There's something about a fireplace that instills a room with a sense of history. Ignoring the waiter's computer station next to it and the fact that the flames are fueled by gas, not wood, the fireplace at the far end of Adagia, on the edge of the Cal campus, transports diners to a much earlier age. With two-story ceilings, high latticed windows, and all the wood paneling Yosemite could spare, the room, once the activity room for the Presbyterian church's Westminster House, harks back to the days when Julia Morgan walked the earth and American academics gleaned all their good taste from Europe.
A bit of imaginative myopia, and the tables blur into clusters of leather chairs exuding exegesis and cigar smoke. The long table bisecting the room looks like it should hold monks bending over their barley gruel, not grad students clinking tumblers of red wine and waxing postcolonial. In short, Adagia has serious ambience.
Its food is equally serious. You taste the earnestness in a motherly bowl of chicken soup, the stock deepened with roasted chicken bones and filled with stewed onions, celery, and carrots. Or in the creamy potato soup, enlivened with just a swirl of chive oil and a squirt of lemon. Both soups are simple -- and yet they're not.
Owner Darryl Ross has slowly worked his way up to fine dining after years of bringing budget organics to Cal students through his Free Speech Movement Cafe, Cafe Muse, and Cafe Strada, all on campus. Ross brought in Lawrence Jossel, of Chez Nous and Chow, to help open the restaurant, and Jossel has since turned the tongs over to longtime Ross collaborator Brian Beach, who trained in San Francisco at places like Aqua and 42 Degrees.
But even now that he's gone high end, Ross hasn't lost his commitment to the university community. Adagia is priced just for senior-year splurges or faculty lunches, with most entrées in the $12 to $18 range and portions big enough to guarantee leftovers. Even the name seems market tested for maximum Berkeley appeal -- Adagia as in the title of Erasmus' 16th-century anthology of Greek and Latin adages, but also Adagia as in Italian for "slow," or Slow Food.
With that mission, Beach focuses on typical Slow Food values like seasonality and locality. On my two visits in late April, his slowly rotating menu hadn't yet lost sight of winter with its blood oranges, root vegetables, and braised meats. Spring, however, was bringing out the best of his gifts.
The chef loves lemon like others love veal stock. Citrus transformed a simple vegetarian risotto into a revelation: Into the creamy white rice, still al dente at the core, he had folded shavings of green asparagus and pea shoots. They barely cooked in the stock, retaining all the freshness of green garden sprouts. Instead of feeding cream, butter, and Parmesan into the risotto to fill out its flavors, he stirred in a bit of Meyer lemon juice; sharp and transparent, it let the flavor of the vegetables shine through. Beach also seared a thin slice of tuna and placed it on a ragout of baby artichokes and large white beans in a clear, lemony broth. A thick smudge of kalamata tapenade on the fish blended slowly into the broth and we marveled as it evolved with each bite.
Some chefs are appetizer chefs and some are entrée chefs. Appetizer chefs, with their talent for small delicacies, skew bombastic or fussy on entrées. Beach's strength is entrées. His appetizers can come off too bountiful, like a massive salad of frisee, watercress, shaved fennel, blood orange, and crab. The bitter wintry greens and the raspberry-flavored oranges were evenly matched, as were the fresh crab meat and sweet fennel slices, but on the plate the ingredients competed. Or, as with the fritto misto, he skews heavy. Everything about the breaded portobello mushrooms, asparagus, fennel, baby artichokes, and, yes, Meyer lemon was pleasant, but I never forgot that I was eating deep-fried food.
But move on to his duck confit, and you're shocked by how clean something like meat braised in its own fat can taste. The skin, crisped under the broiler, gives a touch of bacon to the duckiest duck around. A bit of cumin dusted on carrot ribbons -- a drugstore bow of a garnish -- rubs off on the meat, giving it a mysterious new layer of flavor. The chef trusts that his meat is moist enough and sumptuous enough to not invest in a sauce. Instead, he tosses a few coins of kumquat onto the plate, each sharp, fragrant, and bitter enough to cut through the richest bite.
Highlights like these lessened the disappointment of dishes that were merely competent, such as a moist, flaky filet of cod with clams and a lemony cream sauce that needed one strong flavor to hoist it up, or a primeval lamb shank -- the bone jutting over the lip of its oversize bowl -- that another twenty minutes of braising would have melted into something more than a big hunk of meat. In contrast, the steak frites with a wine-and-shallot "bordelaise" butter was everything it should have been: robust, straightforward, and quickly eaten.
There's one real problem with Adagia, and it's not what's on the plate. The waiters approach service with the kind of timing that shows they're following their own rhythms, not yours. Each of the servers I encountered was affable, able to field my questions about the menu, and supported by on-the-mark busers. But during both of my dinners, a procession of small annoyances grated away their charm. Two examples: As we were finishing up our first courses one night, our waiter came over to apologize for having forgotten our drinks, then walked over to the manager to chitchat with him for a quarter hour before resolving the problem. On another night, our server kept swooping by to pick off the empty plates one by one, leaving the last person to finish the course feeling like the slow kid in class.
But I'm blessed with a short attention span, and so the moment I dipped into Beach's cardamom-infused crème caramel, a lilting little flan that replaces the traditional dark caramel sauce with an orange-scented syrup, my grudge passed. There's nothing new to say about a molten-chocolate cake -- the espresso-infused whipped cream alongside was the intriguing part -- but Adagia's elicited the moans it intended to.
In fact, on the whole Adagia is exactly the neighborhood bistro it intends to be. The quality of the ingredients, the execution of the dishes, and (just as importantly) the prices all line up. The founders of Westminster would certainly agree that good intentions count for a lot when the chef follows through on them.
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