A friend of mine once told me that I'd never go out for breakfast again if I read Anthony Bourdain's restaurant industry tell-all, Kitchen Confidential. So, I made a conscious decision never to read Kitchen Confidential. So great is my love for a hearty, egg-y breakfast that I chose to live in ignorance about the multitude of sins the hollandaise pooling on my plate might be hiding.
Then I set out to review a restaurant that serves breakfast all day — George and Jim Masarweh's new Berkeley eatery, Cafe M — and I found my mind wandering back to that ominous warning. What didn't I know? How bad could it be?
Well, I finally took a peek at the book and learned with relief that brunch is the real villain here — not breakfast, per se. The main sentiment of the most damning passage is best expressed in these lines: "Remember, brunch is served only once a week — on the weekends. Buzzword here: 'Brunch Menu.' Translation? 'Old, nasty odds and ends, and twelve dollars for eggs with a free Bloody Mary.'"
That bit of bluster, ladies and gentleman, sums up everything that Cafe M is not. First of all, the restaurant's weekend brunch menu — offered on both Saturday and Sunday — features just a handful of additions to its impressive breakfast menu, which is offered seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. So fresh, creative renderings of classic egg dishes, pancakes, and French toast are the main event here — no "nasty odds and ends" in sight. Cafe M's long list of updated classics includes cinnamon French toast stuffed with strawberry jalapeño jam and topped with banana compote, blue corn pancakes, and three versions of Eggs Benedict. There are also omelets, scrambles, and Peet's coffee and tea to wash it all down. The lunch menu features more-basic basics: soups, salads, and sandwiches.
Co-owner George Masarweh also co-owns, with his brother Albert, Emeryville's Doyle Street Cafe, a spot praised as much for its warm atmosphere as for its mouth-watering breakfast dishes. George Masarweh situated his new restaurant smack in the middle of Fourth Street's retail frenzy, replacing the Sugar Bowl Bakery, which closed last year. After a major renovation and a bit of permit wrangling to change the space to a full-service restaurant serving beer and wine, Cafe M opened for business in February 2008.
I'm a fan of nearby Bette's Diner, but I must admit that Cafe M's decor and atmosphere are a welcome change from its rival breakfast spot's stripped-down retro look and hectic feel. While Bette's is all about the intimacy — and, occasionally, claustrophobia — of its small space, Cafe M boasts high ceilings and an open floor plan, affording patrons a view of its bustling kitchen. Other cheerful touches include patterned vinyl banquettes, which were proving quite helpful to the many parents looking for a place to seat squirmy young children on a recent Saturday morning, and shiny copper pots and decorative cookware hanging on a rack suspended from the ceiling.
On that same recent Saturday, I ordered the "basic breakfast" and found the two perfectly done eggs over-easy, flavorful smoked chicken apple sausage, and non-mushy grilled potatoes a simple and satisfying meal that even left room for an ample side of blueberry buckwheat pancakes. The latter dish is without question what I'll order when I return to Cafe M — I loved its grainy thick consistency, and the strong flavors of blueberry and pecan butter almost eliminated the need for syrup.
My companion eagerly ordered the fresh salmon Florentine, minus the salmon. In this dish we missed the lemony tang we've come to expect from hollandaise — this version was just a little bland. Perhaps the problem was in the order change: paired with salty salmon, a milder sauce might have been just right.
Stopping in at Cafe M another day for a quick lunch, I ordered the crab melt and braced myself, knowing that melts of any kind can quickly devolve from delectable goo to gross — especially when there's seafood in the mix. That didn't happen here, but like my friend's Florentine, this dish didn't go beyond mildly satisfying. The "salad" it came with was blandly unsatisfying — no dressing, and really almost no salad, just plain old greens.
Cafe M is also serving dinner now, with entrées including fresh Hawaiian Walu fish, pork chops, lamb chops, and a burger made with Niman Ranch organic ground beef. A particularly inspired and practically famous vegetarian dish is a specialty of chef Munther Massarweh (same family, different spelling): a roasted vegetable tower that Massarweh served on Oprah during his stint at a restaurant back East.
Oprah aside, breakfast still seems to be Cafe M's time to shine. Let's face it: Fourth Street can be a little wearying, with all that jockeying for parking and/or seats at one of the neighborhood's more established eateries. So in the midst of the chaos, there's something pleasantly grounding about a meal here. Breakfast or brunch in this sunny, kid-friendly, comfortable environment, with its cheerful, attentive servers, is a balm of sorts. It's also the antithesis of the Kitchen Confidential portrait of strung-out line cooks slapping together frittatas made with Friday night's leftovers.
Anthony Bourdain, eat your heart out — and then try the pancakes.
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