"You should expand this place," a customer said to the cook at the new Grégoire's, while my friend D and another eight people waited for their food. The cook gestured around the narrow room, taking in its dozen bar stools and the miniature kitchen he was helming, solo. "This is the expansion," he replied.
Over the course of the past four years, tiny Grégoire's on Cedar by Shattuck has captured the hearts and waistlines of many with chef Grégoire Jacquet's takeout French-Californian food. His potato puffs have become one of North Berkeley's favorite guilty pleasures, the kind of thing you bring home on the back streets so none of your neighbors will see you devouring the entire box on the go.
Jacquet has just pulled off a tricky bit of entrepreneurial choreography: opening not one but two new restaurants at the same time. Grégoire's II, a clone of the original, has squeezed into a tiny storefront on Piedmont Avenue, the most ideal location for an upscale takeout restaurant this side of Lafayette. And when the foo-food mall Epicurious Garden finally opened a month ago, almost six months late, Jacquet debuted Socca Oven, his Provençal pizzeria.
Quick backstory: Jacquet, born and trained in France, traveled North America with the Ritz-Carlton before settling in Berkeley, where he scaled back his ambitions if temporarily to raise a family. He says he expanded in order to keep his loyal staff, who wanted to continue working for him but needed new challenges. "They pushed me out," he laughs. Their skill made the unfortunately timed expansion a success, not a disaster.
Grégoire's on Piedmont is a whopping sixteen feet longer than the original, but just as clean and cute. With one counter wrapped around the hot line think burners, fryers, and cooks trying not to swear in public and another around the front window, it also offers slightly more seating.
A few things haven't changed since I wrote about the first Grégoire's in 2002. Jacquet still changes the lunch and dinner menu every month you can find a faxable menu on his Web site in case you want to call your order in. Almost anyone can afford lunch, mostly salads and sandwiches, while dinners are aimed at the type of people who won't blanch at eating a $25-a-person meal from a cardboard box. What you get for your money is fare you'd enjoy served on good china, made by good cooks using good ingredients. It's such a smart business plan that I can't fault Jacquet for pricing it beyond my budget.
The other thing that I love about the chef, albeit guiltily, is that the man does not stint on the fat. Even at lunch: A pair of crackly, rich, puff pastry "pies" were spread with onions caramelized down in enough oil to render them satiny, then topped with paper-thin roast lamb and melted Comte cheese. Though his broccoli-Parmesan quiche contained enough vegetables to tint it green, it was luxuriously eggy, encased in pastry so buttery it could barely hold itself together. A baby spinach salad was about as healthy as it got, sparked by the one-two of lemon juice and feta cheese. And then, of course, there were the french fries and the potato puffs (think hush-puppy-sized balls of cheesy mashed potatoes deep-fried until they develop a thin crust) came with flavored mayonnaise for dipping, comme il faut.
The dinner entrées I tried found a nice balance between abandon and restraint. Each box opened up to reveal bright-green stalks of crisp blanched broccolini arcing over its contents. The chunks of lamb on Grégoire's kebabs were lean and pink, alternating on the skewer with grill-charred red and gold bell peppers. With the exception of some overly firm sautéed halibut cheeks, the meats were all cooked smartly enough to withstand the trip home. A half-hour after they went into the box, medallions of pork "filet mignon" stayed mighty juicy, aided by a sage-pancetta cream sauce. And the flank steak, ordered medium-rare, arrived medium-rare. We held back on its red-wine reduction sauce, a bit too sweet and free of the Sichuan peppercorns the menu promised. The meat was good enough on its own.
The only real disappointment was dessert: Both the apple cake, which looked and tasted like an Easy-Bake Oven creation, and the plastic deli container of mango mousse made me feel the pain of paying restaurant prices for takeout food. Another quick complaint is that Grégoire's II is big enough that more people eat on site, but even then your food comes in Jacquet's signature octagonal boxes. When you leave behind a tower of cardboard it's hard not to feel wasteful.
Despite the fact that Socca Oven opened a block away from the original Grégoire's, there's no threat that Jacquet will cannibalize his own business. The attractive Epicurious Garden stall, done up in hammered copper and woods, specializes in one thing: tiny pizzas, baked to order, based on the socca, or Niçois chickpea-flour crepe.
Soccas are a street food traditionally garnished with olive oil and cracked black pepper. Jacquet may do things to his that all of Nice would call heretical of course, French foodies scream heresy more readily than the Spanish Inquisitors but his soccas do stick to a palate of lusty, two-pastis-and-a-Gitane Provençal flavors. He still calls them "street food."
Jacquet says he settled on the concept to feed his customers who were on low-carb or gluten-free diets. And though I wasn't over the moon about the grainy texture of the thin chickpea crusts, I didn't find it distracting. More importantly, the soccas held up well to all the toppings the cooks heaped on them, which evinced responses ranging from "Mmm, that's good," to "Oh, my sweet Lord." And the prices $5.25 to $7.75 a pop couldn't be more reasonable.
Based on the traditional tart called a pissaladière, the onion socca was blanketed in sweet, slowly caramelized onions, which muffled the pungent shockwaves made by the chopped kalamata olives and whole anchovy fillets arranged overtop. The eggplant socca came with a tangle of roasted peppers and eggplant, blobs of green basil puree peeking through. The pork socca was covered in the French equivalent of carnitas herbed, slow-roasted, shredded pork moistened up with duxelles, more or less a pesto of sautéed mushrooms. The hands-down favorite was the scallop socca, where a handful of tender bay scallops nestled into a layer of fennel, braised with wine until its bright sharp anise melted into a rich wash of flavor, and spiked with dabs of Meyer lemon puree and a drizzle of saffron aioli.
Can Jacquet divide his time among three locations and still maintain his high standards? It seems so.