Over the past decade, Scott Howard has been making a name for himself as an heir apparent to the generation of chefs who respect their raw ingredients so much, you can practically taste the rain that fell on the radish. After developing his culinary skills under Miami star chef Norman Van Aken, Howard opened Fork in San Anselmo, where his signature blend of classic French technique and inventive yet soul-satisfying California cooking came to fruition. In 2005 he opened his own place (“Scott Howard,” natch) in SF’s Jackson Square, a popular and acclaimed upscale venue that nevertheless closed its doors a year or so ago. Now, at the newly opened Five in Berkeley’s Hotel Shattuck Plaza, Howard takes California cuisine to a new level, coaxing vibrant and often unexpected flavors out of classic American dishes through inventive combinations of organic, seasonal, and absolutely fresh ingredients.
The hotel itself is a circa-1910 historic landmark recently renovated from top to bottom, and the lobby’s striking nouveau-rococo ambience is a sight to behold. A curved, iron-filigreed walkway leads to a central area dominated by deep-orange armchairs, cerulean cushions, and a chandelier dripping with opaque blood-red glass. The alternately tiled and marbled floors are covered here and there with what might best be described as deco-kaleidoscopic carpeting, with mosaic-glass floor-to-ceiling pillars adding to the fun. The lounge to the right upends the dark-mahogany aesthetic of the typical hotel lobby bar: Big arched windows and mirrors bathe the high-ceilinged room in sunlight, the enormous horseshoe-shaped bar is topped in pale-green marble, and the white-and-beige color scheme positively gleams and shimmers. The overall effect is of walking into an ornate turn-of-the-century ice cream parlor that dispenses martinis instead of malteds. We didn’t opt for martinis, but the Moscow Mule, a house specialty, kicked off the evening nicely, mixing up vodka, lime juice, fresh mint, and a splash of peppery Cock & Bull ginger beer into a beautifully balanced summertime libation. Another cocktail, the hibiscus margarita, had too much tequila and too little hibiscus, but the lime and basil gimlet made for a sweet, sour, and simply refreshing aperitif.
The big, airy dining room can feel cavernous when the tables aren’t filled, but any ambient chilliness disappears when Howard’s presentations arrive from the kitchen. Roasted Tomales Bay oysters, for instance, were served on a bed of kelp, rock salt, and bright pink peppercorns, but just as impressive was the stuff inside the shells: a creamy sauce of brandy, shallots, spinach, and molten Monterey jack cheese unaccountably light enough to accent and not overwhelm the moist and luscious bivalves. Another inventive appetizer starred delicate squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese, lightly battered, and fried until perfectly light and crisp. Served with brisk, tangy picholine olives and a creamy aioli fragrant with saffron, they somehow managed to retain their subtle vegetable-garden flavor. Even the house mac ‘n’ cheese was light. Instead of a gummy mass of chewy macaroni and melted Kraft singles, we got tender orzo, braised chanterelles, and silky, tangy Sonoma goat cheese under a crunchy crumb topping, with a dollop of house-made tomato jam adding a bit of zesty sweetness.
One star of the entrée menu was the short-rib pot roast, a moist, meaty cube of fork-tender protein accompanied by an extra-rich cheddar-potato gratin, a fluffy chive-ribboned biscuit, and glazed carrots and turnips that tasted like they’d just been pulled from the ground. Unfortunately, all of the elements were served as separate entities on a compartmentalized platter, and while everything was delicious, they would’ve tasted even better interacting with one another. The petrale sole filets were as feathery and delicately flavored as their plate-mates, mashed potatoes ribboned with crabmeat were rich and hearty, and a juicy grilled half-lemon and crisply fried artichokes added nice spiky accents. Best of all was the lamb loin, a half-dozen perfectly pink, tender, and juicy filets wrapped in a tangy crust of chives, spinach, butter, and panko crumbs and served on a bed of silky spinach, with a warm, crunchy strudel on the side simply oozing with earthy black puréed wild mushrooms.
The vanilla bean butterscotch pudding exemplified the restaurant’s winning way with down-home comfort-food classics. It was delectable on its own merits, but what raised it to a new culinary level were the chunks of peanut brittle that introduced an earthy crunch to all that cushiony texture. Equally dreamy was the chocolate fudge cake, a hillock of crisp dark pastry oozing with sweet, molten fudge. Enhancing the cake’s rich pleasures were soft, almost creamy black mission figs and a pool of crème anglaise with a warm Mediterranean lavender flavor that accented the chocolate beautifully. By comparison, the peach and nectarine crisp was nothing special, just a ramekin of sweet and juicy stone fruit topped with a crunchy, buttery crumble and a scoop of rich vanilla bean gelato.
Although Five’s dedication to fresh produce is unimpeachable, vegetarian dining options are limited. Openers might include arugula salad with nectarines and honey, corn chowder with chanterelles and chive oil, the crispy squash blossoms, and the orzo mac ‘n’ cheese. There’s usually a veggie-friendly pasta dish tucked among the meaty entrées, and you can always opt for side dishes of puréed potato, onion rings, and spinach with Parmesan.
The hundred-bottle wine list features a thoughtful selection of California and Willamette Valley vintages. Many are sustainably or biodynamically produced. Most are in the $30 to $60 price range, and fourteen are available by the glass. There are also six beers on tap, including an ale (Hi Five) brewed for the restaurant. Five serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus bar food in between times, and service is as smooth and professional as anything you’ll find in a big-city restaurant. All in all, this is the ideal place to sample classic American cooking, delectably revitalized.