Thursday, February 11, 2010

CAFFE VERBENA - Loveless, Lifeless & Lemonade

When I first traveled to Italy in 1978, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My grandfather had spoken a lot of his family living in this little village nestled in the hills above Genoa. I was determined to find my roots, and after almost a full day of wandering about looking for directions to his former home, my companions and I were successful. We found the tiny hill-dwelling that had been the family residence for over a hundred years or more.

When we crossed that threshhold, my great-aunt, Grandpa’s sister Annunziata, and her son Nunzio, welcomed us as though we had known each other our entire lives. I must say that the pair of them lived in what most of us would term abject poverty. There was no glass in the windows and the floor of their home was raw dirt. In spite of what we might term hardships, she and her son fed myself and my three companions as though their cupboards were limitless. I am convinced the four of us consumed every bit of food in their home. Probably their store for the entire month. They treated us to homemade head cheese and other meats, cheeses, bread and grappa. This meal left me with an impression of the meaning of the spirit of true generosity that will be with me the rest of my life. It certainly proved good hospitality doesn’t have to be fancy.

This brings me to my recent experience at Caffe Verbena in Oakland. When Verbena first opened, it was one of the nicest restaurants around Oakland at the forefront of the wave that was to come. Their house-made toasted focaccia bread, the fresh raspberry lemonade with simple syrup, pizzas fresh off the wood-burning, all were delicious. Dining there back then was extremely pleasant.

Things have changed and not for the better. Upon arriving, the BH and I had to wait for the hostess to arrive. And wait. And wait. When she did, she did not acknowledge us. At all. There was a party of maybe five or six that sort of pulled that ‘restaurant cuts’ people do, and she waited on them first. Okay, I’m thinking she’ll tend to us next. No big deal. We were only two and they were five. Fair enough. But then I see she is seating them in the chilly atrium that sits outside the restaurant. It’s maybe ten minutes to twelve, and I was really surprised that they were already full. After leaving the larger party in the atrium at a table, she retreated back into the restaurant proper. No hello, no “hang on I’ll be right with you.” Just gone. After another five minutes passes she comes back with napkins, silverware, a few dishes. She begins to set their table. She must have walked past us three or four times without ever saying a word. I couldn’t get her to make eye contact to ask her what the deal was.

When she finished with the party of five, I think she’s going to get to us. But a party of four had walked up and I guess she knew them, because she ushered them to a private table in the back of the restaurant.

After maybe a total of five to six trips back and forth into the recesses of the restaurant, all the while completely ignoring the two of us and awkwardly trying not to make eye contact, she finally acknowledged us. She said matter of factly “I can sit you at the bar or out here” without even a hint of a welcoming smile. Gesturing at the room full of empty tables in the fairly austere exterior of the restaurant, she then says one word — “Wherever.” At this point we’ve been standing there maybe 10-15 minutes. The lack of welcome or polite acknowledgment on her part was beyond rude, it was ridiculous. She was so lackluster and devoid of welcome it was somewhat repellant. So not cool.

When I got up to use the restroom not five minutes later, I could not help but notice that there were empty tables everywhere. At least six empty four-tops and two empty two-tops. It was 12:20. I doubt the whole place was booked for one o’clock, but I suppose it is possible. It just had this air of regulars inside, non-regulars in the crappy seats. Either way, we clearly didn’t matter. Perhaps it is their policy not to seat you inside if you don’t have a reservation. Oddly enough, she never asked. It was really, really off-putting.

We were hungry and the waitress was really sweet, so I tried to kick the bad mood the hostess had given me. We each ordered one of their fresh lemonades. I had a fresh-squeezed Limeade, which sadly enough, was the high point of my meal. The crispiness of the drink was like nice little giggle on my tongue; my BH had the Raspberry Lemonade, which was likewise yummy, sweeter, but still remarkably light. As I recall, their drinks are fresh limes or lemons and a bit of simple syrup, which blends better than crystallized sugar does. They have always done this particular refreshment very, very well. The busboy soon brought us a plate of bread, which at Verbena is baked on premises. It’s a bit like focaccia, only a bit breadier, with lovely carmelized onions grilled onto the surface. Today the bread was stale. Maybe only a day-old or so, and it was still pretty tasty, but hey, who serves stale bread these days?

The BH and I then shared a Crab and Artichoke Brandade. (A “brandade,” for those of you who have not heard the term before is a French dish — traditionally a puree of salt cod, olive oil and milk). This take on it arrived in a smallish ramekin with some toast. The only thing I could really taste was cheese. It was okay. The artichoke in the dish was not an evident flavor, the onions in the dish were raw chunks with no carmelization; in my mind this dish was sloppy. The crab meat was also not particularly evident. The whole thing seemed like an afterthought. Again something missing. A dish with no heart.

We were sitting there, in this chilly, gray atrium, looking at the rain and hoping for an improvement in the mains. The atrium is enclosed with glass and it was grey and bleak outside. So as I sit there and freeze, another dish arrived. We received our bowls of the Seafood Stew which was the soup of the day. It was just okay. Nice blend of tomato and basil, and the seafood wasn’t too overcooked or chewy, but all I can think to say is what wasn’t really wrong with it, not what was right.

I’m waiting for my main, in the hopes of at least finishing the meal with a yummy beet salad. My Salad of Chioggia Beets and Baby Lettuce with Chicken arrived barely dressed. Quite literally they served me a pile of lettuce with no detectable dressing and two or three beet chunks thrown on. The only thing that didn’t taste like cardboard was the sliced breast of chicken laid across the top of my salad. It was flavorful and moist, but at that point I’m kinda pissed off. And it was one of those experiences where when the waitress came to see how things were, I said "okay," because really, what could she do about the “we clearly don’t give a shit” attitude of management? When that much is missing, the people at the top have to know, and they have to not care.

The only close to worthwhile dish was my husband’s beautiful Herb-roasted Half Chicken. Moist, flavorful and delicious, it was an echo of the way the food used to be here, once upon a long time ago. I was also introduced to my first ‘rainbow carrot’ as one of my husband’s sides. You can see in the photo that they are dark purple. They taste a bit like a carrot mixed with anise, and this one also had the flavor of the smoke from their wood-burning ovens.

So this experience might be the polar opposite of eating simple cheese and bread in the hills above Genoa with relatives I never met before and haven't seen since.  For me eating is about invoking simple pleasures and savoring life.  There was no shadow of this aesthetic at Caffe Verbena.

Overall, the meal was stunningly mediocre. The single dish of well-prepared chicken could not redeem an almost entirely bad experience. While this place does have a good location — in the lobby of a very sleek and well-populated business high-rise in downtown Oakland — clearly they are skating by on that location alone. Perhaps they feel if they have a captive audience, why put in any effort? I suppose if you’re there in that building, and you have to eat, you can find something on Verbena’s menu that doesn’t suck, like the chicken, but the food here is profoundly lifeless. I don’t like pointing this out, but these days in Oakland, with all the well-thought out menus, well-prepared meals and loads o’ love offered by the competition, a person has to think I can do better. Especially at those prices.

Caffé Verbena
1111 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94607-4139
(510) 465-9300

Table size: adequate
Noise Level: THREE BELLS = Talking normally gets difficult. The exterior atrium is very clattery. Glass walls make for bad sound levels.

Footnote: Our waitress, a lovely charming red-head, was delightful. She made several appearances to check on us, brought us fresh lemonade/lemon drinks, offered us dessert on time. She couldn’t have been more efficient or attentive. So no fault of hers.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

900 GRAYSON - Yesterday's Diner, Today's Food.

Deep into Berkeley, running perpendicular to the waterway that forms the edge of the Estuary between Berkeley and the Bay, is where one will find Grayson Street. From the time I was old enough to swim I spent almost every Wednesday of every summer at the Sacramento River Delta, boating and waterskiing with my father. When I was fifteen, he began to bring along a young student of his, who also happened to be an apprentice pizza-maker. The student, whose name was Carl, worked for my uncle Frank at his pizzeria. After these long days on the water, we would spend many a night at Ninth & Grayson, concluding our day of recreation with pizzas and drinks at my Uncle Frank’s Pizzeria. It was called Granata’s.

As we drove to check out 900 Grayson — the scenery becoming more and more familiar — it was these old memories that were flooding my consciousness. They flew through my head as though the streets themselves were rushing me back in time, back to Granata’s and scenes of my youth.  I suddenly remembered vividly the glass-encased viewing window between the bar and the restaurant where Carl and Uncle Frank would show off their dough-tossing skills for me and my little sister; the big circular leather booth in the corner of the bar where my father held court with my sister and I, yelling “Hey Paisan” at passing Italian brethren; the crunch of the crust and the flavor of lovely green peppers and mushrooms melted into hot, gooey cheese. Being out with my father was an amazing feeling for a kid. Eating at Granata’s always felt like home. Mostly because it was.

It was with these overwhelming feelings of nostalgia swirling around in my brain, that I arrived at 900 Grayson. Unlike Granata’s it was certainly not a pizzeria, nor did it possess an oppressively dark interior and sixties-evoking red leather booths. Instead the restaurant that is 900 Grayson was a lovely little unassuming structure, like a tiny gingerbread house, sitting on the corner of Seventh and Grayson Streets in Berkeley. The interior was also light, airy, very Berkeley, with loads of clean simple wood and a very casual, but well thought out design scheme. It looked like we’d stepped right into grandma’s kitchen. Or a homey fifties diner, absent much of the chrome and with more bleached wooden tables. Either way, I was hungry and ready to make new memories with food.
The place is very, very small. So if you are going in for lunch, get there early or be prepared to wait. If you’ve got the time, it’s worth the journey. The fare is simple, fresh and well prepared.

I began by ordering a Chai latte, non fat. It was cold and I was in need of some warming up. They brought this lovely big homey cup of tea, with that wonderful cinnamon-laced taste of Chai and oodles of foam. It was perfect.

One of us ordered a cocktail, the Tequila Aquatic Sunburst (ironically named after the water, which is where my mind was). They do not have a full liquor license, so this drink is made with a grape based tequila. I couldn’t tell the difference, it had an agave taste to it. I found the cocktail really fresh and I loved the citrus tang.

Before they brought our mains we ordered some Shoestring Onions as an app of sorts. They were something delectable. Thin, perfectly fried, crunchy with a well-cooked onion in the center of the batter that was melty goodness. Sometimes the onions in fried onion rings can be stringy, and if not cooked well enough, they’re tough. This can make a filling that is out of sync with the fried outer shells, so they can’t really be eaten as one tasty bite. This was not the case here. These fried onion strings were out of this world. They had a nice Sri Racha dipping aioli along side them that was likewise delicious.

The grad student had the Stone Soup, (a clever little touch, from the book of the same name, which at 900 Grayson means soup that changes daily). Today it was squash. She found it to her liking, not too sweet, the savory seasonings melting into the sweetness of the pureed squash.

I ordered a Lady Boy Salad, with Prawns. It was a lovely fresh concoction of Lemongrass-Kaffir Lime Prawns, Mango, Daikon, Carrots, English Cucumber & Rice Noodles Fresh Basil & Mint, Sambal Vinaigrette Dressing, Toasted Rice Powder, Micro Tatsoi Greens. The colors all blended on the plate to give a sense of attractive lightness to the dish. The mango and citrus-tart leafy greens all went well together, and the dressing on the prawns had a nice Asian flair to it. Tasty

The grad student and our PFC shared the Pulled Pork and the Burger, which they ordered rare. The pork was good, but they felt it might have been stewed rather than smoked. Not a huge deal, but smoked does give it a more robust flavor, forcing more seasoning down into the meat itself.

The Burger was rare, having been cooked correctly. The bacon on the burger was chewy and rendered properly, the entire affair had plenty of cheese melted all over it. They enjoyed both.

The piece de resistance at this place is a dish called the Demon Lover, which is essentially fried chicken & waffles. One is given a choice of sweet syrup or a thick country gravy. The BH is a savory meat kinda guy, so he went with the gravy.

The food here is fresh. Can’t use the word enough, because it’s obviously an emphasis of the management. The food sources are purchased locally, and everything, or almost everything here, will gladly be rendered vegan or vegetarian upon request. Many dishes have versions that will easily accommodate the vegan/vegetarian appetite already listed on the menu.

It’s a nice place. Cozy. Welcoming. Intimate. A lovely little diner for the new age of food. Check it out for yourself. Bon Appetit!
900 Grayson

900 Grayson Street
Berkeley, CA 94710-2618
(510) 704-9900

Dining time: except for any wait, service was plenty swift
Noise Level: TWO BELLS - Can talk easily