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Ici n'était pas mémorable

I am new to these boards, having just moved back to the Bay Area from Boston. When I last lived in the Bay Area, I was a San Francisco denizen and Craigslist food forum devotee. Anyway, I am now hiking the Hills of Berkeley... exploring the East Bay. A few highlights to date and then a commentary on Ici, which was what prompted me to post.

China Village - one of my first meals (when I was still getting plates unpacked)... great flavors though not as spicy as I expected. Yes, I did order from the mostly szechuan section of the menu. I'll be going back and would appreciate hearing about anyone's favorites.

Gregoire - this place is excellent. They chose a new model and they ran with it. I've only been to the Cedar Street location, but I would eat there all the time if I could afford to. It would be cool if they offered some of the entrees for 2+ people at a discounted price. The boxes are a little too precious, but the food holds up and the chefs are very friendly. For dog owners, this place is very dog-friendly.

DaNang KrungThep Thai-Vietnamese Southeast Asian confusing place -- so I have read the history and I still don't understand why they didn't just choose one name. Anyway, I went with one of my Thai classmates and he did all of the ordering. I seem to remember an excellent eggplant dish and a curry that I liked. I'll pay more attention next time.

Cha Am Thai (corner of Shattuck and Vine) -- I went here because it is close to home. Since then I have read strong reviews on other websites... it is fine. We had a delicious appetizer that was like like Thai style fried crabcakes. The pad thai was what I call Americanized Pad Thai - meaning it was on the sweet side of the spectrum. I would go back because the prices are reasonable -- it might be a good take out option.

Cafe Rouge - we went there last night and I was actually impressed. I won't be rushing back, but mainly because I think there are lots of restaurants at the same price point with more to offer. We had a couple oysters - good and fresh, well-shucked (at least better than I can do -- the juices were still surrounding the meat). I had an onglet steak (hanger steak) - perfectly cooked and great flavor. It needed a little more salt, but fortunately that was on the table. The watermelon ricotta salad was pretty, but hard to eat. My wife said her lamb needed a little salt as well. As I said, I actually liked my meal but I won't go back immediately. The wine list was not that great, which is usually something that can bring me back.

Okay, so finally onto Ici. I was excited about this place because of the pedigreed owners/ice cream makers... but I don't get it. I paid $2.50 for a tiny scoop of ice cream. Good ice cream, but not a decadent flavor explosion in my mouth. If you are going to charge a lot for small portions, than you want the consumers to linger over every bite. I won't go back until I hear really strong reports from people I trust.

I have also been to Soi4 in Rockridge, Bette's Ocean View on 4th Street, and an inevitable late night meal at Zuni (you can count me among the Zuni lovers). All great meals, but nothing new to report. I do want to discuss Zuni at some point, but I'll save it for another rant. One quick point -- I am willing to pay a small premium to be able to order my burger medium rare and to know it will actually come out medium rare. I don't particularly like paying $7 for a mixed greens salad that is missing the garlic parmesan croutons... but I enjoyed the burger.

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  1. Welcome back to the Bay Area. I guess you read the boards and a few people have a similar take to Ici as you. Give them a few months to work it out and watch the board for any updates.

    Try the ice cream at Cafe Fanny on San Pablo. It is ourageously good ... and expensive ... but packed with flavor. If they have the caramel, snap it up. A year ago the ice cream at CF was the worst, but they have somone new making it and it is amazing.

    I hope you will report, if you like doing that, even if the restaurant seems to be discussed a zillion times. I'll bet you can't find a report on Bette's other than one liners to order this or that. Everybody assumes the topic is old news or has been hashed to death, but its always nice to get a fresh perspective.

    And ... if you find yourself missing Boston seafood ... Old Port Lobster Shack in Redwood City, and to a lesser extent, Woodhouse in SF. There will be another place near Half Moon Bay on the beach in October.

    1 Reply
    1. re: rworange

      Thanks R-Dub. I was actually a pretty regular poster in Boston, so looking forward to participating on the boards here... when I have the time. Definitely will try Cafe Fanny too, thanks.

      As for Bette's, I had a great experience. The service was really great, which I didn't expect. Kept the water glass filled and the server was friendly, despite the hurried atmosphere. Didn't have the souffle pancakes (I tried a daily special which I am now blanking on), but will be back for them.

    2. Welcome to the neighborhood and thanks for the reports. You might try Gregoire out for lunch as the price point is much lower than dinner. I like the pork roast on this month's menu.

      I agree with you about Cafe Rouge. The main reason I return is because I love their hamburger (though the last two times it's been cooked beyond the ideal rare). However, what I really value Rouge for is the butcher shop in the back. It's the best butcher shop in the East Bay. Although the selection is small, everything they have is high quality. They're also more than happy to special order anything for you, even in small portions. The charcut is good, but you can get better charcut from the Fatted Calf farmers' market stand on Saturdays. The real find is the deli meats. They only have them once a month so I watch the calendar posted next to the cash register and ask the butcher questions. On September 27th, they're going to have lamb ham! Can't wait to try that one.

      Staying within 4th st: Sketch is my favorite dessert shop in the Bay Area. I prefer their ice cream to Ici. Although they are at a comparable price point, their sizes are a bit larger. I also adore their chocolate caramels, caramel corn and chocolate chip cookies. If you're looking for good ice cream and you were unhappy with Ici you should definitely try Sketch. I really like Eccolo for brunch (try their bacon) though for dinner their price point is too steep for me. 4th st is definitely spendy but there's good chow to be had there.

      A few blocks south of 4th st is Viks Chaat, a wonderful south Indian restaurant in a warehouse. It's no frills, but the food is good and cheap. No dinner service. Also south of University on 7th st is 900 Grayson, my favorite breakfast and brunch place in town. Really well executed greasy spoon classics with a California twist, like perfectly scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, or free range fried chicken with waffles. Fair prices for big portions, definitely worth a visit. Closed Sundays.

      My other "must visit" spots in the area are: The Cheeseboard (if you haven't been yet, go next week. You're going to flip out, it's so cool); Pizzaiolo (technically, north Oakland. My favorite restaurant, anywhere. The food is fantastic and the price point is comparable to Cafe Rouge); and the Farmers' Market (Berkeley is fortunate enough to have three: on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. It's no Ferry Building, but there's no mobs of tourists either and some of the best vendors in the area come to Berkeley. We even have a few special vendors who wont set foot in SF like Ram Das, La Tercera and Quetzal. Don't miss The Fatted Calf.)

      Anyway, those are just a few of my favorites to keep you busy. Keep exploring and posting. It's always great to have a new hound reporting out of Berkeley.

      A few references:

      www.eccolo.com
      www.sketchicecream.com
      www.vikdistributors.com
      www.900grayson.com
      www.cheeseboard.coop
      www.pizzaiolo.us
      www.ecologycenter.org (info on Farmers' Markets
      )www.fattedcalf.com

      5 Replies
      1. re: Morton the Mousse

        Morton:

        Great response -- much appreciated. I have been to Sketch and definitely preferred it to Ici. I find 4th Street to be more of a destination, whereas I am driving through Elmwood (and thus Ici) more often. Looking forward to trying the other options in the area.

        I have been to Cheeseboard, both the store and the pizza counter. The pizzas are great. In Boston, I actually lived in Cambridge about a block from Formaggio Kitchen. While I love the cheese selection at Cheeseboard, I have not found someone that has the same knowledge level as my old pals from Formaggio. I have only been twice, so I will give it more opportunities of course.

        I am a farmer's market whore... In the past month I've probably been 8-9 times. One of the reasons for returning to the Bay Area. Love the Dapple Dandy pluots that are in season, but been a little disappointed with most of the peaches I have tried. Any suggestions? The Fatted Calf is great, but I struggle with the sticker shock -- again, any suggestions on specific items to grab.

        Thanks for all of the other suggestions. I will have to try Pizzaiolo -- I am a big fan of Dopo personally.

        1. re: nomadfromcincy

          It's late for stone fruit... I got some August Red nectarines yesterday from Frog Hollow at Ferry Plaza, surprisingly good for this time of year. But check out the Apple Farm stand there. Rhode Island Greenings (fantastic pie apple), French Butter pears, and pretty soon they'll have quinces and Sierra Beauty apples (great for pie or eating.) And dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes from Ella Bella are here, probably into next month.

          1. re: nomadfromcincy

            One of the drawbacks of the Cheeseboard is that the way their cooperative structure works, everyone does every job, regardless of their expertise. This means you do get large variations in how knowledgeable the person serving you may be.

            You might want to try Farmstead Cheeses and Wines in Alameda. Smaller selection, but higher ratio of "interesting" cheeses and a very knowledgeably staff. Plus the parking is easy and even when it's busy it isn't the mob scene the Cheeseboard can be.

            1. re: nomadfromcincy

              I agree with you about the service at the Cheeseboard. Some of the people who work there are incredibly knowledgable, some are not. It really is the luck of the draw. However, as they are so generous with samples I usually just try a whole lot of different things and buy what I like.

              Peach season is, for all intents and purposes, over. If you're still in Berkeley next year, you're going to want to watch for the Red Havens from Ram Das Orchards. As for Fatted Calf, the feggateli and petit sec are a great introduction to the product line. You only have to drop $2.50 a piece, and they're so tasty that you'll be hooked. Personally, I love the rillettes and the bacon. But almost everything I've tried has been excellent.

          2. I think Ici is just getting it's footing and I will give it another month or so to fully realize it's potential.

            I am partial to Sketch. Not only for their wonderful ice cream but because of Eric & Ruthie. . .they make the experience there a little sweeter. Right now, they have a fresh fig cake that is beyond phenomenal. . I dream of this cake! Try it plain with a cup of Blue Bottle or get it slathered with the Yogurt Ice Cream . . heaven. The cake is only around a short time so get it while you can!

            Also, as stated, peach season is done. The last of the season Indian Reds were really poor this year. . .too much rain! They were mealy and pale in color. If you see Blossom Bluff Orchards at the Berkeley Farmers Market and they still have Flavor King or Elephant Heart Plums, get some . . .they have been glorious!

            1 Reply
            1. re: lainielou

              Blossom Bluff Orchards is my favorite. Up until this week they still had very good nectarines. They had the Elephant Hearts at the Temescal Farmers Market yesterday.

              We went to Ici again on Sunday. The ginger was pretty good. The concord grape sorbet was psychedelically good, and a wonderful purple. And the chocolate was still excellent. But the brown sugar-pecan was boring boring boring.

              Paul Canales came in while we were getting our stuff (disclosure: I love his restaurant, he knows me by face, and I like to shoot the breeze with him). I told him about how the first time I went in the chocolate chip flavor was just nowhere, and how I hadn't known whether to say anything or not. He said "Sure! Just say, 'I'm looking for some chip here!'"

              But still, it's hard to know exactly what to say, when some of the flavors are consistently good and others just seem weak. As the Orange advises, I'll give them time.