Sure Beats Pub Food 

An upscale "tavern" takes over Mazzini's Berkeley lair.

Restaurateurs often embellish the names of their establishments, but merely sticking "Chez" in front doesn't make the food any good. And I've yet to eat "fine cuisine" at any place that proclaims it on the awning. But misnomers can also work in an eatery's favor: A place that calls itself a tavern might be mistaken for a dive.

What an ungainly word for Berkeley's newest bistro, which took over the old Trattoria Mazzini space just over a month ago. The tavern is certainly larger than Mark Drazek and Barbara Mulas' previous restaurant, Zax, which was hidden away at the north end of North Beach for nine years. That Zax won -- and maintained -- critical approval for the length of its run, but never could shake its status as a best-kept secret.

So when Mazzini's digs opened up this spring, the longtime East Bay husband-and-wife team hooked up with partners Adam Shoehalter and Michael Modos to take them over. The first pair now runs the back of the house, the second -- veterans of Italian Colors and Lalime's, respectively -- oversees the dining room.

The foursome didn't have to do much to make the space more romantic, so they didn't. The marble-topped bar near the entrance, lit by a row of golden champagne-flute lamps, is now stocked with rows of top-shelf spirits. The main room is still all red woods, creamy walls, and white tablecloths. You'll look good feeding your date forkfuls of chocolate pavé in its warm, honeyed light.

A sole complaint is that tables in the near section of the dining room follow the floor plan of a 747's coach class. A large party in the back would have looked painfully scrunched had several of its members not been so visibly in love, giving their more reserved tablemates extra shoulder room.

The food never strays far from the simple and seasonal. There are few surprising twists, no shocks of delight, no recherché ingredients. But the chefs' strength is the control and precision of their culinary technique, and they have managed to keep that control in a bigger kitchen. The result: a warm, homey honesty. And very few missteps.

I was surprised to see Zax' signature appetizer on the menu: You'd think that bored chefs would jump at the chance to lose it in the move. The twice-baked goat cheese soufflé is paired with an autumnal salad of shaved fennel, celery, and apple in a sweet cider vinaigrette. The high, light-brown round pulls apart with the consistency of an ephemeral angel food cake and melts on the tongue. Its tangy, eggy richness contrasts well with bites of the sharp, fragrant salad.

The sole concession to the tavern concept is a series of pressed sandwiches on the appetizer side of the menu. They're meant to do double-duty as substantial bar snacks, though there aren't many people yet soaking up cocktails around the bar. We tried one of the panini, a crusty, well-oiled (but not oily) sandwich with arugula, pickled onions, and melted fontina and parmesan. It came with a large patch of watercress and tiny, citrus-scented black olives.

On the more formal end, a white bean soup with chard was salted just so -- not the easiest of tasks, given many cooks' tendency to overseason soups. However, the starchy, creamy soup could have absorbed more seasoning. It gained character when spoonfuls included nutty, crunchy sautéed breadcrumbs mounded in the center, a nod to the cassoulet. The cooks struck another too-reserved note with a salad of chopped romaine, radish, and red onion propping up grilled prawns. The amazing prawns tasted like they had been held above the flames before getting grill-marked so they picked up extra smokiness. The salad didn't do them justice.

But we raved over the duck-liver salad. It's an old Parisian winter favorite: a tangle of bitter frisée covers a layer of sautéed duck livers, pink and creamy at the center. Crushed black peppercorns send out little shocks, and a poached egg on top spills its unctuous yolk into the salad. The main attraction, though, is a decadent vinaigrette that balances perfectly robust mustard, vinegar, and meaty pancetta fat. Don't think about the calories. You can walk home.

Entrées are strategically plotted to hit all the marks: vegetarian, light and dark fish, chicken, light and dark red meats. The toasted breadcrumbs from the soup made their way into the vegetarian penne, soaking up the meaty mushroom broth that filled the bottom of a giant bowl. Sautéed creminis and chanterelles supplemented the broth, and caramelized onions added a savory sweetness to the mix.

Niman Ranch flank steak had been basted in a pan-sauce deglazed with soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, and garlic, a nifty way of creating a savory sauce without long-reduced (and costly) veal-stock sauces. Flank steak is one of my favorite cuts of beef because it's juicy and meaty, but it needs to be cut thinly -- more thinly than the slices we received -- to break up the long fibers that run its length. The potatoes, roasted until creamy with a few unpeeled cloves of garlic, and crisp sautéed green beans were fine accompaniments.

It wouldn't have surprised me to find out the Mendocino chicken was brined, because flavor permeated the meat to the bone. An entire half-chicken, separated into segments for uniform cooking, had been pan-fried and then finished in the oven so the skin blistered and browned into a crunchy casing for the juicy meat. Dried chiles scattered over the top of the meat alluded to a chile-whiskey sauce. The sauce was barely discernible on the chicken because it had soaked into the sautéed escarole and rice, which reflected only its heat. More sauce would have been welcome. I felt the same about the thinly applied ruby ginger-beet slaw that decorated the pan-roasted striped bass. I wanted more. The fillet itself, of course, couldn't have been faulted, and the horseradish mashed potatoes didn't overwhelm the meat.

The lamb stew qualified as slow food. One of the humblest items on the menu, it was also the best. The lamb had been braised so long that it dissipated in the mouth almost as easily as the soufflé, and the broth/sauce had reduced to a deep, chocolaty intensity. A smattering of fall vegetables was tossed into the mix for service, so they maintained their crunch and color.

Desserts show off Drazek's fine baking skills. Try the apple galette -- everyone else is; I never got to taste it because the kitchen kept running out. Instead we had the pear brown-butter tart, with the crumbliest, butteriest pâte sablée I've mooned over in years. Over the top were baked thin slices of pear and a puffy, nutty, brown-butter crust. The angel food cake again had a lovely texture, but its delicate flavor was overwhelmed by the pool of chocolate sauce it lay upon -- no great tragedy for amorous chocolate lovers. If that's not enough to sate the chocolate addict, a chocolate pavé, a cross between a flourless chocolate cake and a brownie, will do the job.

The service was formal but not formidable. You'd expect a tavern to be staffed by stein-swagging misses dressed in uncomfortable peasant blouses and bad attitudes. But alas, these guys know how to recommend a bottle of wine and wield a crumb-scraper.

Fooled again.


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