I have been in Berkeley, walking in the footsteps of Thomas Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas (though that wasn’t why I went there). I was staying on Shattuck Avenue, home, in Pynchon’s fictional universe, of the Lectern Press publisher of The Plays of Ford, Webster, Tourneur and Wharfinger. Oedipa doesn’t eat on Shattuck, though I’m sure she could have.
These days it’s even easier. Shattuck is the home of any number of eateries, both high and low, catering to Berkeley students as well as to the most refined East Bay palates. In the upper reaches there’s even an area known as the Gourmet Ghetto, of which Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse is the most ghetto fabulous.
Down in the lower reaches there were two restaurants that gave me pause. One was called Togo’s, and I thought, “Oh man – food from Togo! How cool is this!?” I was anticipating some Togolese favorites; fufu, kokont, koklo mene … Anyway, as you may have twigged, the name Togo does not refer to the west African country but is a merging of the words “to go.” You can imagine my disappointment.
Disappointing in another way was a restaurant named Toss. Now, as any English speaker of English knows, toss means both the process and the end result of male masturbation, and is a general term of abuse, as in “This meal is absolute toss,” or as in the book and TV series Modern Toss. It seemed a very bold name for a restaurant.
However, evidently the tossing here on Shattuck referred to what they do with their noodles, I guess I knew that all along really.
Anyway I had some spectacularly good food in Berkeley. First at a place called Ippuku on Center Street, a Japanese restaurant featuring izakaya cuisine rather than the familiar old sushi and sashimi. Izakaya is usually compared to tapas: small, shared plates, historically served in pretty modest places, though Ippuku is decidedly hip and happening, and designed. There was grilled tongue and pork belly, skewered chicken hearts, fried chicken skin, bacon wrapped mochi, and the menu did list knee cartilage which I’d certainly have ordered but they’d run out of that. The star of the show however was this whole squid:
Apparently Ippuku has a very strict policy about not photographing the food but I didn’t know this when I snapped my squid, and in any case the reviewers at Yelp don’t seem to have taken much notice.
A couple of days later, up the Gourmet Ghetto end of things (and I did keep trying to think of substitute terms, the Epicurean Edgelands, the Foodie Favela), I found myself at Saul’s Restaurant and Deli – an old style Jewish deli where they they have live klezmer music on Mondays between six and eight, which I must say made me glad I was there on a Thursday morning.
Being on a bit of a fish kick after the squid, I ordered kippers. Kippers occupy a strange place in my life. All the time I was growing up they were “dad’s food.” I wanted to eat them, I wanted to like them, but I just couldn’t cope with all those tiny bones. Now I can cope, and the bone-related difficulty is somehow part of the attraction. A little difficulty is not be despised.
But there’s the thing. The kipper was very good but it was the eggs, the scrambled eggs that were the star of this show. I hesitate to say they were the best I’ve ever eaten but you know, I think they really, really were; soft and creamy, light and savory, some sort of high point of the egg scrambler’s art. The menu described them as “strictly fresh eggs” but I wondered if there was a secret ingredient - my money might have been on whipped creamed. I even asked the waitress but she assured me it was just plain eggs, salt and pepper and nothing else. But she did say that the guys in the kitchen had had an awful lot of practice by this time: maybe that was the real secret: experience and freshness – an unbeatable combination in almost any circumstances.