Downtown Berkeley has been on the upswing for almost a decade now, but it took a cluster of openings several years ago to make it go off -- the renovated Rep and Aurora Theatre's new space gave the area clout, and Via Centro, Downtown, and Liaison gave it class. You may complain that Berkeley's arts district is priced far above what most of us can afford, and you'd be right -- a night out on the town, and that's only three courses and balcony seats, can easily set you back $90 to $100 a person.
But sometimes -- and I can feel my mother's glare all the way from Indiana -- trickle-down economics work. Thanks to the money brought in by the cocktail and tux crowd, people want to spend time in downtown Berkeley again.
Le Théâtre, the newest player to enter the downtown scene, opened last September, but in January Tanya Holland, the La Varenne-trained chef who stars in the Food Network show Melting Pot, took over as general manager. She assumed control over the front of the house and handed the toque to Christine Mullen, formerly of Florio and the Lark Creek Inn. The duo has ambitious plans for the restaurant -- and the talent to pull them off.
The restaurant's main problem is lack of visibility. The path to Le Théâtre reminds me of Dr. Dolittle's Great Pink Sea Snail. The owners have mounted a big sign over the University Avenue entrance and another on the Addison side. But to get to the real entrance you have to wind around a maze of covered walkways in a wood-shingled office complex until you reach a shadowy, plant-filled courtyard at the center.
Through the doors, you may feel like you're entering the chamber at the heart of the snail, if his Swiss grandmother had a say in decorating it. The walls, painted a color we called "dusty rose" back in the 1980s, are echoed in the deep fuchsia hues of the carpet. The pink expanse is broken by stripes of eye-level mirrors, blond-wood banquettes, and lace curtains over the garden-level windows. (According to Holland, they and a few other original pieces of the decor are on their way out.) Cherubs flittering about the ceiling beams dangle scrolls emblazoned with the bons mots of famous playwrights -- Molière, Artaud, and Shakespeare. Who knew he wrote in French, too?
Once you've found Le Théâtre, the charm of the servers and the cooks will keep you coming back. Despite the entrée prices, which generally stay below the $20 mark, Le Théâtre introduces a few of the niceties that mark your dining experience at more expensive French restaurants. For example, the meals begin with amuse-bouches, tiny, whimsical bites to whet the appetite. One night started with a Kumamoto oyster brushed with barbecue sauce and broiled in the shell until just cooked; another, a dab of tuna tataki on a wafer-thin croustade.
Under Holland's aegis, Le Théâtre's food has mutated from strict French bistro to California-French fusion. Reflecting modern France -- as well as the style Holland has become famous for -- the chef is slowly creolizing the menu to bring in Caribbean and North African flavors. Sometimes she goes too far. In a twist on the Portuguese combo of clams and chorizo, Mullen combines mussels and merguez, a spicy Algerian lamb sausage, presenting the chile-coated shellmound in a shallow clay casserole. The original is pure genius, an explosion produced by the unexpected fission of brine and spice and pork fat. But in the merguez-mussels pairing, the gaminess of the lamb completely knocks out the flavor of the shellfish, and the dish fizzles.
But the beef short ribs, braised in a richly spiced Moroccan broth, ignite. Though I would have cooked the ribs a little longer, until each fiber relinquished its hold on the next at the touch of a fork, the flavors melded together into a sweet, meaty haze, complemented by the bed of couscous spiked with mint and dried fruits. A third, more subtle, African touch was the substitution of harissa (a fiery spiced red-pepper puree) for rouille (cayenne-sparked aioli) in the bouillabaisse-like seafood stew. Crab legs, scallops, salmon, and prawns were napped in a thick golden stew in which the sweet, dusky flavors of saffron and fennel gave way to a low-watt garlicky burn.
The rest of the cuisine is all-American. "The food's great but I can tell the cook isn't French," said one of my guests, who has spent a decade married to a French chef. "The flavors aren't subtle." She was talking about her steak-frites, a New York strip, cooked just right, with a mushroom cream sauce that was the subtlest, most traditional item I tried.
It's true. The French like sussing out the hints of spices and vegetal half-notes in their food, while we Americans like everything to pop out at us, bright and splashy. Mullen knows how to strike a balance with the lighter Californian dishes, such as an upland cress salad in which pink and fuchsia roasted baby beets play off herb-crusted goat cheese and ground hazelnuts in a sweet, spritely vinaigrette. Or a thick, buttery slice of smoked salmon draped across a paper-thin potato galette, everything topped with crème fraîche and a tussle of shaved radish and cucumber.
But she is most captivating when she applies American sensibilities to rich, robust French country fare. My roommate mooned over his escargots: fat, earthy snails braised with fat, earthy morels and chanterelles in a fat, earthy red wine reduction sauce scented with summer savory and spooned over polenta the texture of mascarpone.
Rosy at the core, a thick duck breast had spent a long time slowly pan-frying on its skin so that most of the fat underneath melted, leaving a crisp crust and all that duck flavor. The thinly sliced duck lay atop a "ragout of pancetta and spring vegetables," mostly a few fresh peas, minutely diced carrots, and a whole lot of succulent braised pork belly. A single chard-stuffed raviolo brought in a much needed bit of bitterness. I yearned for a bit of asceticism -- a few spears of steamed asparagus, a peppery tangle of well-dressed arugula -- but couldn't stay away from the debauchery on my plate.
Only the desserts could use a little more refinement. The berries in a free-form galette were snappy and fresh, but the pastry folded around them was forgettable. An almond cake with pineapple should just have been scrapped: Not-quite-ripe pineapple slices soaked in burnt dark rum didn't offset the flyaway, Duncan Hines-like cake. I most enjoyed a simple chocolate mousse, light enough to go down like cream but dense with enough chocolate to satisfy four small Belgians.
The Rep and the Aurora may be smarting from the recession, but the arts are still pulling hundreds, even thousands, of diners into local restaurants night after night. With Le Théâtre, the downtown Berkeley restaurant scene only continues to improve. Downtown Oakland, take note.
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