When the chef de cuisine of one of the world’s best-known restaurants sets off on his own, everyone in the food world gets excited. In the era of celebrity chefdom, foodies track the careers of chefs de cuisine — the de facto heads of kitchens helmed by brand-name executive chefs — as assiduously as football geeks do offensive coordinators. But as Christopher Lee’s predecessors at Chez Panisse, Jeremiah Tower and Paul Bertolli, proved, the reputations of even the best-known number twos don’t solidify until they become number ones.
So when Lee, who served nine years running downstairs Chez Panisse, hung up his toque in September 2003 to open his own place, the rumor mill began spinning. Seven months later, Lee and downstairs CP’s former front-of-house manager Janet Hankinson opened Eccolo, on Berkeley’s Fourth Street stretch.
Though a quick first peek through the windows would make it seem that the new owners haven’t radically changed Ginger Island, their tweaks have given some class to a space I thought of as impossibly loud and cheery. The walls have paled to a Mediterranean peach, interspersed with exposed beams. Patrons now sit at rustic wooden tables as thick as chopping blocks and eat in the dim glow of stylish clusters of long-stemmed lights. As you’d suspect, the kitchen was stripped to the floorboards, then souped up with Monster Kitchen devices including a wood-fired oven, a rotisserie, and even a refurbished hand-crank meat slicer.
You never quite know what you’re going to eat at Eccolo. Its micromenu mutates daily, showcasing the height-of-season produce and Lee’s considerable bag of tricks. On a typical night, diners are offered a choice of four appetizers, three entrées, a couple of pastas or risottos, and two side dishes. Those who want to hang out at Eccolo’s gorgeous zinc bar can snack on tapas-like plates such as a few slices of serrano ham or a pressed sandwich.
Not surprisingly, the reputations of Lee and Hankinson reeled in schools of foodies starting week one. As it would any restaurant, the jump from 0 to 60 mph has left the front of the house a little shaky. On the first of my visits, we got caught in the middle of a lighting war between two servers. I felt as though I’d stumbled onto the set of a sitcom, watching one dart over to fiddle with the dimmer the moment the other had left. And our server, though jovial, stayed a couple of beats out of sync with the rhythm of service, neglecting Waiting 101 tasks such as clearing away an extra place setting at our table until dessert arrived. She freely admitted to not having memorized the ingredients in the three entrées of the day — a flaw that is particularly galling when culinary technique is the restaurant’s selling point. But on my second visit we had the kind of waiter who has the innate ability to make you feel coddled and, well, liked. Even when she was persuading us to buy a bottle of wine that cost twice what we thought we should spend, we left the transaction thanking her for thinking of us. With a few more months of pruning and training the staff, such inconsistencies should disappear.
Lee has sharpened his focus since his pan-Mediterranean days at Chez Panisse, moving toward a Northern Italian palate, specifically the cuisines of Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, and Tuscany. He retained contact with his network of farmers and suppliers, probably going mano a mano with his old employer over boxes of carrots. Lee and Hankinson brought in Kathleen Ventura from César to put together a lovely list of Italian wines, priced affordably enough for you to order by the bottle.
Lee stocks his menu with ambitiously simple bistro dishes, each a small constellation of flavors. Sheets of shaved prosciutto loosely woven around a small plate of baby artichokes complement the unexpectedly meaty flavors — white wine, thyme, pancetta — of the vegetables’ braising liquid. Lee counterbalances the biting bitterness of a salad of frisée and white and red endive leaves with an equally pointed anchovy vinaigrette, their sharp edges smoothed out by a shower of shaved hard-boiled eggs. The most show-stopping dessert? Two quenelles of delicately tangy yogurt gelato set off by a sprinkle of crunchy, biting lemon granita.
It’s clear that a master chef is in charge of the kitchen. His touch is sure, his palate finely tuned. As at Chez Panisse, every ingredient at Eccolo is so beautifully prepared that its perfection seems inevitable. You’re eating a side dish of cauliflower, perhaps, roasted a little in the oven so it’s limned with brown, the florets softened to the perfect point between toothy and melted. And you think: Of course! That’s how cauliflower should taste. The coating on a fritto misto of cheese-stuffed squash blossoms, fennel, and asparagus was so ethereal, and the vegetables inside so moist, that for once I didn’t hunt around the plate for a dipping sauce. Not that one was provided.
Lee’s acute sensitivity means that his food is never bland. But its subtlety is sometimes lost in the bustle of the busy restaurant. It helps to approach dishes such as halibut with fava beans and Meyer lemon zest with a meditative spirit. Get caught up in the chatter of the tables around you, or the raising and lowering of the lights, and you’ll miss the will-o’-the-wisp flavor of a slab of halibut, although you may notice that you’ve never before touched tongue to fish so moist. Earthy fava beans melting in the mouth are its only sauce, here and there perfumed by a sliver of lemon zest. A little olive oil, and nothing else, swaddled tender little coins of blanched new potatoes laid out alongside. What you need to do with such a dish is sit with it, staring at the wall, letting the gentle flavors ripple through the mouth. But my tablemate proved too entertaining. So I reached for the salt.
Likewise, a fillet of wild salmon — first of the period, lean and robust — picked up a thin layer of smoke from the wood-fired grill it was cooked on. However, the meat was smothered in a distracting gremolata-like “salsa” of Meyer lemon zest, crunchy breadcrumbs, and parsley that proved more texture than flavor. And the herbed breadcrumbs and fava beans in Lee’s springtime cassoulet tasted as if they’d just been tossed in the pan with his hearty duck confit and housemade garlic sausage, not stewed alongside long enough for their flavors to marry.
The food has the biggest impact when Lee tries for one, say, in his ribollita, a Tuscan stew of beans and breadcrumbs (again with the breadcrumbs!) that tasted so rich that we cried uncle and scooped it up with slices of bread. Or in his linguine in a Piedmontese meat ragu. Just pasta and ground chuck, the dish looked like it came from the White Trash Cookbook. Each bite, though, revealed that each noodle had an invisible coating of long-stewed beefiness, so rich that you barely begrudged Lee the absence of vegetables or anything showy. And by the time the cooks had finished rubbing a paste of fennel and spring onions into a Hoffman chicken as it roasted on the spit, there was no boundary between the flavors of the sweet, aromatic vegetables and the succulent chicken.
There’s no doubt that Lee is a great cook, as talented as his more famous predecessors. Once he figures out how to bridge the gap between Eccolo’s bistro atmosphere and its temple cuisine, he’ll have a great restaurant.