This week's tablehopper: rock lobster!
Australian southern rock lobster. (“Look into my beady eyes.”)
Wah. My heart sank a little bit when I heard the foghorn go off last night, and sure enough, this morning’s workout in Alamo Square was a misty one. But, as I look out the window, I’m chanting Burn Baby Burn. Would love one more sunny afternoon. I wanna boogie, disco inferno style. Hey, it’s Friday.
This week’s issue continues on my 510 touring, this time to a couple places I visited in Berkeley in the late fall, Zut! on Fourth and Gather (I know, I lagged on writing these spots up—too damned busy, yo!).
Apropos of Fourth Street, this Sunday is a special gathering at Books Inc. Fourth Street, a book signing and panel discussion with LEGENDS OF THE GOURMET GHETTO. L. John Harris (who just released Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History) will be moderating a panel that includes Joyce Goldstein, Victoria Wise, Alice Medrich, and Bruce Aidells, who will tell stories and talk about their latest books, their first books, and the formative years of the California Cuisine movement as it emerged in North Berkeley—they will leave lots of time for Q&A. It’s at 5pm, and once it wraps up, everyone can go around the corner and munch on special dishes created in honor of “The Legends” at The Pasta Shop and Café Rouge.
This week has had me all over town, starting on Tuesday saying G’Day at a special Victoria Australia dinner held at Murray Circle, featuring visiting guest chef Guy Grossi from Melbourne. You wouldn’t have believed the 2kg rock lobster (you can do the conversion on your own) he showed us during a demo, which he used to stuff tortellini. Host chef Joseph Humphrey’s kitchen reportedly had a lot fun taking a break from their usual local/sustainable groove and using many imported ingredients, like the oh-so-tender Ausab Farms baby abalone that they barely cooked on the plancha.
Wednesday I was delivered a brand-new Acura TSX Sport Wagon to drive in conjunction with a piece I’m writing for the Foodie 411 site about Dine About Town. The wagon was delivered in a trailer, total race car style, and only had 13 miles on it. (I know, my life. It’s ridiculous.) I couldn’t stop laughing—I felt like I won the car or something. Suffice to say, I have been having fun getting around town in that thing. Sadly, the new car smell will be leaving my life tomorrow. I’ll let you know when my first post is up on Foodie 411 next week!
Have a groovy weekend, y’all. Beep beep.
Established Restaurant Reviews (it's about time we met...)
Zut! on Fourth
Like Chapeau! and Garçon! in the city, here’s another French restaurant with an exclamation point in its name, ZUT! ON FOURTH, although this one is located in Berkeley, in the former Eccolo space. As for the name, it’s part of an expression Americans tend to know, zut alors!, which is basically a version of oh shoot! Or, in these modern times, maybe what the eff.
But before you start making conclusions about what does this portend for the restaurant, and wondering “Oh dear, is it going to be weird?”, chef Jim Wimborough’s menu of Californian and Mediterranean dishes doesn’t say “What the eff!” to me. The whole experience is much more approachable and straightforward than that (his background includes Home, Evvia Estiatorio, and Kokkari).
After plunking into your seat, you can carb up on some herbaceous housemade focaccia served with a bright, peppery oil. Mediterranean starters include a mixed plate of meze ($10), or creamy gigande beans ($8) that came in a soupy mix of roasted red peppers, a few spinach leaves, and goat cheese (I would have preferred a briny feta to perk the dish up more). Lamb meatballs ($9) were served with the delicious grilled, housemade pita, but the meatballs needed more fat (perhaps the purpose of the odd accompaniment of the “smashed” avocado), and the tomato sauce was far too acidic and unadulterated—it needed some loving.
The space has a wood-burning oven, and our pizza had an unexpectedly light and airy texture. The golden crust was crisp and thin, with a satisfying cornicione (lip) that was just bready enough—really delicious flavor. We tried the chanterelle ($14) with Fontina, roasted garlic, Parmesan, and the inspired pinch of fig vinegar. Based on the slightly smaller size, I think I’d love this particular pizza a little more if it was $12 or even $13—but all the pies feature appetizing combinations.
Mains top out around $24 and rotate often, ranging from a flat-iron steak ($22) to a fish stew ($22) one evening that was so spot-on. It was a spin on a bouillabaisse, with fresh clams, mussels, and sea bream cooked just right, kickin’ it in a savory and well-seasoned tomato broth, flourished with a dollop of aioli. I was happy about the wallet-friendly price for the rotisserie chicken ($16), and it was a generous portion, but unfortunately suffered from an overload of oil in the olive vinaigrette and a sodden potato pancake—but it looks like this one is no longer on the menu. Exit stage left, oily chicken.
While I was dining here in the evening, I was told the big skylight opens up on sunny days, creating a sunroom out of the main dining room. It would make for an attractive place for lunch or brunch, and is reportedly rather popular with Fourth Street shoppers on the weekends. I’d come back for lunch or brunch if I was in the area—especially to sit on the patio on a sunny day. The room has a comfortable and handsome atmosphere, and I liked the artistic touches, like the warm tones of the mural that stretches around the dining room, and the unique glass chandeliers that felt like crystal cherry blossom tree branches.
Here’s one thing I particularly enjoyed seeing: the beautiful bar has a fantastic, curated selection of amaros, anisettes, and other digestifs. Excellent place to geek out amidst the glimmering bottles while parked at the zinc bar. And the staff is passionate about their booze, so ask, taste, and drink up. Salud! (Yes, with an exclamation point.)
Zut! on Fourth - 1820 4th St. Berkeley - 510-644-0444
I know, it sounds like such a Berkeley restaurant name, GATHER. And this place (it’s part of the eco-minded David Brower Center) is definitely greener-than-green, from its architecture to its hyper-local/sustainable menu (there’s even a “Source Book” you can request) to the wines that follow a biodynamic/organic credo—even the spirits are organic. Housemade sodas, and kombucha on tap, oh you know it. But even though it sounds like something we’ve all seen plenty of already, they’re doing something a bit different here—which is what led to chef Sean Baker (formerly at Millennium and the executive chef at Gabriela’s in Santa Cruz) getting one heck of nod from Esquire this past year.
The much-discussed vegan “charcuterie” plate ($16) really is something to try for vegans and omnivores alike. The creative dish is comprised of four-five different little setups on a wooden cutting board—on my visit, it included a mushroom tartare with horseradish salsa verde and Sicilian eggplant with Jimmy Nardellos, roasted garlic, orange rind, pine nuts, and currants—a twist to a caponata, but a bit deconstructed. Wait, what’s a Jimmy Nardello? Unless you go to the farmers’ market regularly or shop at “The Bowl,” you might not know it’s a sweet Italian pepper. The menu is actually full of items that assume you know what they are, so it could be a little off-putting if you’re not up on your bougie ingredient game. Example: Capricious. Is it: A) a goat cheese, B) a type of green, C) an herb, or D) whatever the hell you want it to be, just depends how strong that medical-grade pot is that you’re smoking, dude. (The answer is “A.”)
I heartily enjoyed the tangy kale salad ($9.50), such young, tender, baby leaves tossed with parsley, thyme, fried capers, the tiniest and whitest pine nuts, and a fluffy shower of Fiscalini cheese. I could eat that salad three times a week and not get tired of it. Then again, I’m kind of a kale fanatic. Actually, not kind of—it’s more like totally.
Gather has the kind of menu that helps makes it easy to be “good,” because you’re not tempted by a bunch of decadent dishes but then feel like you have to behave and suck it up and get the freaking boring salad because your jeans are too tight. Granted, the menu is 50% vegetarian, but it’s not all healthier-than-thou: there’s burrata, and bacon on a pizza, and wild boar terrine, and a burger. The burger ($14) here is a good one: well-seasoned Prather Ranch beef that is smooth, juicy, and ground just right. It’s also loaded with Sierra Nevada cheddar, aioli, and a caramelized shallot-tomato sauce, so it’s a bit saucy. The fries needed to be a lot hotter, but I appreciated that the burger came with fries and a side salad of arugula.
The overpriced pizzas, however, were clunkers. For $16-$18, I definitely expected more. A lot more. The crust featured a ring of dough balls (reminded me a little bit of the early Americano pizzas), and tasted exactly how I thought it would be: doughy (but at least the center was thin and crisp).
Dessert was also a study in contrasts: the polenta cake ($7.50) was wet and soggy, and the figs and cashew cream conspired to make what we called a “total hippie dessert.” Read: not exciting and tasted like something your mother would have made for you in the 70s. But the Scarlett Royal grape trifle ($8.50) was a beauty, with cashew cake, a lightly aromatic verbena mascarpone cream, and pine nut brittle. The only quibble was the narrow glass it was served in made it really challenging to eat—based on the chunky ingredients, it would have been much easier to eat out of a wider glass, or ditch the trifle name and serve it in a small bowl. Like granola! Ha ha. Sorry, Berkeley joke.
The space is relaxed and rustic-chic, with an open layout, lots of reclaimed wood, good lighting, and a cool rounded wall that flanks the street. So many cool design elements—I was crazy for the bench seats made out of 600 old leather belts procured from flea markets—the pattern and texture was quite beautiful (SillaPere Design Lab is behind the look). The crowd definitely sports a “come as you are” Berkeley vibe: it’s kid-friendly, with younger student types ordering so-so $10 cocktails from the bar (both the drinks we tried were unnecessarily sweet), while plenty of “Rep crowd” groups are having their pre-performance dinners. There’s also an outdoor patio that attracts quite a busy scene.
If I was in the neighborhood, I could see how this would be an easy place to swing by for a variety of meals and occasions. Especially if I was rollin’ with a mixed crowd of vegans, meat eaters, and vegetarians. But to be bluntly honest, while I’m glad I checked it out, this 415 girl wouldn’t be super motivated to make a special trip across the bridge for it.
Gather - 2150 Allston Way Berkeley - 510-809-0400