Made only of buckwheat flour, salt, and water, the galettes are more flavorful than you’d think possible. I can’t recall what my crepe was called, but it was filled with blue cheese, caramelized apples, and toasted almonds, with a side of fresh arugula. Most importantly, it was delicious. You’ll find a nice, albeit somewhat short, roster of galettes from which to choose, as well as a shorter list of dessert crepes (the dessert crepes are made from white flour). Worth making the effort to locate.