Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Last week we were invited to a special dinner at Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto to celebrate the beginning of the Halibut season.

Spenger's got its start in Berkeley in 1890 as a crab stand and bar owned by Johann Spenger. The restaurant grew to be one of the San Francisco Bay Area's most popular restaurants. For many years, it had its own fishing fleet. When we arrived in the Bay Area in the 1970's, we quickly discovered Spenger's. At that time, reservations were not accepted. Many a Sunday, J and I would grab the Sunday newspaper and head over to Spenger's for a long wait to be seated. This was part of eating at Spenger's...we would hang out in the bar, reading our newspaper, sipping a beer or a glass of wine, and wait the hour or more to be seated. Once seated, often at a communal table, we were pretty much assured that within an hour, we'd have completed our meal and would be on our way home, having enjoyed the freshest seafood that any restaurant in the area served. In those "good old days," Spenger's did not serve desserts and might not have even served coffee. All I remember was that once I finished my main course, I got my check and was expected to not linger...someone else was patiently awaiting a table.

Over the years, the Fourth Street area of Berkeley, where Spenger's is located, just north of University Avenue, changed...it got redeveloped and gentrified. Spenger's carried on, always under family ownership, until 1998, when Johann's grandson, Frank "Bud" Spenger Jr., closed the family restaurant because it was losing money.

The good news is that, in 2000, McCormick & Schmick, a Portland, Oregon, chain of seafood restaurants, took over the ownership of Spenger's and reopened a slightly remodeled version of the original. Eight years later, Spenger's continues to thrive in Berkeley. The menu has been a bit updated, reservations are now accepted, and, yes, you can order dessert and coffee after your meal and are not rushed out as soon as you put your fork down. Part of the "deal" that McCormick & Schmick made in their acquisition of Spenger's was that Bud Spenger and his wife Millie could continue to live in their home above the restaurant. Bud Spenger passed away in 2003. I am not certain, but I think some Spenger family members still reside above the restaurant.

Now, back to the Halibut dinner. Our four-course meal was paired with a different Clos du Bois wine for each course.

The first course was a Halibut Medallion topped with Smoked Prawn Mousse.

It was garnished with the chef's special Lemon Garmalade, Vanilla Bean, and Pimento. The wine was a 2006 Sauvignon Blanc.

Next came a Roulade of Poached Halibut, Prosciutto, and Basil, which was served chilled.

Notice how incredibly white the poached Halibut is. The plate was garnished with a Baby Arugula salad dressed with a Cassis dressing. A Goat Cheese Crouton finished off the plate. We sipped the Clos du Bois 2005 Reserve Pinot Noir with this course.

Our final Halibut course was Halibut Cheek au Poivre Noir. Yes, this really is the cheek of the Halibut...it is a bit more stringy than the other cuts of Halibut, but, for my taste, this was the most flavorful of the three Halibut dishes. The addition of black pepper provided some added spice.

This dish was garnished with Grilled Portabella mushrooms, Fingerling potatoes, and Creamed Leeks. The wine selection was a 2004 Marlstone.

This delightful meal ended with a very traditional dessert: Cherries Jubilee served over Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. The chef flambéed an entire pan of Bourbon-Soaked Sun-Dried Cherries, enough for the 40 or 50 people who attended the dinner, in the center of the dining room...very impressive and a wonderful throwback to the time when most fancy "Continental Cuisine" restaurants featured this dessert on their menu. The wine to accompany dessert was the 2004 Briarcrest Cabernet Sauvignon.

I don't get to Spenger's as often as I used to when there were few restaurants that served truly fresh fish. I've never been to one of their special wine dinners until this Halibut dinner last week. After, this enjoyable meal, I know I will be returning soon.

The regular menu continues to feature many of the traditional dishes that made Spenger's the famous restaurant that it is..My old favorites, the Shrimp Scatter, Fried Shrimp with French Fries, Cole Slaw, and Tartar Sauce, and the Captain's Platter with its assortment of Fried Fish, along with the Cole Slaw, Fries, and Tartar Sauce, are still being served. As is the Griddled Calamari Steak "Dore Style." The menu, which changes daily, offers about half a dozen fresh Grilled seasonal fish, Oysters on the half shell, and an excellent Seafood Cobb Salad.

Through the Halibut Season, which lasts through October, I am betting than some of the dishes I sampled last week, will be featured on the menu.

And, about Halibut, given that Salmon fishing has been canceled this year in California, why not give fresh wild Halibut a try? Could wild Halibut be the "new" wild Salmon for 2008?

Monday, April 21, 2008


Continuing with my ongoing Berkeley meals, I went to lunch at a neighborhood Berkeley Japanese Restaurant, Genki (1610 San Pablo Ave. at Cedar), which is right across San Pablo Avenue from Café Fanny. We noticed it the day we lunched at Café Fanny and were curious.

We heard mixed reviews of Genki, but decided to give it a try, all the same. Apparently, there has been an ownership change in the recent past. Our one colleague, who has lived in Japan, said that the sushi was not very good.

Undaunted, we arrived at about noon. The restaurant is plain and shares a parking lot with the motel which is behind it. It was about half full when we arrived and continued to be reasonably busy throughout our meal. About half the clientele was Japanese. The sushi chef as busy at the sushi bar doing his thing and, from what I could see, he and those sitting at the bar seemed pleased with their sushi.

Once seated, we were immediately brought steaming mugs of hot tea. This made us feel at home as well as warmed. What a nice touch! And, there was no charge for the hot tea.

I decided on the Tempura lunch special, priced at $8.00. It included two large deep-fried Prawns and a mix of deep-fried vegetables that included green bean, carrot, sweet potato, and broccoli. Several fresh Edamame garnished my plate.

The lunch specials are served with Miso Soup, a salad, rice, and a few wedges of fresh orange.

J's Chicken Teriyak-Gyoza lunch combination ($7.50) was presented in a lacquered box which held everything but her Miso Soup.

Both of our meals were delicious...not only do we plan to return again soon, but we already have a long list of things to try next time. At the top of my list is the Nabeyaki Udon that one of the men at the table behind was enjoying... it is a Noodle soup in which there are vegetables and prawns and which is topped by an egg which seems to have been poached in the broth.

Genki is open for lunch on weekdays and for dinner every evening from 5 p.m.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

South of France Dinner at Lalime's

Well, this is turning out to be a major Berkeley week for me...four days of meals in this wonderful city where food is very important.

Last night it was off to Lalime's for dinner. In honor of tax day, in addition to their usual à la carte menu, they had a special fixed price ($39) dinner that featured chef Steve Jaramillo's personal tribute to Food and Wine of Southern France.

While J was tempted by the à la carte Filet of Sole, he decided to go for the Special dinner; I never had a doubt that this was what I wanted.

Our meal started with a bowl of White Wine Braised Green Olives. The olives along with crusty bread and unsalted butter tided us over until the next course, Paté de Campagne

...a generous slice of paté garnished with coarse grain dijon mustard, cornichons, a radish, a pickled onion, and toasted bread.

Next up was a plate of two of the largest Grilled Sardines that I have ever seen.

The man at the next table commented that the Sardines were more the size of baby trout. This course was garnished with a watercress salad. I've never tasted fresh sardines and, while I enjoyed the flavor of the fish, having to deal with removing the spine and watching out for small bones is not what I like to do when I eat fish. Guess I will leave this taste treat to others who have more courage than I do.

The main course was Lamb and Potato Stew with Olives and Orange...very tasty, very hearty.

Finally, for dessert was Chef Jaramillo's version of an Almond Dacquoise.

This was the only course that I did not enjoy and which I did not finish. It was more like a strawberry shortcake...it had fresh strawberries and some sort of marshmallow sauce and the plate was decorated with what was described as "velvet mocha sauce." The sauce tasted like coffee caramel with no hint of chocolate that would make it mocha flavored. I had a little chat with our server about the dessert, explaining that when I make Dacquoise, I have always used Julia Child's recipe. My understanding of this dessert is that it is made with large disks of almond meringue that are layered with whipped cream or buttercream filling. What we were served was not a Dacqoise. Meanwhile, J enjoyed his and ate every last drop.

A special selection of three wines was offered with the dinner ($23 for three 4-ounce pours). I would have loved to have had all three glasses of wine, but as designated driver, I opted for just one glass of the 2005 Bandol Rouge from Domaine Tempier, the wine that was paired with the Lamb Stew. It was delightufl. I am pretty sure most of Lalime's French and Italian wines are imported by Berkeley wine merchant Kermit Lynch.

Lalime's is the kind of restaurant where I'd love to dine about once a week. Its clientele is made up of neighborhood folk who do just that. Single diners and large groups are equally welcome and equally comfortable. The building itself looks like it once was a house...it is comfortable and cozy and the staff is always friendly and efficient.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Another Lunch at Café Leila

Café Leila (1724 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley) is growing on me. I have yet to try their Oatmeal Pancakes, but I've been diligently working my way through their breakfast pastries. I gave the Cranberry Walnut Scone a try last week, but, today I was back to the Crumb Coffee Cake...it's my favorite and I justify the indulgence by only eating half my slice and saving the other half for the next day. The Scones are good but not as sweet as I like...for my taste, good, but not perfect. Today's Muffin du jour was Banana Walnut and J liked hers so much that she did not offer me even a tiny taste.

Then, it was time for lunch and back we came. We both ordered from the Breakfast menu for Lunch.

The Bagel with Cream Cheese and Wild Smoked Salmon for J and Leila's Omelet for me.

Leila's Omelet is filled with tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, and cheddar cheese. All omelets are served with toast, home fries, and fresh fruit...a very complete meal.

I had to ask who Leila, the café's namesake is...she's owner Moses's mother. Always nice to have a tribute to Mom, which is part of what makes Café Leila such a comfortable place to hang out...customers are treated like guests in the home of friends or family. Today it was sunny and warm on the back garden patio...several customers had their dogs and children with them.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Walnut Creek is the major restaurant and shopping community in Central Contra Costa County. It is on the BART line, has plenty of parking, and is considered by many to be a more convenient destination for dining, shopping, and entertainment than San Francisco.

It seems that just about every business on Main Street and Locust Street, and the side streets that connect them, in the older part of downtown Walnut Creek, is a restaurant. Name the cuisine, and there is a good chance that you will find at least one Walnut Creek restaurant that features it.

Bijan is a family-owned and operated restaurant that features Persian/Middle Eastern Cuisine. I can't tell you the number of times I've walked by since it opened on the corner of Locust Street and Giammona Drive, a few years ago. No reason to not have tried Bijan before; I just hadn't thought about it until J noticed it one day while we were at the Sunday Walnut Creek Farmer's Market which is across the street from the restaurant.

So, last week we headed over there...and what a treat it was!

While, I've had Persian cuisine before, I was not quite sure what and how to order. Our server was so helpful and she even brought samples of the Chicken Kebob which I wound up ordering for my main course. She was more than willing to bring us samples of other dishes, had we wanted to try more.

As we pondered the menu, we munched on the large round of warm Lavash (flatbread) which is served at every table with a platter of feta cheese, fresh mint, onions, and butter.

To maximize our tastes from the menu, we started with an appetizer serving of two stews: Fesanjon and Gheymeh.

The Fesanjon is a vegetarian stew made with dry roasted crushed walnuts which are cooked in a pomegranate sauce. The Gheymeh is a beef stew made with beef, fresh tomato sauce, lentils, dry limes, and eggplant. I rarely eat meat, but devoured every bit of my half of this stew sampler and I actually preferred the flavorings of the beef stew!

For main courses, J chose the Shirin Polo with Chicken Breast, a grilled chicken breast served with Basmata rice seasoned with almonds, pistachios, orange peel, raisins, and saffron.

The sample of the the Chicken Koobideh (ground chicken kabob) that I tasted before ordering was so tasty, I chose it as my entrée.

On my plate were two large kebobs of ground chicken breast which were seasoned with saffron and spices. My plate was garnished with a colorful array of steamed vegetables and a mix of white and basmati rice. My serving was so large that I saved half of it for dinner the next night.

Although we passed on dessert, the Baklavah and the Persian Ice Cream both were tempting. Our meal,with two glasses of wine, tax and tip, came to $71.00 for the two of us...very reasonable for this well-prepared flavorful dinner.

We were here on a weekday night and the restaurant was not very busy, possibly because there was no performance at the nearby Lesher Center for the Arts that evening. On Friday and Saturday nights, when belly dancers provide entertainment, it is a good idea to make a reservation for dinner to assure that you get a table without having to wait.

Bijan is also open for lunch.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Berkeley folk care about what they eat and what they drink. At the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Cedar Street are three businesses that exemplify Berkeley's passion with food and drink.

Café Fanny is a casual café, on the order of those one finds in France. It dates back to 1984 when Chef Alice Waters, said to be the one who "invented" California Cuisine, opened it as a place to serve delicious, uncomplicated food. To this day, this is what Café Fanny is all about.

Most of the seating is outdoors...there is just a bench and a standup counter inside. Yet, rain or shine, there are crowds here for Breakfast and Lunch. Order at the register and you will be called when your food is ready.

J and I stopped here today for lunch.

J chose the day's soup...a white bean with ham.

I ordered my favorite, an open faced Egg Salad on toasted Levain bread. Anchovies garnished the egg salad.

We were lucky enough to find a sunny table on a cool April afternoon.

By the way, the tables face the small parking lot that Café Fanny customers share with customers of Acme Bread and Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, the other two occupants of this "Gourmet Corner."

Acme Bread has a small shop here where people line up throughout the day for a loaf of freshly baked bread or some of their yummy pastries. Today we noticed Apple Tarts and Chocolate Croissants among the pastries. Kermit Lynch is known for the Italian and French wines that the shop personally imports.

There is a real Kermit Lynch, who divides his time between Berkeley and France. When in France, he scouts out little-known wine makers and imports wines from those that he likes. The wine shop also features a small selection of olive oil and other imported food items. Wines are displayed warehouse fashion, but be assured that any you buy will be excellent...a knowlegeable staff is always ready to help you in your selection.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Bargain Paper Goods in Berkeley

Papyrus card and stationery shops are my favorite places to buy greeting cards, wrapping paper, stationery, and small gift items. With a Papyrus in just about every shopping district that I visit, a good portion of my shopping dollars are spent in their shops.

Most Bay Area folk don't know that Papyrus has an outlet store called PAPER PLUS in Berkeley (1629 San Pablo Avenue between ). Here, lucky shoppers will find selections from the entire Papyrus line, all at prices of at least 50% less than the original retail price. When I stopped in today, all 2008 calendars were $1.00...yes, it is April, but for a dollar, I sure couldn't resist buying another calendar for my office wall. I also stocked up on paper products for a birthday party that I am hosting in a few weeks...all priced at half off!!!

Papyrus was founded in 1950 by Margrit and Marcel Shurman, it originally specialized in imported paper products from Europe. Today, the company's products include cards, papers, gifts, and more...all designed and produced by artists around the world.

Breakfast & Lunch at Café Leila in Berkeley

An early morning appointment in North Berkeley on San Pablo Avenue had J and me at Café Leila (1724 San Pablo Ave.) at 8 a.m. for breakfast.

Although I have since learned that Rachel Ray has paid Café Leila a visit, I never would have discovered Café Leila had I not had business across the street in early March and stopped for lunch here that day. I was delighted with this charming café and tea lounge and promised myself that the next time I was in the neighborhood, I'd return.

Not only did we have breakfast today, we came back at mid day for lunch.

Breakfast choices include Oatmeal or Buttermilk Pancakes, Omelets, Oatmeal, and a variety of baked goods. So far, the Crumb Coffee Cake, made fresh every day, is my favorite...but now I have to return for a scone. I must say that the blueberry coffee cake, which was being cut right out of the pan this morning, certainly looked like it was worth a taste.

Returning for lunch, J had the day's special soup, Carrot Ginger and the California Wrap (chicken, avocado, cucumbers, jalapenos, tomatoes and more, all wrapped in lavash bread). I cannot pass up a Tuna Melt, and so, that was my choice. When I placed my order...you order and pay at the cash register and your food is brought to your table...the cashier suggested that I have my Melt on a roll...good choice! I had hot tea, and, again, I had a choice from canisters of loose tea that line one part of the wall.

Just about all of Café Leila's baked goods are made in house. Whereever possible, fair trade and organic ingredients are used in food preparations. Prices are moderate and servings are generous. For example, most omelets, which are served with fresh fruit, home fries, and toast, are priced at about $8. Sandwiches and Salads are between $6 and $8. My slice of Crumb Cake cost $3.

In the early morning, we sat for awhile at a sidewalk table on the front sidewalk.

At noon, it was warm enough at noon to sit outside on the back garden patio...a beautiful Berkeley day. There is also plenty of indoor seating in two dining areas.

Fortunately, for my waistline, I had to leave Berkeley after lunch. Otherwise, I'd be back at Café Leila for an early dinner...They serve dinner until 8 p.m.

Street parking in this part of Berkeley is usually available and Café Leila has its own parking lot right next door.