Hot Meal: Scott Howard's Five in Berkeley

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Meredith Brody
Five's orzo mac 'n' cheese: the taste of urban renewal in downtown Berkeley.
Everything old is new again. Built in 1907, Berkeley's Hotel Shattuck Plaza has been remodeled as an upscale boutique hotel. Its restaurant, Five, opened last Wednesday. Executive chef Scott Howard garnered excellent reviews at his eponymous New American restaurant in San Francisco after a well regarded turn at Fork in San Anselmo. Five marks his return to the stoves after a year-and-half absence. It also marks a return for Shattuck Avenue, which has seen a run of store closings in recent years. After lunch last week, it was clear that Five is the best thing to happen to downtown Berkeley in a long time.

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The name references the five senses as well as the hotel's 5 p.m. happy hour. It's decorated in Hollywood Regency style, reminiscent of designer Kelly Wearstler's work at the Viceroy in Santa Monica: Black-and-white checkered floors in the chic barroom, leading to a space lined with arched mirrors and white columns beneath a huge crystal chandelier.

Howard's seasonal cuisine made with sustainable ingredients shone as brightly as the chandelier. A bowl of delicious white corn soup swirled with chive oil ($7) arrived without its garnish of house-pickled chanterelles. They quickly appeared, though the corn-studded purée was just fine without their sharp contrast. An iron casserole heaped with Howard's signature orzo mac 'n' cheese ($10) concealed fat morels under a topping of tomato jam.


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2nd Annual East Bay Wine Trail, April 4

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On Saturday, April 4, the East Bay Vintners Alliance presents the 2nd Annual Passport to the East Bay Wine Trail, a rare opportunity to taste wines from almost all the East Bay's wineries, some of which are not regularly open to the public. Participating food purveyors are to be announced. Tickets are $30 in advance ($10 for designated drivers), and the event runs from noon to 5pm.

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Serious Bread: Acme's Pain au Levain

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If you are what you eat, I'm a loaf of Acme pain au levain (French for sourdough), made with natural sourdough starter and a blend of white and whole wheat. Even if you've never bought a loaf, you may have encountered it on the table at Zuni Cafe, downstairs at Chez Panisse (where founder-owner Steve Sullivan first plied his craft), or at one of the many other local restaurants that serve it.

This is the ideal crusty loaf for sponging up soup or pasta sauce, and for making bruschetta or open-faced grilled sandwiches.. Toasted, it's the perfect crunchy vehicle for rich, spreadable charcuterie such as pâtés, rilettes, ciccoli, and pork butter.

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Serious Bread: Acme's Pain d'Epis

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In my book, Acme Bread is one of the half-dozen best bread bakeries in the Bay Area, and it's the only one on that short list that's readily available at markets. You can even get a few of its breads at local branches of Costco (sour batard and olive bread last time I checked) and Trader Joe's (reportedly house-labeled organic herb focaccia, cranberry-walnut, and Italian), though whenever possible I prefer to get it direct from one of the bakeries (1 Ferry Building in SF and 1601 San Pablo in Berkeley), since it's a few hours fresher, sometimes even hot out of the oven.

Acme's pain d'epis ($2 at the bakeries), after blind comparisons with numerous other contenders, wins my prize for best baguette in the Bay Area. OK, strictly speaking it's not a baguette, but it's made from the same dough as the rustic baguette. Of the two, I prefer the epis because it has more crust, and at dinner parties or picnics I can just toss it on the table and let guests help themselves. Both loaves have a crust that's both crunchy and chewy, a tender, elastic crumb, and a yeasty, nutty flavor. There is no better bread for most cheeses.

If you're interested in learning what makes these breads so special, watch founder / owner / baker-in-chief Steve Sullivan on the PBS show Julia Child: Lessons with Master Chefs. There are two clips online: in the first, he makes the dough; in the second, he makes the loaves.

Snacktion: Cassandra's Banana Pudding

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Name: Banana Cream & Nilla Wafers

Brand: Cassandra's Wedding Cakes

Origin: Richmond, Ca.

Found at: Le Bayou Cajun & Creole Cafe, 3278 Adeline, Berkeley

Cost: $3.29

Ingredients: Fresh bananas, Banana Cream pudding w/wafers

Calories per serving: Not listed

Why I bought it: I always try banana pudding, and this one is wonderful creamy soothing comfort food, like valium in spoonable form. 

Tasting notes: Firm banana chunks, rich sweet pudding, Nilla wafers on the verge of dissolving into mush, and a little bit of whipped cream -- what's not to like?

Would I buy this again: I usually buy them two at a time, one for now and one for later.

What other blogs/sites thought of it: Nobody seems to have written about Cassandra's Banana Cream & Nilla Wafers, though others tout their Red Velvet cake, purchased on-site at Cassandra's Wedding Cakes at 321 23rd Street in Richmond (510 232-4616), where a phone call elicits the information that they also prepare the banana pudding in large catering sizes. Uh-oh.


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Snacktion

Tivo Alert Staycation: Dine with Rachael Ray Around the Bay

rsz_RachaelsVacation_lead.jpgAs we mentioned some time ago, Rachael Ray spent some time in the Bay Area putting together a show for her latest series, Rachael's Vacation, which aired last week and will run again February 6 at 11 p.m., February 7 at 2:30 a.m., and February 15 at 2:30 p.m. on the Food Network. 

But for those of you who'd like to read it and weep -- or just follow in her tiny footsteps -- we'll share her rather interesting itinerary with you.

The show's regular intro is sheer Bizarro World comedy: "Have I got a crazy life?! I mean, between 30 Minute Meals, the magazine, the shows, the books, my family, how's a girl supposed to catch her breath? Well, I'm about to show ya. I'm about to sneak away for a quick trip and the best part -- you're coming with me!"

As if the show we're watching weren't on TV, just like 30 Minute Meals and her talk show, and didn't involve real work.

That aside, for this sneaky quick trip Rachael visits Berkeley, Mill Valley, and Sausalito. No cliche is left unturned  -- in Berkeley, "you'll find a bohemian vibe"; Mill Valley is "nestled among redwoods and canyons" and is "a creative hideaway for artists" (already rich ones, we presume); and Sausalito is "a cute little seaside village that is a must-see for any traveller' -- but we approve of many of Rachael's choices, having tried them ourselves. And therefore we're also willing to follow her to the ones we haven't visited.
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Friday Sundae: Ici's Affogato

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Amongst all the temptations of Ici (2948 College Avenue in Berkeley) is the delicious affogato di gelato ($5.75), an Italian sundae of vanilla bean ice cream crowned with freshly brewed warm espresso and chewy candied orange peel. The sundae pictured above is the to-go version, but if you savor it there it comes served in a coffee cup. Be careful if you're as caffeine-sensitive as this writer, however, because the espresso delivers the expected punch, especially if you adopt the same method of slurping the melted espresso-vanilla mixture with abandon. -- Tamara Palmer

Of Election Nights and Comfort Food

Categories: Berkeley

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(Photo of Popeye's mashed potatoes by joshbousel via Flickr.)

By Meredith Brody

As election day 2008 approached, I had more than one reason to reflect upon election day 2004.

It was, as luck would have it, the day I was scheduled to have my TV hooked up to DirecTV with TiVo, and I'd been warned to stay off the phone during the unusually generous all-day window they'd scheduled for themselves. "Because," I was cheerily told, "we'll call you when we're en route, and if we don't reach you, we won't come."

Which meant not only staying off the phone, but also the Internet, which in those dear dead days was still dial-up, chez moi. (I know!) The advantage, such as it was, that unlike many of my friends I didn't get sucked into the early-exit-poll-trap of thinking that Kerry was going to win.

As it got later and later, I got more and more anxious about voting, since the polls close at 8 p.m. And not without reason, since the installer showed up at the last possible moment, 7 p.m., and threatened to leave without completing the job if it grew too dark.

But he did complete it, and as he ran through the channels on his final check I realized to my dismay that it was all over.

Still, I hurried over to my polling place, in the lobby of what used to be called an old people's home. There were a number of said old(er) people sitting in somewhat dilapidated lawn chairs on a somewhat dilapidated lawn.

As I walked past, one of them, based on I know not what sinister deduction from my modest car or attire, challenged me: "You votin' for Bush?"

I rolled my eyes. "What do you think?," I said. They laughed.

And I went in and cast my useless vote.

And then I headed over to my favorite comfort-food-in-a-hurry place, the Popeye's Chicken on San Pablo in Berkeley.


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Scarily Good Local Halloween Confections

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(Sugar Skulls by The Xocolate Bar of Berkeley)

By Tamara Palmer

Every year, at precisely this time, I lament the fact that it is not socially acceptable for childless adults such as myself to go trick or treating. If society were to correct this grave ill, here's what I'd ideally like to be handed when I knock on your door:

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Eat Like a (Lucky) Berkeley Student!

Categories: Berkeley

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By Meredith Brody

For years I've been parking on Bowditch Street in Berkeley and hiking a few blocks north to the Pacific Film Archive, passing a intriguing-looking modern glass-walled student cafeteria that I sometimes stopped in to get a quick cup of Peet's. I thought it was called The Den, because that's the sign I saw out front.

I've always loved cafeterias; there even used to be some more-than-decent ones in LA, including Clifton's. My goddaughter Anna was a student at Berkeley, and arts editor at the Daily Cal, a few years ago; she wanted to sneak me in to the student eatery so I could write about the place, but it never happened.

But now, it turns out, civilians can sample the fare at the intriguing glass-walled building, which turns out to be called Crossroads; the Den, which features a Peets coffee stand and pre-made sandwiches and salads, is only a section of it. Crossroads, the website tells us, is the first green-certified building on Cal's campus and the nation's first organic certified kitchen on a college campus.

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