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I've been a train nut ever since that signal spring day 15 years ago when I boarded the Zephyr at Oakland's decrepit old railroad depot and spent an afternoon and evening crossing the Sacramento Valley, climbing the snowy passes of the Sierra Nevada, and alighting, finally, amid the neon-bathed honky-tonk of Reno, Nev. This meandering journey was far different from the mundane automobile excursions and regimented airplane trips of my previous experience. "Getting there is half the fun" is a catch phrase that never quite caught me until I started riding the train; before, I was always impatient to simply get to New York or Disneyland or wherever and off of the cramped, sterile 707 with its truncated movies and plasticene meals.
But the train ... ah. To someone in no particular hurry about anything, railroading is a pleasure. First of all, there's Amtrak's endearingly fatalistic attitude toward arrival and departure times, a drowsy tonic in this microwaved era. Then there are the landscapes just beyond the perspex: an ever-evolving and endlessly captivating panorama of desert and mountain, field and stream, hamlet and metropolis that is largely unavailable to fliers of the friendly and far-removed skies. There's the incongruous mystique of sitting comfortably in a club car, sipping bourbon and playing gin rummy, while buttes and mesas and thunderstorms and antelope trundle past. And -- but -- there is the food.
I've actually experienced tasty train food now and again, mostly in Europe, but for the most part the best thing about the stuff served on trains is that it isn't airplane food. At least Amtrak's bill of fare is prepared by real people in real on-site kitchens, and there are increasing attempts to revive the splendors of classic railroad cuisine, complete with route-specific regional specialties. (I've dined on good grilled trout while training through the Rockies, and grits are a dining car inevitability whenever I traverse the South.) But the splendid alchemy of railroad elegance and marvelous food is, presently, a largely inaccessible pleasure.
Unless you don't mind not actually traveling anywhere during the course of your meal. The Santa Fe Bar & Grill is housed in Berkeley's vintage Santa Fe Railroad depot (hence the name) and recalls, indeed, an oasislike train station somewhere in the Southwest, right on down to the Mission Revival pink stucco, surrounding succulents, and Santa Fe logo-embossed door ornaments. The depot was remodeled into a restaurant 31 years ago, but the setting still evokes the glory days of the Super Chief and L.A.'s sun-splashed Union Station and cacti-themed streamliners and East Coast swells heading California-ward for orange juice and sunshine.
The retro-icity continues when you enter the restaurant, stepping into a spacious foyer not unlike an art deco Atchison & Topeka terminus with vaulted archways, checkerboard tile flooring, a muraled, domed, and chandeliered ceiling, evocative railroad-themed paintings, and, smack dab in the middle, a cocktail pianist offering an impressionist tapestry of Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers & Hart. There's even a cozy little bar off to the left where you can sip a cocktail by the light of the adjacent woodburning oven before you head for one of the napery- and glassware-bedecked tables, and dinner.
Let's hang out at the bar for a little while longer, though. There are drinks to be savored: Ron's Mai Tai ($6.75), a leveling and increasingly seductive concoction of amaretto, grenadine, orange juice, pineapple juice, and two kinds of rum; the Cosmillennium ($7), a classy and delicious Cosmo prepared with Chambord and Chopin instead of the more pedestrian cranberry juice and rotgut vodka; the Santa Fe Margarita ($4.75), a wonderfully brisk and fresh-tasting example of the genre; and the Passion Punch ($6.75), a technicolor libation in which vodka and various fruit juices supply the backdrop for day-glo layerings of Midori and peach schnapps. Now we're ready for dinner.
The Santa Fe has suffered a fluctuating reputation over the years, but now, with owner Ahmad Behjati at the helm, the culinary outlook is mostly splendid. (Behjati also owns the more casual Santa Fe Bistro, also in Berkeley.) The Bar & Grill's most significant asset is something no train galley could hope to rely upon: an on-the-premises, 4,000-square-foot organic garden. The greens and herbs used in the restaurant's myriad dishes are harvested here every day, oftentimes moments before they're absolutely needed, and it's this pesticide- and fertilizer-free ethos that results in most of the venue's best dishes.
The salads especially: a seasonal jumble of sweet, peppery, invigorating greens ($6) dressed with a jerez-infused vinaigrette and topped off with wonderfully garlicky crostini (all breadstuffs are made in-house from scratch); silken, perfectly al dente asparagus ($9) chilled and served with the simple affluence of white-truffle vinaigrette and a smoky, meaty grilled portobello; velvety Bosc pears ($7.50) ideally complemented with candied walnuts, spinach, and fromage d'affinois crostini; tender, tangy mâche greens ($9) dolloped with lemon oil and bejazzed with brittle shards of Reggiano Parmesan and paper-thin slices of Serrano ham. The non-verdant stuff is good too: for instance, sweet, juicy, crunchy-on-the-outside grilled prawns (big ones; $8.95) flanked by two wonderfully contrasting flavors -- wasabi aioli and a coleslaw of jicama and mango, an appetizing appetizer indeed.
Santa Fe's New York strip ($21) is one of the few restaurant steaks I've tasted that's as good as the cholesterol-rich offerings at Alfred's and Harris': tender, juicy, and with a wonderful smoky-rich flavor to boot. (The cushiony-brisk horseradish butter melting atop doesn't hurt any.) The Australian leg of lamb ($18), roasted to the tantalizingly redolent point, comes with crunchy-buttery haricots vert, cannellini beans braised to bring out their delicate flavor, and a roasted garlic sauce impeccably suited to this rich cut of meat. Like the rest of the entrees, the roasted young chicken ($16) is cooked to the moist and tender stage, then dressed up with imaginative garden configurations, in this case a sauce of oyster mushrooms and an earthy, robust pesto made of fava beans. Ditto the sleek seared ahi ($19.25) and its inventive supporting cast: creamy, citrus-informed risotto and baby carrots and savoy cabbage enlivened with tingly mango-ginger salsa. And the fettuccine with fresh tarragon ($15) is as homey and as satisfying as this original comfort food should be, ribboned as it is with earthly morels, crunchy roasted bell peppers in two colors, and bracing chunks of meltingly good chevre.
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