Gourmet Ghetto is last century’s news. These days, the pulse has shifted a mile southwest to a single block of University Avenue. Here, sandwiched between a tire store and a hot-tub joint, a Charlie Trotter’s-veteran confectioner wields sumptuous tiny sculptures — glowing domes, sparkling plinths — using chocolate that costs him $20 a pound. A dollhouse-cute artisan bakery sells hand-size soft pretzels and hearty, seed-studded, all-organic German breads. A family-run Greek restaurant reminds me to the point of nostalgic anguish of the real thing. And in a black-white-and-lime treasure box, two Cordon Bleu-trained chefs with a yen for molecular gastronomy pair pears with lemongrass, pork belly with fennel, and Meyer lemon pudding-cake with Buddha’s-hand citron so sweet and fragrant that it virtually sings. Two of these places opened within the last month, the other two within the last year and a half; Trader Joe’s is set to open next year a block away.
Let’s call it Gourmet Gulch.
Christopher Blue got here first. Having trained at Chicago’s prestigious French Pastry School — “I love all aspects of sweets” — he wanted to open a shop in Berkeley, “because Berkeley has such an amazing food culture” and his vision of gold-dusted Kandinsky-pretty candies filled with chili flakes, Flying Goat coffee, grapefruit-rosemary infusion, peanut-butter-and-jelly, peaches, rum-soaked currants, and corn “wouldn’t have worked in Wichita.”
A year and a half ago, he signed a lease and opened Chocolatier Blue. “The area was just disgusting,” Blue said. “I immediately wanted to clean it up.” When requests for civic aid in this endeavor just generated red tape, he went proactive, buying a pesticide-free aphid repellant — the bugs’ effluent makes Berkeley sidewalks chronically sticky — and a pressure washer, with which he scours the whole block’s pavement three times a month. “Once I started cleaning up outside, I noticed that the homeless people pretty much stopped hanging out around here.”
At nearby OctoberFeast, which opened in January, Bavarian-inspired baked goods — a longtime favorite at Berkeley and Oakland farmers’ markets — include flaxseed loaves, rillen zeml, salty-buttery brown pretzel croissants, and raisin-flecked granola bread. While it’s currently all baked in San Francisco, ovens are being installed in the University Avenue shop: Within a few weeks, many items will be sold here hot.
Across the street at Athineon, garlicky tzatziki enriches gyros, souvlakis, and veggie wraps — whose fresh oregano clinches their authenticity — served on soothingly pillowy pita bread. Students get free drinks with meals here.
Then, earlier this month, Blue invited his friends Christopher and Veronica Laramie — who met as students at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and wanted to open a restaurant — to inspect the vacant space two doors down from his.
“We’d been planning to stay in Colorado, my home state,” Chistopher Laramie said. But after training in Paris and living in Chicago, where Veronica worked alongside Blue at Charlie Trotter’s, the young pair — he’s 30; she’s 29 — “quickly realized that Colorado is perfectly content staying in culinary 1982. We weren’t going to be able to change any minds there.”
Their restaurant, eVe, opened in early December. They designed its sleek interior, down to the Chulucanas pottery from Veronica’s native Peru, and created a constantly changing menu on which each dish costs $11. Christopher calls it “a teeny humble expression of ourselves,” but its avant-garde aesthetic, throbbing trance music, and carefully chosen wine list, plus the fact that the chefs appear tableside to explain each dish, renders eVe not just a restaurant but a kind of theater/party/potlatch in which amuse-bouches — in our case, succulent quail eggs resembling huge mayonnaise-wigged pearls — arrive unannounced, for free.
It’s all about the flavor combinations. Celery-root soup bore salsify shards, smoky sunken nuggets of Spanish chorizo, the reticent cheer of chestnuts and cranberries, and an aroma imparted by bay-leaf-tea foam — and tasted like a fabulous fruit that doesn’t yet exist. On an undulant plate, juicy scallops and candied kumquats stood sentry alongside a spray of bonito flakes and sea salt and a surge of sea-urchin risotto that sang between the teeth like the concentrated essence of a whole childhood’s days at the beach. A goat-cheese sphere — pop it and it oozes — flanked truffle-trimmed ravioli: three petaled discs riding a sunset sweet-potato cloud.
It’s astoundingly gorgeous, but, as in some heartwrenchingly ironic myth, you want to gaze at it forever even as you make it disappear. Your hand keeps cutting, spearing, spooning as your eyes yell “Stop!”
Resting atop a spunky mustard-green purée, dusted with fresh horseradish, plentiful in a place whose portions are sometimes petite (dude, three ravioli), my short ribs were daringly rare, with a crisp golden crust: a result of what’s known as the Maillard Reaction and which occurs when denatured proteins recombine with sugars under heat.
“I tend to geek out on this stuff,” Laramie said with a laugh. “Cooking is chemistry.” At eVe, it’s also confrontational — as in a scrumptious flourless dark-chocolate cake topped with julienned red beets. A dollop of golden-beet puree glared cockily up from the dish too, though a scoop of sour-cream sorbet fixed everything.
Meanwhile, the server kept giving us stuff: little house-baked wholegrain rolls, sesame chocolates from Chocolatier Blue, a fennel cookie, a gingerbread loaf (also at no charge and also house-baked). The Laramies like lagniappe and the alchemy of turning three courses into five.