By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Max A. Cherney
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Anna Roth
Lisa was always my best eating partner; she was willing to go anywhere and try anything, as long as I said the magic words: "I'll drive." (We had a running joke that whenever I was on deadline and begged her to accompany me to some funky place in the far reaches of the west San Fernando Valley or the east San Gabriel Valley for lunch, it always turned out to be the hottest day of the year. I won't say that she sat beside me in my un-air-conditioned little car uncomplainingly, exactly, but still she was there.)
Oakland, CA 94606
Region: East Oakland
Fried chicken $15.95
Polenta with mascarpone $5.50
Sweet-and-sour beef tongue $10
Orecchiette with bacon $13
Roasted chicken for two $37
Battambang, 850 Broadway (at Eighth Street), Oakland, (510) 839-8815. Open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: low.
Casa Orinda, 20 Bryant (at Moraga), Orinda, (925) 254-2981. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: high.
Zuni Café, 1658 Market (at Franklin), 552-2522. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Sunday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible on ground floor only. Parking: difficult. Muni: 6, 7, 26, 66, 71, F. Noise level: moderate.
But when she came up to visit me for the weekend several weeks ago (oh, those halcyon prewar days, how relatively careless and carefree they seem in retrospect), I was aware that the ground rules were different. She was willing to go anywhere and try anything, as long as it was good. This was partly because she'd just spent several days with a Scottish friend for whom eating was a very low priority. ("He's never eaten mussels!" she said to me, indignantly. She reconsidered. "He doesn't eat seafood at all!" It did seem that he knew how to drink, however.) And it was partly because she felt that she deserved several guaranteed superb meals, after all the hard time she'd put in with me taking her chances.
Actually, we were both taking our chances at lunch on Saturday. Lisa wanted Asian food, and we followed the recommendation of my friend Cathy, who for months had been urging me to try Battambang, a Cambodian restaurant in Oakland. Cathy's brother Jim was visiting her, too, from Portland, and she enthusiastically recounted the dinner they'd had there together, Friday night: "Wonderful green papaya salad, and beef curry with yams, and a fabulous dish of baked eggplant. And they do the best grilled lamb chops." In fact, they were having some of the leftovers for their Saturday lunch.
I was perfectly willing to order exactly the same dishes for our lunch, once we were ensconced in the snug, dazzlingly clean little restaurant, but Lisa preferred to explore the lengthy and excitingly unfamiliar menu and choose afresh. We ordered crab salad, avocado rolls, a soup with Chinese watercress called samlaw machou kroeurng, fried stuffed quail (baksei trung kor), and those highly touted lamb chops.
The bright salad combined shreds of fresh crabmeat with asparagus, bean sprouts, mint, and ground peanuts in a sharp lime dressing. Lisa thought the avocado rolls were slightly dull, but I enjoyed them, especially the textural contrasts -- the suave avocado, crunchy sprouts, and slightly furry mint leaves, wrapped in slick, stretchy, almost translucent sheets of rice noodles, dipped in crunchy chopped peanuts, and slicked with sticky tamarind sauce. The delicate soup was spicy and perfumed with lemon grass. The labor-intensive quails had been swollen to twice their size with a rather bland forcemeat of ground pork, onions, bean threads, and peanuts, which, mild as it was, somewhat mitigated their essential quailness; still, it was a pleasant dish.
But the star of the meal was, indeed, those miraculous lamb chops, four thick charbroiled rib chops, possessed of true lamb snap. It had been a meal of true flavors, and everything we'd eaten was of such impeccable quality and knowing preparation, and had elicited such delight, that I said to Lisa, "I bet we could have ordered an entirely different meal and enjoyed it just as much." We loved our shared dessert, a warm, thick, creamy custard studded with chunks of jackfruit and served in a banana-leaf cup.
With one exquisite meal, Battambang had leapt to the head of the list of my favorite restaurants. Within days I was toting takeout to my sister's house (the lamb chops, of course, plus the green papaya salad and beef curry called saramann that Cathy had recommended, and a wonderful soup with fresh pineapple; we liked the salad, with sliced pork and diced prawns, but we adored the lush curry, which had tender coconut meat and green beans as well as yams). I recommended the place with the fervor of a fanatic to everyone I knew, and some I didn't: a colleague who was picking up a friend at the Oakland airport and taking her directly to dinner, an English nurse I chatted with at a park whose family loved Asian food.
The excellent meal had put Lisa and me in an excellent mood, which inspired us to lavish gestures: We plunged and snapped up an entire collection of Stangl yellow tulip pottery at an antique shop called the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on College as a house gift for my mother, who was putting us up and putting up with us. (We were looking for maybe a pitcher and found much more, 30 pieces in all, and said, "Oh, what the hell." I wouldn't say we were drunk on lemon grass and jackfruit, exactly, but slightly giddy with it.) We went a little nuts at the Rockridge Market, too, picking up cheddar cheese and chive biscuits, almond cake, three bottles of wine, and a wedge of the Pierre Robert triple crème cheese that my father had loved at dinner at LuLu, oozingly à pointand conveniently on discount. "Why would anyone shop anywhere else?" Lisa asked. "Because there are so many other wonderful food shops," I said, vowing to dazzle her with the Berkeley Bowl on the morrow.
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