Friday, February 24, 2012

Backyard Brunch in Berkeley

By Jesse Hirsch
Fri, Feb 24, 2012 at 7:30 AM

Rogue Café, a Saturday brunch spot in a Berkeley backyard, probably isn’t for everybody. Your food is prepped on a propane grill, served out of a corrugated metal shed. You eat on a jumble of mismatched patio furniture, scattered among Wiffle ball bats, tricycles, and piles of cedar mulch (VIPs eat in a treehouse). You may end up chatting with strangers.

Eric Thoreson, longtime barista at Pizzaiolo, launched Rogue Café in an Oakland backyard as a way to promote his other venture — One Ninety Seven Coffee roasters. Rogue customers were initially his friends and colleagues, each coughing up a small donation for the day’s offerings. But the food was good, the coffee strong, and word spread fast. Friends of friends wanted in.

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The cafe soon moved to Ellis Street in Berkeley, at the home of Haia Sophia-Siegel. She’s the flower arranger for Pizzaiolo* and other local spots, and the shed was built as a workshop for her craft. Luckily Sophia-Siegel recognized its potential as a lo-fi outdoor kitchen and offered to loan it out on Saturday mornings.

There’s just enough space in the shed for Thoreson and his friend Ciara Sanker to maneuver about, making everything to order. They run an extension cord to the house for the waffle iron and coffee grinder. They cook on the grill, using cast-iron pans. Drinks are made with a nitrous-powered handheld espresso machine and a row of single-serve drip coffee cones. The whole setup is damn cute.

On my visit, I ordered fennel sausage with arugula and currant mustard on home-baked English muffins. My friend got sourdough waffles with balsamic whipped cream, citrus, and coffee syrup. It’s solid farm-to-table fare, a step above something you might get at a Berkeley potluck (plus the coffee is excellent). Expect switch-ups from week to week — they’ve tried everything from doughnuts to pan-seared trout and bacon on brioche.

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Thoreson is casually scouting for a permanent Rogue Café location, but isn’t in a rush. For now he’s fine keeping it a sun-sweetened, homegrown Saturday experience (possibly Sundays in the future). People are kind and chatty, there’s plenty of space to spread out, and you can stay as long as you like. Oh, Thoreson and Sanker are always curious how newbies have heard of Rogue Café; tell them the Express sent you. Rogue Café, 3204 Ellis Street, Berkeley, 510-520-6782. Open Saturdays, 10-1.

*Please note that Pizzaiolo employs a barista and a flower arranger. I bet they also have a sommelier, salumist, apiarist, and ruby polisher.

Comments? Tips? Get in touch at Jesse.Hirsch@EastBayExpress.com.

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