Downtown Berkeley is humming with new life–a growing arts district, a new home for the Berkeley Rep, more than a few new high-end restaurants. Richard Mazzera, Dennis Lapuyade, and Stephen Singer, the trio who own the upscale tapas restaurant César, are placing heavy bets on this upswing by opening Downtown, a seafood restaurant that hopes to rival San Francisco’s large-scale hotspots.
The three, who all have extensive ties to Chez Panisse, are aiming high; there’s nothing in Berkeley with quite the same expansive, glossy, high-energy feel. Like the City’s high-profile places, Downtown also can feel a little impersonal–at present, the restaurant has more space than character. The two-story, open room is decorated à la Pottery Barn in rich creams and golds, its walls sparsely decorated. Diners can watch the bustling of cooks through the kitchen’s large serving window in the back of the restaurant. Low walls with banquet seating on either side break up the space, which is filled with tables of different sizes.
Opened without much fanfare in early April, Downtown has already attracted quite a crowd. On one visit the room was so packed that every stool at the long bar was occupied. Downtown’s big-city buzz is less grating than that of San Francisco restaurants with similar layouts–think LuLu and 42 Degrees–but unless you’re sitting against one of the low walls that break up the space you may find yourself raising your voice.
While lunch is set to debut in June and a skeleton late-night menu is up and running, dinner is the primary meal. Mazzera & co. have brought in David Stevenson, who has garnered good reviews at San Francisco’s Tavolino, Bandol, and Enrico’s. Stevenson plays with a seasonal, Mediterranean-influenced palette of flavors, assembling clean, simple plates. His focus is not on innovation or flash but on creating solidly prepared, healthful fare.
The “cold and raw bar” section of the menu offers a large selection of pickled, poached, and pristine shellfish. Three or four varieties of oysters and clams on the half shell ($9 for six, $18 for twelve) are on sale, their individual characteristics described. A small “Crudo” plate ($9.50) of Mediterranean-style sashimi offers the freshest of the fresh: on one visit we tried halibut with lemon-chive oil, scallops with olive oil, and king salmon with olives. Unfortunately, their sweet, velvety flesh was jarringly juxtaposed against the large-grained sea salt into which they were to be dipped. The Grilled Fresh Anchovies in Saor ($6.50) presents a subtler, more successful juxtaposition of sweet, sour, and fishy. Marinated “Venetian style,” the whole anchovies are nestled in a tangle of cooked onions and golden raisins.
Ten additional starters cover a broader range of salads and warm dishes. The crisp, oilless Fritto Misto of the Day ($9.25)–which means “mixed fry” in Italian–included fennel, oysters, anchovies, slices of whitefish fillet, squid, and lemon wheels, all coated in seasoned breadcrumbs and served with a tart Meyer lemon aioli. Plump, parsley-flecked mussels ($9) are steamed in a vermouth-based broth redolent of shallots and the sea.
Stevenson makes his Baccalà ($8.75), normally salt cod, from less pungent halibut. He then cooks it and purees it with cream, olive oil, and a few potatoes, like the Provençal dish called brandade. The accompanying salad of pea shoots and walnuts, dressed in an assertively tart vinaigrette, salvages the gratinéed puree from excessive (transgressive?) richness.The sole letdown among the starters is an asparagus salad ($7.25), a haystack of julienned raw asparagus mixed with thin stalks of the grilled vegetable and served with a lemon-caper vinaigrette and a tapenade-topped boiled egg. The raw, underdressed asparagus tastes like any old crispy, green thing, not one of spring’s earthiest pleasures.
One of the standout entrées is a cioppino-like Roasted Shellfish Stew ($18). Oven-roasted clams, mussels, scallops, unpeeled shrimp, and whitefish are combined in a thick, tomatoey stew sweetened with the anise notes of basil and enriched with meaty flecks of prosciutto. Another two dishes are odes to the charms of late spring. Moist, simple Alaskan Halibut in Parchment ($19) comes baked atop a bed of fingerling potatoes, leeks, and sweet roasted tomatoes. Its delicate flavor is complemented by a layer of fines herbes (a traditional French medley of fresh parsley, chervil, tarragon, and chives). The nettles that color the pale green Shrimp Risotto ($17) lend a fragrant, herbal flavor to the light, slightly loose risotto. Pale pink prawns, spring onions, and bitter bites of radicchio stud the dish.
On our first visit, two entrées suffered from minor flaws that left them pleasant but dull. The caviar-olive tapenade that topped the grilled king salmon ($18.50) provided a salty kick, but the fish was served with crisp-tender spring vegetables in a saffron broth so pallid that it leached the flavor from the other ingredients. The roasted fish of the day was a large tai snapper ($24), a flaky, mild whitefish from New Zealand. We found the fish flavorful, especially when sprinkled with the garlic-lemon-anchovy dipping sauce, but it had left the oven a couple of minutes too late. We ignored the bland ragout of baby artichokes, new potatoes, and spring onions that came with the fish.
Though meat is almost absent from the starter menu, meat-eaters won’t be left high and dry–they can find among the entrées a grilled rib-eye steak ($27) and a half-chicken roasted under a brick. Strict vegetarians, however, will have to ask the kitchen for special favors: only three salads eschew seafood or meat.
Co-owner Stephen Singer, once in charge of the wine program at Chez Panisse, has compiled a large but not overwhelming wine list that covers the globe. It includes a few well-known vintners and a host of lesser-known winemakers and varietals. Wines by the glass run $6-$8.25, and the list includes sections for half-bottles and wines under $30.
Perilously simple, Downtown’s desserts (all $6.50) spotlight technique, not flair–there are rarely more than two main ingredients on the plate. Luckily, the technique is solid. Yogurt adds a surprising tart edge to a creamy, not gelatinous, panna cotta served with fresh strawberries and a drizzle of strawberry coulis. A wedge of nutty, slightly grainy almond torte tastes like it is baked à la minute, not days before. It is accompanied by an apricot compote and a dollop of chantilly.
I can never say no to pineapple upside-down cake, the tarte tatin of the ’50s Good Housekeeping set. Downtown’s cakelet fits the shape of the pineapple ring that crowns it. The edges are caramelly, crusty, and awfully sweet, the center a little dry and cakey. The stunner is a mocha pot de crème. I usually shy away from unctuous, saccharine pots de crème (firmer, heftier cousins to mousse); Downtown’s is at once evanescent and dark, sexily bitter.
The restaurant swarms with color-coded waitstaff, captained by house manager Peter Steiner. In keeping with the tone of the restaurant, the service is pleasantly formal rather than homey. Like many big restaurants, though, it’s possible to get lost in the crowd: on our first night, we saw our server exactly six times over the course of three long hours, each time fifteen to twenty minutes after we started trying to catch his eye. Several times other waiters left their stations to approach our table, saying, “You look like you need something. Can I help you?” after spying us craning our necks. The wait between courses was long that night–the restaurant was packed and it looked like the kitchen was pushing hard–but it didn’t excuse his inattention. However, on my second visit, we had the opposite experience: nigh flawless service, the kind that makes you feel taken care of without being coddled.
The restaurant is continuing to evolve. As part of a larger goal to cultivate a late-night scene, Mazzera, Lapuyade, and Singer are planning an ambitious schedule of music. Jazz soloists and small ensembles already play several evenings a week, and the bar stays open until midnight. Tuesdays through Saturdays, those in search of a snack after the theater or movies can dine from a small late-night menu with mussels, a pizza, salads, and raw things.
Whether it likes it or not, downtown Berkeley seems to be hitting the big time. It’s only a matter of months before society matrons, celebrities escaping Hollywood, and politicos in fedoras will be prowling the streets.