Gourmet Ghetto Defendant

by James Boo on January 23, 2009 · 18 comments

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No well meaning trip to the reality resistant bubble of Berkeley is complete without a visit to one of its three major restaurant rows. In the city’s southeast corner, bordering the upscale settlements of North Oakland, is Elmwood, home to such neighborhood favorites as Trattoria La Siciliana and Ici. On the northern edge of the city is Solano Ave, where university and downtown dwellers can escape central Berkeley to a sunny afternoon of brunch and shopping.

Between the two upper crusts of Berkeley stands the Gourmet Ghetto, the foundation of Berkeley’s reputation for delicious food in every form. Anchored by Alice Waters’ universally acclaimed Chez Panisse, the world’s first Peet’s Coffee and a collection of other culinary offshoots and institutions, this is where organic, locally grown ingredients are granted full license to gratify the taste buds of hundreds on a daily basis.

Gregoire - Berkeley, CA - Photo by ldandersen Gregoire - Berkeley, CA - Photo by ldandersen
The Gourmet Ghetto’s flag bearer is a takeaway counter called Gregoire. Exemplifying Berkeley’s legacy of the daily gourmet, Chef Gregoire Jacquet’s impeccable cubbyhole in the wall offers diners aristocratic Franco-Californian meals at equalizing Berkeley prices. The menu changes every month, adjusting to Gregoire’s mood and the season’s bounty. Dishes are made from scratch, cooked to order and handed off to customers through the kitchen window. At an average cost of $7, lunch at Gregoire is surely the best value in the Gourmet Ghetto and possibly all of Berkeley.

French Fries and Pork Shoulder Sandwich - Gregoire - Berkeley, CA Potato Puffs and Gourmet BLT - Gregoire - Berkeley, CA
Gregoire’s constantly shifting menu items can be stunning in their simplicity and attention to detail. Spinach salad with baked salmon and homemade croutons. Curried ground lamb on toasted ciabatta with sour cream and cucumbers. Fresh mozzarella and tomato, sandwiched by soft French bread then wrapped in prosciutto. Tomato and onion braised chicken on a fresh baguette. Filet mignon with soft greens and sinus-battering peppercorn mustard on sourdough. Hearty pancetta, yellow tomato and crisp iceberg on focaccia (ie: the world’s best BLT). And the sandwich that will never escape my duty roster of drunken “best meal” stories: roasted duck breast with watercress and citrus marmelade on pantofolina. Every lunch entree is served with a miniature side of antipasti, couscous or some other tasty primer for the day’s offerings. The entire meal is packaged into an adorable octagonal takeaway box and coupled with silver tinted plastic utensils.

Laying the bedrock for this rotating cast of dishes is its most famous menu item: a $4 box of eight deep fried mashed potato puffs. If his roasted leg of lamb is enough to warrant the infrequent visit, Gregoire’s potato puffs demand absolute loyalty. Each golf ball sized scoop of fluffy, buttery, wondrously crispy pureed potato is more than enough to birth a repeat customer, turning the special occasion into little more than Friday afternoon and vice versa. This is the brilliance of Berkeley’s edible personality, what I’ll miss most during my tenure on the east coast, and what I’ll come home to when I eventually carve out my own cubbyhole in the East Bay. Bon soir, regret- à demain!

2109 Cedar Street
Berkeley, CA 94709

Mychala January 26, 2009 at 8:53 pm

My boyfriend lives in Berkeley and he has never told me about the potato puffs. I have to start writing a breakup letter, now.

Carolyn Jung January 26, 2009 at 10:42 pm

$7 is a bargain in my book for a lunch that looks as good as that, and which obviously had tons of care put into it.

Joy the Baker January 27, 2009 at 12:47 am

I went here for the first time a few weeks ago. LOVE IT!

Abby January 27, 2009 at 2:41 am

I have wanted to try this for so long. I love the gourmet ghetto, (actually I am fan of those two words together!!!) I have read a lot about this place and have been meaning to try it. Well, once again living vicariously through you.

James January 26, 2009 at 11:09 pm

I think my phrasing may have been misleading; the sandwiches run $6-$8, and an order of potato puffs or fries will run you another $4 or so. Still, I think it’s eight puffs per box- well worth it!

laurel January 27, 2009 at 5:40 am

I LOVE THE POTATO PUFF!!!! It is one of my very favorite things to eat in all of CA. In fact, whenever someone visits me, I make them eat them as well! I have been trying to figure them out – but I guess it is better to keep the mystery – – they would lose some of the magic if I could have them whenever I wanted. But I do want them all of the time!

James January 27, 2009 at 3:39 am

Joy, I’m glad to hear it!

Abby, your distance from Gregoire is a sign that you should try to make your own potato puffs out here in New York. Tell me when you’re ready to accept the challenge.

CourtJ January 28, 2009 at 2:40 am

Deep fried mashed potatoes sound genius! If I ever find myself in Berkley, I will have to check it out.

James January 28, 2009 at 2:59 am

As you can see, the potato puff is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Surely you must.

Joon S. January 28, 2009 at 10:46 pm


I have thought long and hard about what makes Gregoire’s potato puffs so delicious. They are simply balls of mashed potatoes thrown into a deep fryer. I’m guessing that the mashed potatoes have a lot of butter in them, maybe some milk, and, if I’m not mistaken, maybe even a little bit of lemon zest or lemon juice.

But how do they get the outsides so crispy and brown? Do they dip the potato balls in milk or some other coating before frying them?

Perhaps this is, as Rilke wrote, an instance where we should

“[b]e patient with all that is unresolved in your heart. And try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek for the answers that cannot be given. For you wouldn’t be able to live with them. And the point is to live everything, live the questions now, and perhaps without knowing it, you will live along some day into the answers.”

I hope my patience will last long enough to get me back to Berkeley one day and into the magic of Gregoire.

Joon S. January 28, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Also, is your posting title a reference at all to “The King of Carrot Flowers” by Neutral Milk Hotel?

James January 28, 2009 at 11:06 pm

Definitely a great question. Butter is key, and I’ve seen the cooks make the potato puffs without coating them in anything. I think it’s purely a matter of butterfat content, with an expert fry job.

Reg: Neutral Milk Hotel- not quite, but maybe a subconscious head nod? The post’s immediate title, though, is a (nonsensical) reference to the song “Ghetto Defendant” by The Clash.

Bihn January 30, 2009 at 9:37 pm

I believe the potato puffs actually come nine per order. They are not coated in anything; the cook just takes an ice cream scoop to a large container of gooey potato essence and dumps each ball into the deep fryer. I think it’s safe to say a good amount of butter and/or cream is involved in said essence.

Keep up the good work, James!

James February 3, 2009 at 12:07 am

Thanks for the clarification… gooey potato butter essence indeed.

Kevin R February 4, 2009 at 12:26 am

Wow, that place looks phenomenal. I’m moving to the area this summer and I’m already salivating over the amazing food that seems to be everywhere around there.

James February 4, 2009 at 1:54 am

Oh, indeed. You’re sure to enjoy the flavors of the Bay Area, my friend- if you ever want a particular recommendation, shoot over an e-mail.

Chris M. February 4, 2009 at 5:50 pm

The sandwiches and lamb chops are great, but the potato puffs… No kidding at all, they are the most amazing appetizer/side I have ever had.

James February 4, 2009 at 11:21 pm

Hey, Chris!

Indeed. Now, if only they were wrapped in bacon. Or, you know, stuffed with rubies.

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