Ticket to Breakfast Heaven 

The "most important meal of the day" is also the best, at Berkeley's Meal Ticket.

Oh, the injustices that breakfast has suffered. At heart it's such a simple meal, and for restaurateurs a potentially profitable one given the rock-bottom cost of the main ingredients: eggs, flour, milk. But too many restaurants put too little effort into preparing breakfast -- or too much.

I've all but given up on diner breakfasts. It's too easy for places to slop down overcooked eggs and a greasy heap of half-cooked hash browns. Since many of us grew up on IHOP, we think, "Yup, that tastes just about right."

But on the flip side, I've had just as many overpriced breakfasts that gourmet-ified the meal way past good taste. Hell, I've made quite a few myself. During my first cooking stint in San Francisco years ago, I was responsible for setting my restaurant's weekend brunch menu. I sniffed at commonplace ingredients like cheddar and Canadian bacon and set about orchestrating huge curried-chicken omelets topped with tomato-ginger chutney, raita, and a papadum high hat. I put so many kinds of fruit on my French toast that the chef lectured me sharply on food costs. Sweating over the griddle every Saturday, I'd whine to the waiters that they weren't pitching my specials correctly. The straight-up eggs Benedict would outsell my masterful creations four to one.

Very few places in the East Bay do upscale brunch well. The ones that succeed do so because they cook with good technique, not good imaginations. And as many of us know from waiting in line on a Sunday morning, success often comes at the price of speed and comfort.

Enter -- or rather, re-enter -- Meal Ticket, the undead of breakfast spots. In 1998, landlord problems brought about the closing of the original Meal Ticket, a tiny joint on Berkeley's Blake Street with a loyal word-of-mouth following. After nine years owner-chef Jimmy Carter and his wife, Carolyn, were ready for a break. They traveled to Scotland, where Jimmy is from, then spent several years trekking around Europe, Asia, and New Zealand. Eventually Berkeley called them back, and in December they resuscitated Meal Ticket in a bigger, better location at San Pablo and Gilman.

Jimmy does everything in the kitchen and Carolyn handles service, sharing one helper between them. "Essentially, we run the restaurant sort of like our house. It's very informal, pretty straightforward, with not a lot of pretense," she says. Once the breakfast and lunch business steadies, the Carters plan to open for weekend dinners, serving the same kind of simple, inexpensive fare.

Jimmy's résumé includes stints at Fourth Street Grill, Santa Fe Bar & Grill, and (the first) Christopher's, but at Meal Ticket he serves inexpensive, down-to-earth food made with fresh ingredients. It's not gourmet -- it's just good.

It's easy enough to pass Meal Ticket by. San Pablo and Gilman doesn't draw a lot of foot traffic, and the sign outside the plain storefront -- the name of the restaurant and a crossed fork and knife above a coffee cup -- looks like it was made by DIY punks with spray paint and stencils.

Inside the spare but cheery room, colorful souvenirs from the Carters' world travels dot the white and saffron walls, chestnut-brown Nepali paper covers all the tables, and the floor is painted concrete. Carolyn presides over the three-stool counter at the back, while behind her Jimmy hustles away at the stove.

You order and pay at the counter, diner style. You also get your own coffee from the thermos and water from the pitchers. (Carolyn will shout these instructions across the room at anyone who sits down at a table and looks at the counter expectantly.) But the owners aren't quite committed to self-service: Carolyn and the busser bring silverware and food, clear plates, and once in a while, stop by with drink refills.

On my first visit, some friends and I dropped in for weekend brunch, finding the room (which seats perhaps fifty) half full. The brunch menu listed a number of straightforward egg dishes, omelets, and pancakes along with sandwiches and other lunchtime fare.

An omelet straddled the border between French and American styles. For American omelets, usually cooked on the griddle instead of in an omelet pan, thinner sheets of egg are wrapped around a filling and fried until firm and sometimes browned. French omelets are all about texture: fine-grained, fluffy ovals left runny in the middle. Our silky omelet, which tasted as if the eggs had been frothed before being poured into the pan, was filled with sautéed mushrooms, chunks of salty Black Forest ham, and Swiss cheese.

Equally excellent were the cornmeal pancakes topped with chunks of ripe pears, red grapes, and bananas. I picked off the fruit salad, drowned the cakes in real maple syrup and sliced into the lightest, most ethereal pancakes I have ever tasted, with no trace of grit from the cornmeal.

One of the day's specials, a small slab of salmon fillet, had been rubbed with dried herbs, perfectly seasoned, and grilled to a moist medium. A chunky, mild salsa cruda -- freshly cut tomatoes, red onion, lemon juice, and cilantro -- mounded on the side offered a nice contrast. The only off note: roasted Yukon gold potatoes, only lightly oiled, had shriveled up after too long in the oven.

Lunch the next week impressed my guests and me as much as brunch had. We started the meal with a chunky, deeply savory split-pea soup, seasoned with a touch of curry, and a couple of salads. The distinct characters of the mixed greens came through their light, not-too-sweet balsamic vinaigrette. Anchovy dominated but didn't overpower the creamy mayonnaise coating a huge whole-leaf Caesar salad speckled with Parmesan and black pepper.

All three sandwiches came on multiseed rolls that had been warmed and lightly crisped in the oven. Mixed greens, extra vegetables, and scoops of bland potato salad or roasted Yukon golds (creamier this time) filled out the plates. The bright flavors of thinly sliced tomato, red onion, fennel, and red pepper, lightly roasted under the broiler, all played off one another in the veggie melt, held together by a melted slice of jack on top. Moist chunks of chicken thigh meat in another sandwich had been rubbed with enough rosemary to perfume the meat. And a roasted steak sandwich was filled with slices of medium-rare "Montana all-natural beef," sweetly caramelized onions, and a tart parsley relish.

Jimmy Carter makes all the baked goods in-house. Both the flaky raisin scone and the crumbly, butter-laden walnut chocolate-chip cookie should have been pulled out of the oven a couple minutes sooner or the temperature turned down a notch. Promising doughs were foiled by dark brown, bitter bottoms. But the pastry surrounding a deep-dish pie stayed golden and tender, packed with large chunks of tender roasted apple and pear.

"You know, I thought that as California cuisine flourished we'd see more restaurants like Meal Ticket," mused my friend Joe after our lunch. "Little, cheap places where everything was fresh and good." It's rare to find a restaurant where classically trained cooks find satisfaction in perfecting modest food at modest prices. That's nothing to be modest about.


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