Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hungry in Berkeley

One afternoon, on a drive home from work, I listened to an interview on NPR with a woman restaurateur who was speaking passionately about slow food and insisted in only serving seasonal, organic, sustainable vegetables and fruits that were hand-picked, bought from local farmers. She had the voice of an older lady (but not yet quite like the old-lady voice of Diane Rehm) and I surmised that she must be somebody exceptional, because why else would she be on national radio otherwise? I did not remember her name, but I did remember the story of how her life changed after spending time in Paris as a student and for the first time in her life, really realized what a delicious, delirious, supernatural experience eating healthy, fresh food can be.

A few weeks later, a series of auspicious events brought me to Berkeley, California for a few days of work. I have never been to Berkeley but have heard great things about it, so I was stoked. I heard that Berkeley was a haven for hippies, liberals, progressives, activists, radicals, foodies, locavores and vegetarians. I am infatuated with the thought already.

Subways and underground trains are always fun for me, especially if I’m going to a city I have never been before. It adds to the thrill and excitement. The entire time of the ride as you travel on the underground rails, you are insulated from the aboveground sights, smells and sounds. You really don't have a clue what you're in for. When you finally ascend from below, you’re always arrestingly unprepared for what you will behold. I always have this funny expectation of being greeted by a live orchestra playing some Broadway musical theme – it doesn’t matter which one – as I hobble with my luggage out of the station and into the waiting arms of the city.

Berkeley was cold and wet when I got there. After warding off strange men asking for change, I began my escalator ascend into downtown. I step out of the station and into heart of the city, yet again, to my dismay, the orchestra music was absent. I took a first look at my surroundings and I couldn’t mask my disappointment. Did I get off at the wrong station? Why did Berkeley look… mainstream? There was a Walgreens, a CVS Pharmacy and a Starbucks within a few hundred feet of each other. On my three block walk to the hotel, I noticed a few people huddled on the sidewalk sharing a crack pipe. Where were the bistros and the late night cafes full of intellectuals? Where were the local boutique shops selling used rare books and handmade soap? Where were the young, fit, healthy people whose clothes smell like patchouli and nagchampa? Where was the epicurean center they speak of?

I was getting nervous. Was the magic of Berkeley just a myth?

I stayed in a modest inn on the frays of (south) downtown Berkeley, a few blocks from the BART. I actually needed to be in downtown San Francisco during the day so for sheer practical purposes, the hotel was alright. On my third and final night there, after two relatively decent meals from local restaurants, I was getting frustrated. Even the salsa dancing on Wednesday night at Shattuck Down Low proved lackluster (in its defense, John and Liz of Salsamania who run this party were touring Europe at the time). That’s it. I’m going to find the real, epicurean Berkeley, dammit.

Which led me to Chez Panisse, a prestigious restaurant located in the upper side of downtown Berkeley. Upon reading about it, the lightbulb lit in my head. The lady from the radio a few weeks ago is Alice Waters, heart and soul of Chez Panisse, restaurateur extraordinaire, food revolution heroine! Chez Panisse is a distinguished restaurant known to serve only seasonal, carefully crafted, delicious food for forty years. It was touted as The Best Restaurant in America in the early part of the last decade and also one of the best 50 restaurants in the world. The website said to make reservations days in advance because seats sell out fast as if it was a rare Tiesto concert. I guess it must have been my lucky day because I got a reservation that same day at the upstairs Café for 9:30 PM.


I wandered north from where I was staying on Bancroft and gradually, after about half a mile, the city started looking more and more like how I imagined, how I desperately wanted it to be – clean, green. It had the unmistakable upbeat vibe of a city that thrives on youth, health and education. The sidewalk was peppered with al fresco dining and diners, from cafes, bakeries, casual pizzerias, vegetarian joints to fancier bistros and restaurants.

The Epicurious Garden caught my eye from across the street. I looked like a converted old house which had a variety of food stands (take-out?) inside. Upstairs, there was what looked like a big open kitchen with red walls where people might be taking cooking lessons. I’m not for sure but I had about an hour to kill before my reservation at Chez Panisse, so I decided to find out.

I walk in the building and there were open kitchens (I didn’t see seating) of different sorts – taqueria, sushi, gelateria, chocolaterie, a tea house. I wander to the backyard past the exit, and was surprised to see a beautiful, lush garden. I start getting giddy. I climb up some stone steps that led to the 2nd floor of the house. I open the door, turn the corner, and I hear the happy chatter of people chattering happily. Ah! The Kitchen!

I stuck my nose in the door and what I saw brought me the hugest grin of the day:

Kitchen on Fire is exactly what the name suggests. It is a kitchen raging with warmth and it's not just coming from the ovens. I suppose you can say it's where the hip people get cooking lessons. When I told Chef Olive, Owner/Action Hero (that's how his business card reads - I'm being serious), that I'm marvelously killing time before the best dinner of my life, he didn't hesitate to invite me in and didn't (seem to) mind that I was crashing his Baja Night class. I felt like I stepped into an old friend's dinner party. I was immediately offered a glass of amazing Santa Cruz Pinot Noir, but I politely declined the taco offers. I love this place!

After lingering until I finished my wine and relishing a conversation with Chef Olive about food activism, I slowly peeled myself away from Kitchen on Fire with a promise to return soon with The Dutch.

My first class meal awaits next door.

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