There's a downside to reviewing restaurants, the lucky critic whines: mediocrity. Bad restaurants are easy to describe. Good ones even easier. It's the ones in between that suck the joy out of getting paid to stuff yourself silly and blather on about it.
Given my penchant for little, little-known places, the vast majority of mediocre meals that I eat go unreported. I'm happy to tell readers I've walked out of a big-buzz, big-money restaurant demoralized by the meal. Unremarkable dinners at tiny mom-and-pops, though, earn silence. The East Bay's restaurant scene is cutthroat enough that I don't always need to supply it with knives.
Sometimes -- say, November 2004 -- I hit a winning streak that makes me worry about becoming the Rex Reed of the James Beard set. Then a month like December passes, when I burn through my to-review list without eating many meals worth writing about. Normally I visit each restaurant twice, as anonymously as possible, in order to judge the restaurant's consistency. A good night can mitigate a bad one; the high points of the meal help smooth over the lows. But when the peaks are barely hills, and the meal just wallows in the low-to-middling range, it's hard to muster the enthusiasm -- or vitriol -- to return. And when they're charging decent money for that, it merits a mention.
Here, then, are my notes from four subpar December meals -- each costing at least $30 a person -- that I didn't feel warranted second visits.
C'est la Vie
2142 Center St. (at Shattuck Ave.), Berkeley. 510-848-8877
Average entrée price: $18
High points: Located in the old Santa Fe Bistro, C'est la Vie has kept its predecessor's decor intact. All wine-hued walls, cherry woods, and white tablecloths, it's not a bad place to park yourself for a couple of hours. Despite the French name and the picture of the Eiffel Tower on the sign, the menu is about as Californian as you can get. Squash "ravioli," slices of the vegetable stuffed with cheese, tasted sweet and whimsical; and the roasted Fulton Valley Farms chicken had the proper formula -- crisp skin, juicy meat.
Low points: Gummy, muddy-tasting risotto. Oddly gamy, mushy lamb chops. A server who had the potential to become good with more training -- she had the spirit right, just not the polish.
Oh, no, they didn't ... serve me a bowl filled with closed mussels. Which means they were dead going into the pan. Oh, yes, they did! No one got sick, possibly because I forbid my tablemates from eating the tightest-mouthed ones.
Why I decided not to review it: It was clear C'est la Vie's chef and managers had not gotten it together yet. By this time, a couple of months after opening, they should have tightened up the service and mastered the execution of their dishes.
856 San Pablo Ave. (at Solano Ave.), Albany. 510-524-2000
Average entrée price: $16
High points: Zaytoon's exposed-brick walls and skyscape murals may have come from Cafe Muse two incarnations back, but the quirky, cute decor still draws you in. So do the waitstaff, quick and friendly, who know how to make a fellow feel welcome. It's one of those places where two visits makes you a regular, with all the attendant perks. While they wait for their food, diners can wrap salty cheese and fresh mint, parsley, and basil in soft Persian flatbread.
Low points: Zaytoon specializes in Persian kabobs. We ordered three: overcooked chicken, overcooked beef, and overcooked lamb. Each at around $16 a pop.
Oh, no, they didn't ... serve canned dolmas on an appetizer plate. (And dolmas are not even Persian.) Oh, yes, they did!
Why I decided not to review it: Unluckily for Zaytoon, two days before my visit, I ate at Chopan Kabob in Concord, whose six-item menu of Afghan kabobs was too small for me to write a full review about it. Too bad, because you won't find better kabobs north of Fremont. So it galled me to pay almost three times more for mediocre ones at Zaytoon. And kabobs made up the bulk of the menu; beyond a few appetizers and stews, the restaurant didn't delve far enough into enticing, sophisticated Persian cuisine -- far too difficult to find in the Bay Area -- to warrant more interest.
Caylen's New American Kitchen
65 Moraga Way (at Northwood Dr.), Orinda. 925-258-3558
Average price: $14 for pizzas, $20 for entrées
High points: Caylen's pan-American menu samples a little New Orleans here, a little Italian there. When my tablemate and I thought back over our meal on the way home, we only remembered two things: the lemon risotto underneath an (overcooked) salmon filet -- a bit of a salt lick, but creamy and lemony; and the punchy mustard aioli that came with the (also overcooked) calamari. And our server, who had obviously trained in the realm of fine dining, didn't miss a beat.
Low points: Nothing was awful, truly, but it lacked balance. For example, sweet dominated the vanilla-apple vinaigrette on a salad of arugula, a feral-tasting green that needs to be tamed with strong, sharp forces. Without anything snappy (say, onions or tomatoes) to liven it up, a pizza spread with potatoes, little cubes of pancetta, mushrooms, and an herbed-goat cheese tasted creamy, meaty ... and flat.
Why I didn't review it: Caylen's served decent food, but not memorable food. As my notes attest, I couldn't recommend any of the dishes without reservations.
2000 Park Blvd., Oakland. 510-832-8705
Average entrée price: $13
High points: Oh, man, does the Parkway strip deserve a cozy neighborhood bistro. And Café Rue, a "French-Asian" bistro, gets much of the equation right -- the couple who run it have turned a hole-in-the-wall into a comfortable little place, decorated with up-close and personal photographs of flowers. Our waitress provided just the right level of service for the bistro, friendly and smooth. Each entrée plate was precisely garnished with carved vegetables.
Low points: The "champignons magiques" (magic mushrooms), which I ordered once I stopped giggling over the name, produced about as effective a high as smoking nutmeg -- they were just undercooked button mushrooms in an underreduced sherry cream sauce. And my beef in Shanghai sauce -- overfried, salty, syrupy -- could have come out of a carton.
Oh, no, they didn't ... serve a scoop of white rice so mushy that it wouldn't have made it onto the steam table at my college cafeteria. Oh, yes, they did!
Why I didn't review it: Right now, a new crop of Asia-born cooks, some of whom have worked in Western-style restaurants and some of whom have cooked only in Asian restaurants, is venturing into the field, starting from Chinese or Vietnamese technique and incorporating French and Californian influences. Now that places like Cafe Rue are reversing the cross-cultural flow, I'm seeing why many Asian-American foodies have found Western chefs' attempts to "do" Asian cuisine problematic. Once we translated the restaurant's menu from the French, it didn't offer many surprises or delights, just adequate versions of classic French and classic Chinese takeout.
Not to sound materialistic, but my decision to pass these four restaurants by boiled down to money. To paraphrase my friend Tony: Pay $10, and you're just feeding yourself. Pay $30 or more, and you should expect to feel treated. In the end, even though each of these four places served some pleasant food and some not-so-pleasant food, they couldn't dish up that sense of delight.