Gourmet Surfing

Cafe fare meets California cuisine near the Oakland-Berkeley border.

Jeremiah Tower may still be taking potshots at Alice Waters over who really invented California cuisine, but thirty-odd years later, the culinary trope still reigns triumphant, so dominant that we in the Bay Area can’t taste it anymore. Sure, the California style has resulted in kilotons of underseasoned, undercooked, uncreative food. But every time I leave the state and sink my teeth into creamier, fried-ier, duller food, I long for home.

Like nuclear radiation or a brilliant idea, the Californian culinary ideal of “fresh, seasonal, simple” continues to spread out across the nation. Meanwhile, back at ground zero, California cuisine has flowed out of the bistros and into the streets.

These days, almost every town in the East Bay boasts a farmers’ market. Waters is leading the charge to make school gardens a part of every child’s education. The People’s Grocery is driving a van around Oakland’s most blighted neighborhoods blasting hip-hop and selling organic produce. Hell, even Blondie’s Pizza separates out its green garbage.

Even if no one here under forty can afford a house, two new cafes near in South Berkeley and North Oakland are proving that it’s still possible for you and your ideals to live on the cheap.

A sunny weekday at Nomad Cafe is the perfect time to spot the ten-month-old cafe in its post-dot-com glory: The stylish, sleek building is walled in windows, and every table is decorated with an iBook instead of a vase of plastic flowers. They’re all owned by students and graphic designers escaping their cramped home offices to make use of the free wi-fi access. If you can’t bring your own laptop, the cafe provides two high-concept Net-surfing stations for you. Not content to be just a freelancer’s paradise, Nomad hosts musicians weekend nights and offers toys and a small kid-romp area for young parents in the neighborhood.

Just looking at the twentysomething hipsters staffing the cafe, whose attitude falls somewhere in between Oakland right-on and Berkeley self-righteous, you might not expect them to turn out the erudite smoothies and sandwiches they do. But the food is organic and good, as long as you like that California kind of thing.

Of course Nomad serves the requisite cafe snacks, but also fresh fruit plates and chichi juices. Moving from simple to complicated, its more elaborate menu items include a 21st-century version of the ubiquitous stale bagel and cream cheese: thick slices of grilled bâtard mounded high with fresh ricotta and roasted garlic. For the Mediterranean plate, the counterfolks arrange piles of warm pita triangles around ramekins of olives, a top-notch baba ghanoush, and decent hummus.

One of the cafe’s three sandwiches set off fierce debate among the opinion-packin’ journos I brought with me. One of the recipients of the “black and white” sandwich, a (black) tapenade-smeared soft ciabatta bun pressed around thick slices of (white) fresh mozzarella, proclaimed it the blandest sandwich ever, while another loved the juxtaposition of soft white cheese and salty, lemony olive spread. For me, slices of fresh tomato or a handful of dressed arugula — something puckery or peppery — might have swung the balance from like to love. Another sandwich, more of that mozzarella layered atop prosciutto in a crisp baguette, gained wider acceptance. And everyone at the table jostled for a bite of the havarti, garlic-dill butter, and roasted red pepper “toasted roasted,” press-grilled flat and oozy.

If you hadn’t noticed, vegetarians can eat most of Nomad’s food. So can the lactose-intolerant: The baristas will substitute tofu for mozzarella in any of the sandwiches, and will exchange soy milk for cow juice in the smoothies and fair-trade coffee drinks with nary a moue of disdain. The smoothies — an Island with orange, pineapple, passion fruit, banana, coconut, and pineapple, or an Old World with most of that and strawberries — have the tang of genuine yogurt, not the supersweet TCBY stuff.

Nomad is the first outpost of contemporary chic on a strip of Shattuck that could use a little more of the same. Little over a mile away, the opening of Paw Paw’s restaurant is yet another sign that the intersection of Sacramento and Dwight is popping. Back in the New Economy, a friend of mine who’d just gotten evicted felt like he had to settle for a low(ish)-rent apartment a couple of blocks away, but consoled himself by saying, “Well, at least Breads of India is nearby.” Four years on, Breads of India now faces stiff competition from Mehak across the street. Home Made Cafe is packed with artsy-fartsy types. And the corner grocery now looks like the lone outpost of shabbiness on the block.

Is this neighborhood-revival or gentrification? The owners of both Nomad and Paw Paw’s would argue the former; Nomad’s owner, Christopher Waters — no, not from that Waters clan — envisions his cafe as the physical nexus for Gypsy Spirit Mission, the online arts salon he founded years ago, and Paw Paw’s hopes that someday it can begin a youth training program to get local teenagers out of their Mickey D’s uniforms and in touch with organic drinks and foods.

Unless you wander over to see what’s under the big papaya hanging over Paw Paw’s doorway, which otherwise looks like the back door to Home Made Cafe, you might not ever spot this new breakfast-lunch place. Walk in and you may feel like you’re slipping into one of the back rooms at Julia Morgan’s Berkeley Women’s Club: The maroon and taupe walls are trimmed with odd faux-medieval seals, and the dim alcove in back is lit by 1950s-era stained-glass windows. With plastic-topped tables and a couple of fence-like booths across from the counter, the cafe looks low-rent but not rundown.

Owners Cassie Chappell and her husband, Prince Charles Davis, who opened Paw Paw’s in mid-December, call their food “neo-soul with a Caribbean foundation,” and back it up with ginger beer, plantains, and grits. But the multiculti menu and organic, seasonal ingredients are all Californian to me.

Drinks include fair-trade coffee, organic Numi teas served hot or cold, and housemade concoctions such as musky, not-too-sweet honey lemonade and lemony ginger beer with the fresh snap of just-pressed gingerroot. Paw Paw’s morning victuals flit across the high end of the brunch spectrum, from challah French toast with mango marmalade to tofu-shiitake scramble and soy sausage.

My dining crew descended on Paw Paw’s for lunch, and we enjoyed most of what we tasted. The cooks had selected ripe-enough plantains that they only needed to sauté, not deep-fry, to render it soft and sugary. We dipped the golden slices in a tangy maple-sweetened cream.

The thick, orange-hued African peanut stew was seeded with roasted peanuts, tomatoes, caramelized onions, and sweet potatoes; rather than tasting like watered-down peanut butter, it was fragrant with nutty, spicy aromas.

All I asked for from the “Cuban” salade composée of spice-rubbed sautéed shrimp, ripe papaya, sliced avocado, and undressed baby arugula was more than a couple of lime wedges to squeeze overtop. A squirt of citrus wasn’t enough to bring the salad’s disparate tastes — spicy, sugary, buttery, and bitter — together.

All of Paw Paw’s sandwiches are served on soft rolls and served with colorful, housemade beet, yucca, and sweet potato chips. In the fish sandwich, environmentalist-friendly rock cod, battered and fried crispy, was covered thickly with a sweet tomato-oriented cocktail sauce. A “Mexican” chicken salad sandwich contained chunks of organic chicken breast, onions, and cilantro in a wet, limey mayonnaise that glooped all over my plate and hands — the cooks could have kept the flavor with half the sauce. A shrimp sandwich was packed with the same spicy sautéed prawns as the Cuban salad, but this time they had found their place, playing off crisp romaine spears, caramelized onions and tomatoes, and shavings of piquant Manchego cheese.

Both Paw Paw’s and Nomad Cafe represent yet another generation of the East Bay’s tradition of entrepreneurial idealism, proving that goodwill and good taste are far from incompatible.

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