Gourmet Grazing

A tasting tour of Epicurious Garden, North Berkeley's upscale new food court.

The times — oh, the times. Back in the mid-1980s my friends and I could spend an entire Saturday afternoon at the University Park Mall striding from the Sears to the JC Penney and back again, smoking clove cigarettes and showing the world — okay, all of South Bend, Indiana — that black was how we felt on the inside. We fueled ourselves for the onslaught of catcalls by making our way from Orange Julius to Sam’s Pretzels, then back again to Chick-fil-A. But those gastronomic wanderings are long past. I read recently on the Internet that University Park Mall has consolidated its restaurants into the Tidbits Field Food Court.

North Berkeley has gotten its own food court, too. Like Tidbits Field, Epicurious Garden is stocked with some newcomers and some familiar logos. Of course, there are a few differences. No parking lot. No earring shopping at Claire’s Boutique. You can walk out of Epicurious Garden with a buzz, just as long as it’s from Pinot Noir, not nicotine.

Soheyl Modarressi, a commercial and residential developer, has been planning the Shattuck Avenue food hall for years. With the San Francisco Ferry Building as a clear role model, Modarressi invited a number of businesses specializing in upscale foods to set up stands in the hall, and it finally opened to the public March 22.

The rumors surrounding Epicurious Garden’s much-delayed opening have been tinged with gripes that yet another food destination with no garage space would overburden north Shattuck, where the lack of parking spots already has committed pacifists thinking violent thoughts. But since the food hall offers limited seating, and many of its stands sell food packaged to take home, Epicurious Garden doesn’t feel so much of a drive-to destination as, say, nearby César. Although its stands are small, much of the food they serve is substantial. It took me four trips to eat around the food hall, skipping Socca Oven (reviewed in “Takeout of the Gods,” On Food, 4/19) and, regretfully, the unstaffed Dom Petroff caviar case.

Circling inward from the main entrance, the gourmet taker-outer first comes to Soop, whose wastebaskets are filled with tiny paper cups and whose counter workers are as popular as the sample ladies at Costco. Soop’s tureens dispense eight to ten varieties of soup every day (many of them vegetarian or vegan), and you’re allowed to taste as many as you want. Don’t abuse your privileges and spoil it for the rest of us.

Soop is the first restaurant for Linda Della and her business partner Marc Kelley, who both left the corporate end of the food industry to sell healthy alternatives to canned and boxed soups. Though theirs cost around $5 a pint — approximately two bowls’ worth — they are undoubtedly fresh, with mostly organic and sustainably raised ingredients, clean flavors, and nothing stewed to a pulp. When you order the chicken noodle soup, for example, the servers pluck some noodles from a separate container and ladle the broth overtop, so you’re not slurping up gooey, stock-saturated pasta. Some of the soups, like the chili with Niman Ranch beef and the quinoa chowder with feta, pulsed with flavor. Some, such as a not-too-lemony avgolemono (a Greek chicken-rice soup with egg and lemon) and a white-bean, butternut squash, and pancetta soup wanted for a bold note or two, but nothing that a little extra seasoning at home couldn’t correct. In fact, Della says they deliberately salt lightly so customers can adjust the soups to taste.

Across the way at the Kirala 2 stand, a couple of sushi chefs man the counter, preparing rolls to order as well as packaged sushi and entrée-sized meals for quick takeout. Unless you’re a fan of refrigerated sushi, wait for them to make yours: It doesn’t take long for the cold case to firm the balls of rice into grainy clumps and to suck the glisten off the fish. At sit-down prices, the prepackaged maki and nigiri we grabbed were a disappointment. Better designed to withstand both the refrigerator and then your office’s microwave, the beautiful cardboard and plastic bento boxes contain decent renditions of Japanese basics, with rice and little compartments containing small delights like tangles of hijiki seaweed, crunchy marinated lotus root, and green beans with sesame dressing.

Farther inside, visitors come to Socca Oven‘s brick hearth, and, equally important, the desserts. Alegio Chocolate, a New York-based chocolatier, sells Spanish chocolatier Enric Rovira’s chocolate-covered nuts and aromatics, a slightly anemic hot cocoa with chiles, and modernist truffles, $24 for a box of nine. When I stopped by, the counterperson, who appeared undertrained, described the latter as “Venezuelan-style truffles” but then couldn’t explain what that meant. As far as I could taste, it meant thin, shiny dark-chocolate shells that cracked when I bit into them, with creamy ganache inside — pure chocolate from places such as Santa Domingo or Madagascar, or chocolate flavored with single-malt scotch — or grapefruit-scented caramel. At the back, and as popular with samplers as Soop, is Ciao Bella, a New York-based gelato and sorbet maker with a flagship store in the Ferry Building. It’s gelato. Need I say more? Right now I’m feeling the lychee.

Next to Ciao Bella, a stairway leads out onto a wooden terrace, with benches for seating and the entrance to the Imperial Tea Court. When the Ferry Building opened, the Imperial Tea Court, long a deceptively worn-looking shop on the outskirts of Chinatown, populated with birdcages and old men with exquisite taste, opened up a gorgeous new stall inside it to appeal to a broader public. Like the Ferry Building stall, the Berkeley branch sells bulk tea, tea sets for connoisseurs, and “tea snacks,” mostly dumplings and small sweets, to consume on the terrace. Up one more story is Kitchen on Fire (KitchenonFire.com), which teaches cooking classes to the public and hosts culinary-class events.

Back on the main floor, and big enough to merit its own entrance, is Taste Fine Wines. It’s the first foray into European-style dining for Deepak and Amit Aggarwal, two of the four brothers whose Khana Peena chain of North Indian restaurants has made them successful. Taste packs a lot of ambition into a small place: It wants, simultaneously, to be a wine bar, bottle shop, takeout joint, and sit-down restaurant. Not only does Taste stock shelves of wines, most of which are available for sampling at the bar, but it has installed a couple of stations with the techno-wino-geek machinery that San Francisco’s Vino Venue first debuted in the Bay Area: You buy a smart card for $20, say, and slot it into Taste’s machines to purchase one-ounce pours of any of several dozen wines, which range in price from $1.25 to $17 (for Chateau d’Yquem, not a bad price).

The space reflects the Aggarwals’ love of fashion-forward design. Consider the seating — a long, thin bar, with stools on either side, cuts through the middle of the room and curls into a question mark around a pouring station. Small, fragile cafe tables cluster around the front and spill out onto the sidewalk. The concept is so synergistic, as we used to say in the good old dot-com days — in other words, there’s so much going on — that the execution can’t quite keep up. Greg Estes’ by-the-glass wine list is catching buzz, and is probably the best way to taste: While I enjoyed the novelty of the wine-pouring machines, they keep the wine pressurized, so unless you’re patient and methodical, by the time your two sips’ worth opens up in the glass, you’ve finished it. And while Taste is well staffed and well-meaning, the service still tends to move in semi-anarchic swarms.

Taste’s open kitchen, currently headed by Mark Lusardi, late of Pearl Oyster Bar, does to-go boxes, rotisserie chickens, wine snacks like cheese plates and foie gras, and full-sized entrées. The food looks as glam as the room, each dish arranged onto narrow ceramic rectangles that barely fit onto the narrow bar; skinny fries lounge in a white bowl that looked like a bubble chair plucked from the Swinging London edition of Barbie’s Dream House. More intricate plates didn’t come together, such as a deconstructed duck confit salad presented as little mounds of tender and unsalted meat, undressed frisée leaves, pickled beets, and walnuts that we couldn’t assemble in a satisfying way. Two moist, savory crabcakes flecked with a confetti of tiny diced vegetables bookended another frisée salad topped with a jiggly, sweet citrus gelée that smelled great but was no substitute for vinaigrette. Simple and straightforward worked best: Bruschetta with goat cheese, sautéed leeks, and caramelized mushrooms; a well-seasoned roast chicken; romaine leaves slathered in a creamy, garlicky Caesar dressing.

Once it figures itself out, Taste will settle into being a great place for a glass of wine and gourmet grazing. The rest of Epicurious Garden has already coalesced, a welcome addition to a neighborhood that doesn’t lack for blessings. Double-park out front and dash in sometime.

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