Twilight Time 


Saturday night at Paragon. On our left, people sporting flashing red buttons call out, "I love this guy!" to the soused guest of honor at a fortieth birthday party. On our right are tables filled by attractive thirtysomethings in buttery leather jackets and boutique-bought dresses. My dining companion plays counterpoint to thumping house music with his knife and spoon. We have entered the world of the dress-up bar.

This is the place you take your out-of-town friends to floor them. Where you take a special someone when you want to look like their trophy date. Where you can wear that Prada you just splurged on. When Jupiter and the Mallard Club just don't fit the bill.

Jon Swanson and Tim Harmon, owners of the Paragon chain in the Bay Area and Portland, have paired with the Claremont Hotel to replace the hotel's Terrace Bar. The group has dropped quite a few G's on remodeling the space, orchestrated by top-of-the-line restaurant designers Backen & Gillam Architects (San Francisco's Kokkari, Il Fornaio).

Chic but warm, Paragon is one of the most stylish spots in Berkeley. In the lounge area, diners can sit on low square stools (some covered with bright orange cowhide) around glowing golden-orange cubes. Illuminated orange panels flank the marble bar and the hostess station, and the room is softly lit by ceiling lights that look like upside-down votives. Well-heeled diners sit at zinc-topped tables along a bank of windows. If you arrive after dark, the lights of the sprawl below glitter along the horizon.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, a jazz combo plays in the lounge. On Fridays and Saturdays, a DJ spins house -- great for the bar, annoying in the dining room. As expected, Paragon's bar does a brisk business, offering more than fifty vodkas from around the world and an extensive -- and generously marked-up -- wine list that zeroes in on California wines.

Surprisingly enough, Paragon's menu keeps below the high-water mark, with entrées topping off at $18.50. The kitchen is run by 24-year-old chef Maximilian DiMare, who comes from Massachusetts via stints at Scala's Bistro and Paragon San Francisco. The restaurant's press packet describes his "unpretentious" food as "California brasserie," which translates as extremely simple bistro fare, as familiar and comfortable as macaroni and cheese -- which is on the menu, of course. It's pleasant and for the most part well-prepared but a few steps short of interesting.

Nevertheless, DiMare slips in some nice touches, such as the Spanish pickled white anchovy that garnishes the whole-leaf Caesar salad. The salad itself is dressed with a too-delicate hand, perhaps trying to mute a tart, barely creamy garlic vinaigrette. Fried calamari "with roasted vegetables" is truly a fritto misto, with green beans, onions, and fennel accompanying the squid rings, all fried in a slightly soggy batter and drizzled with a smoky chipotle aioli that we just couldn't get enough of. The best appetizer of the bunch is the bruschetta, two large slices of toasted French bread layered with creamy and sweet port-glazed onions, sharp Roquefort cheese, and baby arugula, the ensemble a mix of rich flavors and textures.

One night we decided to match the mood of the restaurant with a half-dozen Malpeque oysters, nestled into a bed of crushed ice on a large round plate. Their clean, minerally flavor was highlighted by a restrained ginger mignonette. Unfortunately, they had been sloppily shucked, and we had to pick pieces of shell out and wipe away schmutz before we slid the bivalves into our mouths.

The chef knows a thing or two about roasting meats. One of the meatiest chicken breasts in memory, our moist, crispy-skinned breast picked up even more flavor from the simple red-wine/brown-stock reduction sauce underneath it. The peppery, crisp crust on a salmon fillet didn't go soft even by the end of the meal, but the meat within pulled apart with the touch of a fork.

Paragon's accompaniments could use some brightening -- something sleek and sexy, perhaps. DiMare aims for homeyness, which seems at odds with the decor. The salmon rested on a mound of slightly grainy mashed potatoes, and I bypassed the insipid beurre blanc sauce studded with raw cherry tomatoes that surrounded it. The chicken came with flavorful sautéed spinach and a large ramekin of macaroni and cheese (which can also be ordered as a side). Its crackly, sharp Parmesan crust covered the pasta in a creamy but bland béchamel, lightly scented with rosemary and roasted garlic.

Another pasta we tried didn't have much flavor, either. Delicate, light parsley tagliatelle had been tossed with spinach and roasted cremini mushrooms in what promised to be a Madeira sauce. We could only taste the parsley: The red wine had disappeared somewhere, and we searched for it futilely in bite after bite. The kitchen cooked an undersalted, grilled flat-iron steak perfectly, and served it with roasted potatoes and arugula, as well as a slightly bitter red-wine reduction sauce. The hamburger, also impeccably pink, was just as good as it could have been. It came with bright-red tomatoes, cucumbers pickled with a touch of curry, lettuce, and onion, and a mess of fresh-from-the-freezer french fries. Diners can choose between blue, Swiss, and Cheddar cheese, and even add a dollar for a couple strips of applewood-smoked bacon.

Paragon's small, simple dessert menu shows a bit more panache. The irrepressibly slim can order a duo of smooth, brightly flavored sorbets: We received mango and boysenberry. The rest of you might consider a banana tarte Tatin, a tart cooked upside down. When inverted for presentation, the spiral of thinly sliced, caramelized bananas makes a lovely sight, accompanied by a scoop of overly spiced cinnamon ice cream. Don't miss the warm apple crisp, the nicest iteration of a time-worn standard that I've tasted in several years. It came in the same size ramekin as the mac 'n' cheese. Slightly tart apples tossed with a little cinnamon, vanilla, and caramel contrasted with a sweet, crunchy topping. A scoop of vanilla bean ice cream on top quickly melted, distributing its creaminess throughout the dessert.

Though the servers fit the mood of the place -- hip but smiley -- one night our waiter seemed young and unfocused. Her greenness showed through in the way she confidently picked out an entirely unsuitable merlot for my salmon and misfired our entrées so that she and the manager had to come to the table, large plates in hand, to ask us if they could clear our appetizers before we had finished them. (Of course we capitulated, but next time, guys, don't even offer, no matter how loud the chef is yelling at you.) Both times our bill was dropped off with dessert, sending a clear "we'd love to have this table free" message. However, our cocktail waitress combined charm with competence, and the bussers kept the table clear and our water glasses filled.

Paragon flirts with Dress-up Bar Syndrome, in which scenesters are expected to overlook mediocre service and food because they look so good standing in such a beautiful setting. Luckily, the restaurant largely eschews this painful condition with solidly prepared comfort food priced to sell, not to intimidate. The intimidating is up to you.


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