Combine a talented chef with kickass style, a couple of guys who honed their service chops as fancy cater waiters, and a bright, appealing space and what do you get? In West Berkeley, apparently, only half a restaurant. The three-month-old 900 Grayson is serving up some of the most delicious, quirky, and confident cooking spooned onto Berkeley plates since Olivia opened last year. Just don't expect to taste any of it past mid-afternoon.
The problem is zoning. With a permit that allows it to open exclusively during daytime hours, 900 Grayson is surviving, for now, on breakfast, lunch, and catering. The four partners floor managers Anthony and Chris Saulnier (they're brothers), chef Sophina Uong, and her partner, general manager Joshua Pearl had the bad luck to open at a time when West Berkeley is having a drawn-out conversation about gentrification. They're seeking approval for dinner hours via the city's Zoning Adjustment Board, but that will require a public hearing and may take six months or more to decide.
It probably didn't help that the former tenant expressed West Berkeley's funky trucker-cap and vintage-Wrangler-shirt soul. Travelin' Joe's Home Cafe was a restaurant that dropped all pretension along with its terminal "g," a place where the sticky feel of the table against your forearm was as much a part of the experience as wading into one of its signature chili-cheese corn waffles.
But with sleek, Kava Massih-designed condo lofts sprouting up like wild fennel, those chili-cheese waffle days are over. The old, funky West Berkeley of blue tarps, rusty Vanagons, and hippie homesteaders is passing away. The new West Berkeley of $200K, two-BMW couples demands a food scene with tuna confit and Muscadet. And dinner.
Bright little 900 Grayson serves that tuna confit sure enough, but in a way that showboats its own funky style. You can say this much about gentrification: It makes a place look nice. The restaurant's walls are the color of banana candy. There are big paintings of rooster heads rendered in turquoise and acid green. A glittery chandelier looks like an upside-down wedding cake. The serving pieces are what happen when restaurant owners have a good eye and easy access to IKEA.
The language of Uong's menu drips with kitschy wordplay and personal references. In Uong-speak, omelette add-ons (ham, goat cheese) are listed under the heading Makeup Kit. Sides are Accessories. It's like some drag queen's reworking of Denny's. The lunch menu offers Maharajah Mac, a lamb burger dosed with garam masala, and Miss Piggy & the General, a pulled pork sandwich. The General refers to Pearl, who helps out in the kitchen.
So far, the owners have proved adept at blending business and personal. On several recent visits 900 Grayson felt as screwed down as a restaurant ever gets: Apart from giving service that was both easygoing and attentive, the Saulnier brothers talked about Uong's talents with what sounded like genuine admiration.
There's much to admire. One morning a breakfast dish called Time-Life Cookbook exuded so much fine, buttery accomplishment it seemed archetypal. Uong says the name comes from the magazine Saveur, some reprint of a souffléd omelette recipe from a Time-Life book. Whatever. The omelette sighed butter. It's a deflated curd wrapped around a plug of Gruyère that tasted like delicately nutty milk fat. A potato cake was a disc of brittle brown shards. A little jumble of julienned apple was tossed with lemon juice and a bit of hazelnut oil. The flavors and textures all were different, and each was perfect.
That same sense of perfect gave life to one of the permanent lunchtime specials, the TV Dinner, which changes daily and was so named because like Swanson's Hungry Man it includes protein, starch, veg, and dessert. The dessert is the only element that stays the same: a Sugar Daddy sucker.
What comes before the candy might be a little marvel of sophistication. One day it was a thick square of line-caught Hawaiian spearfish, pan-fried to give it a raspy, Parmesan-crusted top, and perched on a pile of buttery vegetables, fresh corn and peas, asparagus and baby carrots, and halves of roasted fingerling potatoes. The fish had big flakes of oily flesh and a meaty, swordfish-like sweetness. Its so-called chowder sauce was a buttery, barely reduced, bacon-infused corn stock. No way you'd want to taint the memory of those delicious flavors with a sucker, but it's a nice campy gesture.
On another visit the TV Dinner featured a piece of ling cod covered with big slices of roasted Adriatic fig. Green-rimmed, with pink flesh the color of watermelon margarita and a flowery perfume, it stole the dish. But the vegetables (corn and chopped sugar snaps) wept greasy drops of butter onto the plate. Only kidney-shaped halves of pink-fleshed fingerlings came close to redeeming them.
The kitchen can be a little uneven, and Uong's cooking isn't particularly original, but her bold, confident seasonings, and the sheen of fine technique make it seem to glow. That's true of Maureen, a roasted beet and goat-cheese salad named for the nude in the black velvet painting that hangs above the bar she has shiny, cinnamon-colored skin, and nudges her crotch into a bush. I know, I know: You've tasted dozens of beet and goat-cheese salads. But this one had carefully tailored textures and a depth of flavor. The beets were toothy and thin as poker chips, with a dark, plummy richness. Toasted hazelnut pieces proved crunchy, and droplets of tarragon oil gave everything a gently lush fragrance.
LadyBoy (in Thailand, a transvestite) is a study in gutsy seasoning. It's a cold salad of rice noodles, pulpy bits of mango, julienned vegetables, and a tangle of mint and Asian basil. There were warm prawns, aioli-spiked with Sriracha sauce, and gritty bits of toasted rice. But the dressing exploded with more ginger, more vinegar, more salt, more sweetness than a lot of chefs would dare pack it with, and yet nothing seemed overdone or out of balance. Indeed, LadyBoy had balls.
Uong, a self-taught chef who worked her way up from bartender, has an innate talent for fine dining. To me, the menu's more casual dishes are the least interesting. The Cubaniche was a perfectly respectable specimen of the Cuban pressed pork sandwich thin-sliced ham, roast pork loin, Gruyère, and pickles on an Acme bun but not quite remarkable.
Likewise Demon Lover was a nice version of chicken and waffles Seitan Lover, which substitutes wheat gluten for the chicken, is the vegan alternative. The waffle was okay, but the breading on the boneless fried chicken breast was a few degrees short of crisp. The best thing about it was the cream gravy, a velvety béchamel infused with caramelized onion. It had a golden, yeasty richness, as if it contained aged cheddar, a quiet example of Uong's fine skills.
I hope Berkeley's Zoning Adjustment Board will come to recognize this evolution. In the old-funky paradigm, you could get chili soaking into a waffle at Travelin' Joe's. In the new-funky paradigm, it's Sophina Uong's delicious, onion-infused béchamel. And if good cream gravy isn't a key neighborhood amenity, I don't know what is.
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