We ate dinner under the redwood tree on Babette’s backyard patio. Right around the busy corner of University and San Pablo Avenues, the space is an oasis. Known for many years as the cafe inside the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM), Babette’s owners now have keys to their own front door. That wasn’t the case while they were at BAM. The pandemic highlighted that fact for chefs Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker.
“You’re inside the museum and have their hours,” Ellis said. “We’ve been ready [to move] for a long time. We just never could find a space that seemed right.” When Lanesplitter Pizza closed last year, the owners first offered their Emeryville location to Babette. But after being shut out of the museum at the height of COVID-19, Ellis and Hooker’s main takeaway was they wanted to have the option to seat diners outdoors.
Lanesplitter’s owners were initially reluctant to let go of their location on San Pablo. “One of the owners got married here,” Ellis said. “The redwood tree was actually a gift from one of their grandmothers.” But Ellis and her husband got the keys in January. For the last six months, they’ve been doing a massive renovation and are now in the middle of their soft opening.
The cuisine at Babette isn’t centered on any one regional cuisine. Ellis and Hooker base their menu on what’s seasonal, but their rustic, delicious food is a product of the culture here in the Bay Area. The chefs are currently offering a dinner service and a morning to early afternoon breakfast and coffee service. “We do a casual coffee from Wednesday through Friday,” Ellis explained. “We have pastries, avocado toast and some savory waffles.” But a weekend brunch is on the horizon.
The chefs use their home-made brioche for croutons in their Caesar salad and for a twice-baked bostock pastry. “We’re really not going to be doing some of the more traditional brunch dishes,” she said, “because we won’t have a prolific egg situation going on.” While there won’t be a long list of egg dishes, Ellis started making her own bagels and English muffins during the pandemic. “We’re going to be doing a Mediterranean bagel platter—I love beet hummus!” Some of the salads will overlap with the dinner menu, but pastries, not pancakes, will satisfy people’s sweet tooths and teeth.
For our al fresco dinner, we split a little gem lettuce starter, a side of roasted scarlet turnips and roasted chicken thighs. Ellis said that one of her biggest culinary influences is the American cookbook author Paula Wolfert. “She opened my eyes to so many different regions,” Ellis explained. “Her books are filled with stories about the different restaurants and homes she goes into.” Wolfert includes recipes from Morocco, Georgia and the Middle East. “My heritage is Ukrainian, Polish and Russian, and I love those sweet and sour flavors,” she said.
The roasted chicken thighs are covered in a gorgeous red Georgian plum sauce that hits both sweet and sour notes. Ellis and Hooker add a side of scallion broccoli rabe and a saffron rice with the unusual but tasty combination of eggplant and sour cherry. We didn’t try the “Ukrainian style borscht,” but it’s a dish that was also on the BAM menu. “I got so many compliments on it. There was a Ukrainian couple who came up to me, almost weepy, who were touched because they said it reminded them of home,” Ellis said. It was the addition of beef short ribs that differentiated it from other borscht.
And if Ellis’s Sicilian lemon almond-pistachio cake is on the menu, morning or night, grab a slice. “The recipe came from a dear friend who passed away,” Ellis said. Her friend was given the recipe from a couple in Sicily who ran a B&B there. It’s laden with pistachios, but still maintains a tender crumb. The taste is, like Babette’s menu in general, old world charm made new again in California.
Babette, soft open hours Wed to Fri 9am-2pm + 5pm-9pm, Sat to Sun 5pm-9pm, 2033 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley. 510.845.1652. babettecafe.com.