Wednesday, August 24, 2011

eVe BERKELEY - Dinner in the Garden of Eating

My mother was born during the Great Depression.  In order to get me to eat my peas, she would tell me of the food she lacked as a child — of meals in her own childhood that were often scanty, with seven children in the family there were nine hungry mouths to feed.  To a kid raised on "sumptuous" TV dinners, it sometimes sounded that my mother was fed only tasteless gruel while I enjoyed Sailsbury Steak.  But if one listened more carefully there were other stories.  Of sweet red apples right off the tree that contained all the sunshine of summer.  Of white corn that still held so much natural sugar that she and her siblings considered it dessert.  My mother was a farmer’s daughter, and my grandmother cooked for everyone.

Theirs was a hard life, but a rich one.  My mom was raised in the midwest, and though there wasn’t  always enough food what there was, was fresh.  Food on a farm in the thirties was a genuine labor of love.  My grandmother milked the cows, separating the various dairy products by hand (Milk, cream, cottage cheese).  She killed and plucked chickens the day they were to be fried up for dinner.  Baked bread and pies, and every so often she allowed herself an indulgence for all her hard work, the rare aroma of a cup of steaming hot coffee.  She was one tough pioneer lady.
Spring Asparagus Stalks w/ "Terrine"

The people of my mother’s childhood were uniquely blessed.  Challenged to raise their own food and slaughter their own meat, they were connected to the food chain in the most natural and direct of ways.  They had a distinct advantage over many of us today, their understanding of the source of their sustenance allowed them to appreciate the fruits of the earth with which they were blessed, leaving them with a prevailing sense of gratitude for nature’s bounty.

That connectedness to our food sources was not as present during my childhood.  With America’s newfound love of canned goods and the availability of the TV dinner began a disconnect from the natural order of things that we are only now beginning to address.  Shortcuts that were invented to provide relief for women just like my mother, hard-working women raising small children while handling the pressures of a nine-to-five job, came with a price.

Souvide Egg
These shortcuts necessitated that the food be stored longer, prepared in advance.  Much of it was cooked beforehand, often draining all or most of the natural vitamins.  So the vitamins were manufactured and replaced into the food, salt was added to restore flavor.  Over time, the additives in our diets increased.  My food was plentiful when I was young, but much of it wasn’t particularly fresh.  Canned and frozen foods can sustain us, but it isn’t the same.  My mother would often comment on the lack of flavor, telling me I had never tasted real corn or real fruit because by the time it sat in the store the produce we got had lost any resemblance it bore to the produce of farm life.

Chilled Beet Soup
When I was a kid I dismissed her recitations, thinking she was speaking through the film of an exaggerated memory.  Everything seems more vivid to us as children, just maybe, she remembered these delicious treats through the haze of time.  How much better could they really have been?  These days I not only hear her voice when I eat, telling me of magical corn and fruit so ripe and sweet it imparts emotion itself to the eater, but I actually find myself quoting her.  I have tasted hours-old corn, and I am converted.  The religion of Alice Waters has claimed another disciple.

Recently we went to eVe in Berkeley for a family dinner.  One of the many such held in the Baby Lawyer’s honor.  The restaurant itself is a tiny nook, maybe seating not more than twenty people or so at a time.  But within its confines are some seriously fresh and fantastic flavors.  The joys of farm life have been resurrected there.

Lamb Belly w/ Pistacho "Stuffing"
The first thing they brought us at eVe was an aMuse boUche ---  a delightful little puff of saffron foam, topped with a smattering of fresh, tart currants.  My own mouthful of the creamy saffron goodness melted on my tongue, the finish of the tiny grape-like fruits mingling with the savory cream left me craving more.  I was ready for my dinner.

The meal we had was largely shared, as they so often are these days.  One of the common plates was a heaping of fresh aSparagus, in its natural state and in a terrine.  Both forms of greens were  laden with lovely morels, a sprinkling of almonds and the juice of fresh lemons.  An inventively green spring dish.

The menu is semi-prix fix, with each section allowing one or two choices, any additional choices incurring additional charges.  It's reasonably priced, except when you order everything. We ordered almost everything.  I had the bEet sOup, which arrived chilled, a  lovely gazpacho-style bowl of dill, radishes and carrots, the earthy taste of the beets balanced by the bite of goat cheese blended gently into its ruby hued ambrosia.  My BH had the soFt shEll cRab over risotto, the fried crab crunch set off nicely with a hint of ginger in the creamy risotto.

Pork Cheek Appi
Unable to resist the souVide fArm egG, I ordered that dish as well.  It was perfectly cooked, which is a trick I have never quite been able to master as a home cook.  Speaking of the farm, there is nothing that compares to a soft cooked fresh egg.  The rich yolk split open with just a brush of my fork, and its golden flood of flavor spilled rapidly over the bed of English peas.  The chef had added a healthy dose of black garlic and salty ham hocks, flavors that go together as naturally as the stirring notes in the song of the nightingale.  The salty fat of the ham, the acid flush of the green peas, the savory kick of garlic, all of these were swimming in a sauce made of succulent sunlight.

The kUrobuta poRk chEeks were likewise toothsome.  They had a delicate glaze of root beer and honey that acted to enhance the overall balance of flavor in the dish.  The hint of sweetness gave the pork that zing, and the bed of burdock root and dandelion greens, added some acid and gave nice texture and balance to the fatty pork.

The mains were simple and perfectly presented.  My parents both had the hAlibut, served with artichokes, lovely pearl onions, cornichon pickles and fluffy oyster mushrooms.  I tasted my mother’s and it was flaky and delicious.

I was unable to resist the laMb belLy.  Curious as to the unusual nature of the cut, I asked the waiter.  It was indeed from the lamb’s belly, the same cut as bacon, so was likely to be fatty but promised to be as flavorful.  Some experiments pay off, and this was definitely one of them.  The meat was beautifully marbled with fat, and had been ingeniously wrapped gently around a filling of pistachio and cardamon.  The stuffing absorbed melded with the fat to create a stuffing that was rich, fatty and delicious.  The flageolet beans were plump and buttery and the yoghurt in the sauce added a nice tang.   Remembering the flavors has got me salivating all over again.  This lamb was definitely a highlight of my dining excursions.
Fleur Verte Cheese w/
Apple Crisp

Of course we couldn’t skip desserts, so we ordered all three of them and plenty of spoons.  Two sweet, one savory (cheese).  The sweet tangy rhuBarb was beautifully flavored with coriander and served with a little raw milk pannacotta, served over a crispy whole wheat crust.  While I’m generally a fan of lighter flours, the texture of the whole wheat with the natural snap of the rhubarb was genius.  I loved it.  The “fleUr vErte” was a creamy cheese, flecked with edible flowers and served with an apple ginger chip, and a touch of mustard.  I love a good cheese and this was a great one.  The last dessert was ordered because my BH is a confessed choc-o-holic.  There was a housemade strawberry ice cream, dark and rich it paired beautifully with the dark, dark cHocolate cake, which came with an airy heaping of rich molasses sugar and a crumble of licorice.  One of the more inventive flavor combos I’ve seen in a dessert, we were all in agreement that it was entirely successful.

Rhubarb filling & whole wheat crust;
tasty "pannacotta" & rhubarb gelee
This is a great restaurant.  The service was attentive and gracious, and when the waiter brought us a little parting gift of a plate of scrumptious macarons, we were so full we could barely raise them to our lips.  But somehow, we managed just that.

We’ve come a long way, full circle.  It seems society at large has returned to the habits my grandmother practiced by necessity on the farm.  Pick it, kill it, eat it.  All in the same day if possible.  Fresh food consumption is quantitatively different.  I am aware that I am fortunate.  Fortunate to be able to eat as well as I do.  Fortunate that I live in a place with so many choices for people who appreciate good food.  And eVe in Berkeley is high on the list of places that understands what farm to table means.  Chef Christopher Laramie and his wife, Pastry Chef Veronica Laramie practice their art brilliantly, humming along in harmony, their love for what they do and for the beauty of the harvest is reflected in everything that arrives on the plate.  Those who dine here will come away having experienced one of the best meals the bay area has to offer.

This Garden of Eating is just what the farmer ordered.

Check it out, make a memory of your own.

eVe Berkeley
1960 University Avenue
Berkeley, CA

Chef: Christopher Laramie
Pastry Chef: Veronica Laramie