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The essential qualities I'd found present in everything I'd had here -- a lightness and delicacy of approach resulting in clear, true flavors -- continued through dessert: a slice of warm apple galette with caramel ice cream, and a lemon soufflé tart with vanilla ice cream. It's not unusual to find a warm apple galette or a lemon tart on local dessert menus, and it's also not unusual, alas, to receive rather boring (not to say pointless) versions of them. The ones we ate at Zax Tavern reminded us just how good they can be when taken seriously. We took them seriously enough to eat every crumb.
I'd surprised myself, in fact, by eating quite a bit more of everything I ordered than I usually do. (I'm rarely compelled to finish a dish.) And yet I felt pleasantly light and airy myself. In fact, my meal at Zax Tavern had an effect on me that reminded me of the way I feel when I exit a particularly well-directed movie: I felt converted to the worldview of its chef-owners, Mark Drazek and Barbara Mulas. I loved eating their food! I wanted to eat there again! I wanted to feel this way all the time! I was looking at the world through Zax-colored eyes.
Berkeley, CA 94705
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Duck liver salad $7.50
Lamb stew $15.50
Braised chicken legs $13
Niman Ranch top sirloin $17
Fresh fruit sorbet $6
Open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Noise level: moderate
I decided to induct my parents and their friends Blake and Herlinda into the cult of Zax. This time we stayed in the barroom, which seemed quieter than the adjacent dining room, despite its proximity to the open kitchen. The five of us managed to order nearly everything that I hadn't yet tried on the menu. The Zax formula held true: My heart might not turn over at the thought of steamed mussels with shallots, parsley, cream, and Pernod, but once Zax's version was in my mouth, my heart was won by the impossibly rich and creamy broth, the tiny sweet mussels, the subtle yet exciting seasoning. Things tasted better than you expected them to. A clever spoonful of cilantro cream added a layer of flavor to the curry butternut squash soup. The meaty, juicy, saucy Niman Ranch pork ribs, with bitey horseradish slaw, could have served as a light supper. My favorite first course was the warm duck liver salad, the soft livers and still-liquid yolk of the poached egg melting over the mustardy-dressed frisée lettuce full of chunks of smoky bacon: a voluptuous version of a divine dish.
Our pleasure continued through the two excellent fish dishes, intelligent, original combinations of flesh, starch, vegetables and sauce: pale, flaky Arctic char with nutty sesame rice, tatsoi salad, and shiitake mushroom vinaigrette; and meaty swordfish crusted with fennel, with creamy white beans, bitter broccoli rabe, and earthy kalamata olive vinaigrette. The thick Niman Ranch top sirloin was crusted with pepper and sided by a mountain of thin crisp shoestring potatoes, which I liked much better than the mealy oven-baked fries that came with my excellent Niman Ranch burger on a French baguette. The only disappointing dish was the massive but dry and rather tasteless Niman Ranch pork porterhouse.
Our desserts included an unctuous mocha pot de crème with barely sweetened, soft whipped cream, and a suave chocolate pavé with coffee ice cream and chocolate sauce. But my dessert exemplified for me the Zax Tavern experience: a tangerine sorbet that tasted, clearly, purely, singingly, of fresh sweet clean tangerine. Elegant. Simple. Convincing.
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