By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
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It took some doing, but a few hours before my dinner reservation at Blackberry Ginger I finally figured out where the hell the place was. The shadowy figure who recommended the restaurant was mysteriously incommunicado; Berkeleyites of my acquaintance had never heard of Blackberry Ginger, and the World Wide Web paid it no heed. I also determined the whereabouts of the nearest BART station and its proximity to the restaurant and the quickest route between the two, a process that involved two co-workers and more than one intricately drawn little map. Then I met up with my friend Eddie, who is my usual companion on these transbay ventures not only because of his cogent contributions to the restaurant-reviewing experience but because he is one of the few people I know who actually owns and operates an automobile. On this drizzly and traffic-snarled evening, however, we skipped the car and headed for the less aggravating subway. Then, after we exited the downtown Berkeley BART station and walked a quarter-block in the general direction of the restaurant, I looked up at the dark sky, said "The hell with it," tore up the map, and hailed a cab. That whole Mercury-retrograde thing probably had something to do with it, too.
Crab-asparagus bisque $8
Hummus platter $6
Steamed artichoke $6
Blackberry chicken $13
Chocolate mousse $6
Blackstowe merlot $7.29/glass
In any case, after overtipping the cabbie (a morose and distracted sort), we sauntered around the neighborhood, which adjoins the southern boundary of the University of California. The layout didn't look much different from the days when I used to BART on over to visit my bevy of high school friends, the ones who (unlike me) were intelligent enough to have been accepted into this temple of higher education. My brief fog-shrouded reverie (exacerbated, perhaps, by the presence of Eddie, whom I've known for five-sixths of my life) was beginning to take on an otherworldly quality when the object of our quest, Blackberry Ginger, loomed before us.
It's housed in a 1911 Victorian (remember that fact) of white clapboard and broad Midwestern verandas overlooking bustling Durant Avenue. Most of the building is occupied by the Beau Sky Hotel, a bed-and-breakfast of 20 rooms and pervasive retro charm. The interior looks like one of the period restaurants on Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A., or perhaps a tea room in suburban Indiana: gleaming white walls dotted here and there with a painted-rose motif; tall potted plants tucked into every corner; walls lined with metallically embossed bouquets; the whole illuminated with a fine array of chandeliers, one entwined with wrought-iron flowers, one dripping with crystal, and one an awesome, glittering miniature steamship. At one end of the right-hand dining area is a huge headboard-type thing with an elaborately carved golden frame, a cushy quilted backdrop, and a silk flower bouquet in front. As we walked in, Eddie whispered with some alarm, "Matt, there's a lot of little old ladies in here."
As befits this spatial/temporal anomaly -- a little bit of Sinclair Lewis smack dab in the middle of post-Che Berkeley -- Blackberry Ginger specializes in what you might call goop. Just about every platter brims over with a dressing or a sauce or a gratin or a marinara or a bisque or some other form of cream-based masking material: beige haute cuisine as supervised by the Good Housekeeping Auxiliary circa William Howard Taft.
This being Northern California circa 2001, however, the goop is infiltrated here and there with bok choy, fennel, snow peas, and portobello mushrooms (which explains, I suppose, why the chirpy voice on the telephone described the house cuisine as "fine dining New American"). But the fact remains that in any given forkful we could seldom taste one pure flavor -- a culinary mishmash Chez Panisse was invented to rebel against.
But goop has its charms. Although a bit of moderation would have been welcome, a few dishes on the menu benefit from this soft-textured mise en scène. Primary among them is an outstanding crab-asparagus bisque, in which a warm, soothing, creamy (but not too creamy) base is liberally studded with nice, big chunks of sweet crab meat and tomato and slender stalks of crisp asparagus. (No, this isn't crab season and it isn't asparagus season, but such niceties tend not to apply here, and it tasted good anyway.) Another satisfying appetizer is the hummus plate (even if one of the grilled pitas was, well, burnt) -- the garbanzo purée, sharp and delicious with roasted garlic, comes accompanied by a sweet tomato tapenade, dollops of puckery goat cheese, and crisp pita points, resulting in a sort of Middle Eastern nacho platter. The mostly au naturel artichoke is also impressive: Huge and opened-out like an exotic blossom, it's lightly dribbled with a sweet-tart curry-based vinaigrette for oomph. But the pot stickers are ponderous in texture and overly busy in the taste department -- not much more than a heavily fried chicken fillet swimming in a morass of lemon, ginger, cilantro, currants, plums, Napa cabbage, and bok choy.
Blackberry Ginger's signature dish is a rather institutional chicken breast enclosed in what's advertised as a ginger-horseradish crust and then drowned in a treacly blackberry brandy sauce -- enough already! (The accompanying gratin of turnips and Idaho potatoes was quite tasty, however.) Another phantasmagoria is the summer vegetable-herb terrine, in which a big, honkin' platter of overgrown, limp, out-of-season veggies (eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, et al.) swim about in a perfunctory marinara sauce. The gooey, undercooked seafood ravioli is all about cream and exotic spices and not too much about actual seafood, although rumors of crab meat, prawns, and sea bass occasionally fought their way through the goat cheese and the unidentifiable onslaught of seasonings. And the New York strip steak -- a tough and gristly example of the species -- came marinated beyond recognition in a mixture of soy, ginger, and lemongrass, although the sauce tasted like A.1 to me. Everything comes with a basket of soft, pan-baked bread that, in the words of our table's token Michiganer, "at least isn't like all that crappy, crusty California bread." All righty.
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