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.
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.
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