It takes a lot of courage to move into the old premises of Cafe Fanny, which closed last spring after 28 years of croque monsieurs and cafés au lait. The space, which sits between the venerated Acme Bread Company and Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, has all kinds of expectations associated with it. Not to mention, Cafe Fanny was started by local food doyenne Alice Waters.
Bartavelle, a coffee and wine bar named for a French songbird, is the courageous new business in the old, venerable nest. And I'm happy it's there, chirping like all get-out.
The place has allure. First, the wine list. Pasted in the front window, it's a medium-size selection of French and Italian wines from next-door neighbor Kermit Lynch: Lambruscos and Bandols and proseccos to be had by the half glass for five dollars and less. Enough said.
On my first visit, I asked to try the Bandol Rouge, and received a sample. "But maybe," said the man behind the counter, "you'd like to try this? Or that?"
I tried this and that.
Eventually, I chose my half glass, and he accidentally splashed in a bit more. "Oops!" he said. "Looks like three-quarters."
I like Bartavelle.
My next visit, I found myself at the bar, marveling at the anchovy laid upon my hard-boiled egg. "How do you get the anchovy so soft?" I asked the sweet-eyed — but not too sweet-eyed — woman behind the bar.
We compared notes on how to turn a dried anchovy, stiff as a board, into something that looks just caught at sea. "Ah," she said. "Olive oil. That's what's missing." And she smiled.
Turns out the people behind the bar were owner Suzanne Drexhage, a former employee of both Chez Panisse and Kermit Lynch, and manager Sam Sobolewski, who worked at Blue Bottle as a teenager. They're mother and son, and nice people.
Besides the draw of wines by small French and Italian producers, the Sightglass coffee, and the staff's down-to-earth friendliness, Bartavelle is pretty, with its gabled skylight dripping sun, its wine glasses and Chemex carafes sparkling and orderly, and its zinc-topped bar, left intact from the Cafe Fanny days, with its pearlish luster.
There are other telltale markers of the Panisse bloodline scattered about the room: the sky-blue cans of salt-packed anchovies, the citrus branches tumbling out of a vase in the corner, and a selection of cookbooks on a high shelf — David Tanis' A Platter of Figs, Richard Olney's Simple French Food (long an inspiration for Chez Panisse menus), Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food.
The composed boards of cured meat, cheese, and house-made pickles are a still-life study in contrasts — a sweet smoked trout and a creamy dollop of white bean purée, for example, are balanced by a couple of spears of delicately pickled baby carrot and the crisp bite of fresh radish. It's as stylish as a Saveur photograph, earthy enough to please Berkeley's Birkenstock set, and hits all points of the palate.
Ditto the breakfast porridge, which stands out among the oatmeal bowls on similar morning menus. A toothsome, purple-y mix of red quinoa, red rice, amaranth, and flaxseed, it's hippy-dippy yet delectable, and its squishiness and swirls of melting butter and cream qualify it as an indulgent hangover cure, one I've found myself craving first thing in the morning.
Other little details make the simple menu rise above the usual offerings at nearby cafes. The avocado toast features a generous amount of avocado spread all the way to the edges of the bread, with a bit of marash pepper giving it an air-kiss of heat. The hard-cooked farm eggs are fresh, the creamy yolks seeming creamier still when served with a dollop of aioli and a sliver of anchovy. The sandwich of kale, prosciutto, and ricotta, done on toasted Acme pizza bianca, is sturdily structured, each element of it balancing the others — the salt of the prosciutto punctuating the ricotta's creaminess, and the finely chopped kale and arugula giving it an earthy depth.
The food is recognizably a close relation to Cafe Fanny's and other Chez Panisse-related restaurants' — not inventive or flashy, but well-considered and impeccably, transparently done.
But it doesn't feel too done up. Bartavelle has its own character, which is quirky and rough around the edges. Yes, the staff raises your wine glass to the light, checking it for spots. But they also sport tattoos. An iPod on the windowsill, set to a low hum, churns out The Velvet Underground, making the place as moody and mellow as an artist's bedroom. Also in the background are the chirps and burbles of the staff, by turns bursting out laughing — clearly, they all like each other — singing under their breath, or calling out, slightly harried, to each other from across the room when things get hectic.
The only downside is that the fine line between cozy and cramped in a place as small as this is easily crossed. With only about six stools, the bar makes every conversation within eavesdropping distance, which is great when you want to know your neighbors, and not so great when you don't. The outside seating area is pleasant when it's sunny, but, situated as it is on the busy corner of Cedar Street and San Pablo Avenue, it never really gets quiet.
But this place is bursting with life — and discomfort is just a part of it.
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