Monday, September 10, 2007

Berkeley's Corner Gourmet

Living in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area, I never really feel like I'm far from good food, especially with the many restaurants within walking distance of my Rockridge condo. This weekend, I stayed close to home but did venture north toward Berkeley, and I have to admit, I accidentally discovered a bit of history.

I found myself at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Cedar Street. Just in this tiny corner on the industrial-looking San Pablo Avenue is a triad of foodie heaven with the cluster of Acme Bread Co., Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant and Cafe Fanny.

I can't believe that I've never been to this spot of Berkeley's food standard bearers. I've heard of Gourmet Ghetto a few miles east of this spot closer to downtown Berkeley. But this non-descript spot, just a few blocks east of the upscale Fourth Street shopping area, is a casual nod to fine foods. Here's a tour of the three anchor tenants:

Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant was actually the main reason that brought me to this Gourmet Corner of San Pablo and Cedar. I had recently read about Kermit Lynch Wine in Jay McInerney's book "A Hedonist in the Cellar." The book is an entertaining, novice's look at the wine drinking experience in America and I was surprised to see this New Yorker mention a Berkeley importer as one of the country's best. So I had to check out this place that was opened by Kermit Lynch in 1972 and named Wine Professional of the Year by the James Beard Foundation.

The significant, distinguishing factor about Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant is that nearly 90 percent of its wine for sale come from France. The rest come from Italy. The store does not stock any California wines. The story goes that Lynch felt that if he stocked a California wine from a winery whom he probably knew, he felt he couldn't fairly tell the winery that the wine didn't taste that great. So to remove those potential conflicts with his friends in the California wine scene, he decided to focus primarily on French and Italian wine.

Walking around, you see a wide variety of wine. I felt really lost, though, because none of the wine had notes on them to explain what was inside the bottle. So you really have to know your French wineries and varieties in order to make an educated guess about whether that bottle in front of you will work. Fortunately, you can also rest on the reputation of Kermit Lynch, who imports all the wine himself, so he's created relationships with all the European wineries he buys from. I basically placed myself in the hands of the store's able clerks who will listen to your preferences and give you recommendations on which bottles will most likely match your needs.

Based on the expert discussion I had with one particular clerk, I ended up buying two bottles: 1) a 1999 Barbera Del Monferrato (barbera grape) from Cantine Valpane in Italy and 2) a 2004 Cairanne from Domaine Catherine Le Goeuil in France. I can't wait to cook up some red meat to try these nice bottles of reds.

After making my wine purchase, it was on to bread and Acme Bread Co. This outlet is actually the very first spot where Steve Sullivan, a former busboy at Chez Panisse, decided to start his bakery with his wife. The spot is so small that only a few people can stand inside to order their breads, so a line typically snakes outside.

The bread inside with workers busy making fresh bread in the background.

On the wall were all these interesting historic posters and photos. It was very 70s. Off to the side (and not pictured) were these risque, PG-13 photos from when the bakery opened with some of the workers dressed only in aprons bringing some hot bread out of the oven. Oh, it was sooo Berkeley. The photo showed their behinds to the camera, and I just figured out as I'm writing this that someone probably thought it was fun to show the workers' buns as they brought out the buns. LOL, they're so cheeky!

Right next door to Acme, is Cafe Fanny, which is the small, casual cafe opened by Alice Waters herself. Story is Waters wanted a spot to get away from the formal hectic-ness of Chez Panisse. (More likely it was her little way of escaping the kitchen politics of the restaurant.) It's supposedly named after the heroine of filmmaker Marcel Pagnol's 1930 movies, but also the name of Waters' daughter.

Much of the cafe happenings occur outside in this large deck area. To the right is the entrance to Kermit Lynch Wine. This is a fantastic place to hangout in the afternoon on a beautiful sunny day.

The cafe inside is really tiny, but cleanly and stylishly presented. The menu is a casual, simple basic cafe food like breakfast, pastries, sandwiches and salads. Of course, it's all fresh, seasonal, local ingredients. There's a marble counter where you can eat and watch the people behind the counter, but that's the only place to eat inside, which is probably why the outdoor seating is so crowded.

Here are some of the pastries and baked goods behind the counter. Everything was very quaint and yummy looking.

I kept it simple and just got a cranberry scone with marmalade and a pot of Earl Grey tea (which was made from loose leaves, a very nice touch). The scone, actually, didn't have much taste although I loved the texture. So the marmalade, which was just the right sweetness, came in handy. It was just a relaxing experience to sit outside, in the midst of such Berkeley food history, sipping my tea and eating my scone. I didn't think of San Francisco once during my afternoon jaunt to this East Bay gourmet corner.

SPEND A DAY IN PROVENCE: If you like the idea of Provencal cooking, then save the date of Saturday, Sept. 29. That's when the parking outside these three food landmarks in Berkeley will be closed off so they can present "Provence in Berkeley." This event runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and French cooking will be served for a fixed price. The food will be prepared by Cafe Fanny and chef Chris Lee from the restaurant Eccolo. Be sure to make your way to this event for some French style foodie fun in the East Bay.

1 comment:

Chubbypanda said...

Lol. I like how Chez Panisse is so beloved and respected now that even clearing the table there can imbue a humble busboy with culinary creativity. =b

Seriously, though, I love that restaurant.