Bette's Oceanview Diner - Berkeley, California

Bette's Oceanview Diner
1807 Fourth Street
Berkeley, CA
(510) 644-3932

Date of Visit: Monday, March 9, 2009
Time: Breakfast - 8:30 AM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 2

Food Quality: 5
Service: 4
Ambiance: 5

Even though there's no ocean view, and there's probably no Bette, I had high hopes for our breakfast in this place. "Don't even think about going there on Saturday or Sunday without waiting an hour or more," was the local buzz. "Best breakfast in the East Bay, the Bay Area, the West Coast, the Country, the World, the Universe..." were the raves. I love breakfast, and I wanted to love Bette's. It was not meant to be.

Located in an oasis of redeveloped industrial area with two blocks of hoity-toity shops and restaurants a block from the rescue mission and its associated hundreds of transients on the streets, the Diner is true to the genre. Small in black and white tile with red vinyl, seating choices of counter, booth, table or patio, the place is jammed from 6AM daily. At 8:30 on a Monday it was busy, but we hit a seam between waves and were seated in a booth immediately. Coffee for one of us and no bottled water available for me. I asked if I could therefore drink my own, prompting a small yet agitated conference with management, who decided to allow it - just this once. Whatever. Be advised that if you like coffee, you will get exactly one cupful. More on this later.

We perused the menu, which was quite extensive and looked harmless enough. There was a full slate of specials on the blackboard, and they looked pretty good. Our waitress came quickly, perhaps too quickly, and made it clear that SHE was ready, so that we would know that we should be also. We ordered hastily. Lest you think that this was a "Madge" sort of older diner-style waitress who is the ultimate professional and would brook no nonsense as part of the Bette's Diner shtick, be advised that our server was a very attractive female in her mid 20s, devoid of the de-rigueur Berkeley tattoos and piercings (as far as I could see), and reeking of attitude. Every movement screamed something along the lines of: "Like, kind of, well... ya know this job would be OK if I didn't have to be here so early, and if there weren't all these damned customers, and if they would just do what I want and stay out of the way..." Her attitude made me feel like I was back in Utah! Annoyed and completely humorless, she took our order and disappeared. The food arrived very quickly, delivered by the other waitress (who seemed much nicer), and we set about the business of the morning.

What we had with menu descriptions...

omelettes 3 eggs cooked in the French style (soft on the inside) served with home fries & sour cream, and choice of muffin, cream scone, light wheat, sourdough, or rye toast - fresh herb & cheese $8.95 (there were other choices)

(from the specials board) organic whole grain waffle with butter and maple syrup with two eggs any style $10.95

side order chicken-apple sausage $3.50

(from the specials board) fresh organic veggie frittata, with home fries & sour cream, and choice of muffin, cream scone, light wheat, sourdough, or rye toast $11.95

The omelet was creamy with specks of fresh green herbs and completely bland - a bit of a surprise. The waffle was on the small side, golden brown, and the room-temperature syrup was the real deal. The butter was in foil-wrapped pats and hard as a stone, as if fresh from the freezer. The taste was... OK. The turkey-apple sausage looked delicious and was completely tasteless - bland would have been a step up. The frittata was tiny, mildly rubbery, and also bland. If there had been Tabasco on the table, it might have redeemed some of the sorry breakfast, but salt and pepper were our only source of flavor. I had ordered sourdough with one entree and a blueberry scone with the other. Hold the home fries on both. The sourdough toast was the most flavorful part of the meal. The scone was dry, even for a scone, and remarkably unencumbered by blueberries. I wondered how old it was.

My partner had been out of coffee for some time, and the fellow in the booth facing me had been lunging at our very attractive and very quick waitress with his empty cup for 5-10 minutes to no avail. She was completely focused on the task of taking orders from tables to kitchen. No room for any other duties. I grabbed the empty cup from our table and walked to the rear of the restaurant where the regular tables were. The coffee pot was sitting on a warmer, so I grabbed it to fill the cup. "Stop that right now!" yelled our waitress, charging at me and suddenly aware of my existence. "I was just trying to help," was my reply with a smile. "Put that down. I will bring you coffee at your table." I shrugged and complied, being in no mood for a fight. A few minutes later she delivered, still ignoring the man at the next booth who mumbled and thrust his cup at her again. I grabbed her free hand and pointed out the unfortunate victim of her inattention. She walked over, and upon finding that he wanted decaf when she had only regular, gave him the most disdainful eye roll I have ever witnessed. That certainly showed HIM. That second cup of coffee, far too late, was the last coffee either of us would see that day. I had to wonder what she did when the place was actually busy?

All in all the meal was edible and expensive. With coffee and taxes the bill was $39.26, prompting me to begrudgingly leave $3 cash tip. To the waitress, should you read this, here's an additional tip: "Good looks will only excuse your bad attitude for a few years. After that you're screwed." At least the experience was quick. We were back in the car and on our way before 9AM, never to return, leaving a long-ish line of people begging to spend their hard-earned cash for some abuse. It certainly could not have been for the food. Bette's was the sort of place who had been told for so long how great they were - to the point that they actually believed it. And now they treat diners as interlopers to be fleeced and barely tolerated. They must be thankful that Berkeley houses so many wealthy masochists upon which to prey.

Perhaps you are thinking that my expectations are too high for simple breakfast fare. I would submit as evidence to the contrary the breakfast we'd had at First Awakenings in Monterey a few days earlier, and sadly over two hours away from Berkeley.

Bette's Oceanview Diner - NOT RECOMMENDED unless you have too much money, too much time, and prefer to be treated rudely for mediocre fare

Highs: Clean
Lows: Incompetent and rude service, obscene prices for nothing special on the plate, obsessed with their own reputation

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Firefly - San Francisco, California

4288 24th Street (Noe Valley)
San Francisco, CA
(415) 821-7652

Date of Visit: Sunday, March 8, 2009
Time: Dinner - 8:45 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 2

Food Quality: 9
Service: 6
Ambiance: 8

Firefly is tucked away in the semi-hidden Noe Valley neighborhood. Pronounced "NO-eee," it's sandwiched between the Castro and Twin Peaks. It's not easy to find the neighborhood or the restaurant, and it's nearly impossible to park there, even on a Sunday night. On a Friday or Saturday? Fuggedaboudit if you don't have a reservation, and you'll need to park somewhere else and take a cab. Be sure to remember where you parked! Because of these factors, Firefly's model is for repeat business fed primarily by the upscale nearby residents who can and will walk there, and other locals with enough disposable income to use taxis. Two things are mandatory for repeat business - high quality product and frequent changes in menu. Firefly does not disappoint. Run since its inception by Brad Levy, a St. Louis native, and his wife Veva Edelson, Firefly is a long-lasting, friendly place after which many others have been modeled. The cuisine is difficult to capture, perhaps "healthy fusion comfort food" comes close. It has a single Mobil star, begrudgingly granted by the Texan editors who found it too weird. Perhaps they were refused ketchup or barbecue sauce? It has a very respectable 25 rating on Zagat, putting it in the company of Range and Delfina. San Francisco is full of small, quirky bistro-style restaurants with fluid, seasonal menus. Few survive, and Firefly is a welcome exception at 17.5 years and counting...

Being Irish has its perks, and I invoked my genetic right to be lucky, immediately finding the only parking place within a mile, only half a block up the very steep hill from the restaurant. We strolled in at 8PM, the height of dinner rush-hour, even on a Sunday. I knew they were open until at least 10, so I figured we could get wait-listed for a late dinner. The hostess seemed almost afraid to ask us to wait 45 minutes, but I accepted her offer happily. We walked two blocks down the hill and had a beer at Peak's, a local dive bar on Castro Street. It was basically empty, with only two other couples, and it reeked of smoke. We alternated between World Baseball Championship games on the TV and watching a couple of locals shoot pool badly.

We returned at 8:40 and were seated immediately in the lower of two dining rooms. The hill is so steep that there is a six foot difference between the floor levels of the two rooms. The interior place is airy and quiet, due to the innovative draped fabric concealing the industrial ceiling. Whimsical art works inspired by kindergarten projects, or perhaps even done by children, adorn the walls at random heights, though there was one graffiti-inspired Che Guevara themed painting that appealed to me.

We declined the tap water in favor of San Pellegrino, and the busboy brought an excellent sourdough with a curried chickpea spread - a welcome and healthful change from butter or oil. They have a "Prix Fix" menu Sunday through Thursday with any appetizer, entree, and dessert for $35, saving you about $5-6 per person. We decided to go for it, and having chosen beef and fish, we asked the waiter for a wine recommendation. He chose an safe and unremarkable Australian Petit Syrah for about $35. I get the sense that if we were regulars, he would have gotten to know us and our tastes. Then the recommendation might have been more aggressive. The wine was OK, as was the service. He answered questions thoughtfully, but seemed a bit distant - a real contrast with the vibe of the room.

What we had with menu descriptions...

Butter Lettuce Salad with Shaved Radishes, Meyer Lemon, Grilled Croutons and Roasted Garlic–Manchego Dressing 9.00

Rio Star Grapefruit and Avocado Salad with Mâche, Tarragon, Macadamia Nuts and Black Pepper Crème Fraîche 9.00

Braised Corvina Seabass with Black Trumpet Mushroom–Green Garlic Crust, Sautéed Belgian Endive and Roasted Turnips 23.00

Grilled Beef Sirloin with Griddled Garbanzo Cake, Cauliflower, Minted English Peas and Kalamata Olive Tapenade 24.00

Jasmine panna Cotta with Honey Poached Pears and Coconut Sesame Cookie 8.50

Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding Parfait with Fresh, Organic Berries and Cream 8.50

Though we both ordered variants of our standard fare, one menu item caught our attention: "The Fried Chicken of Your Dreams with Mashed Potatoes & Gravy, Peas & Carrots and a Damn Fine Buttermilk Biscuit 20.00" As we wondered aloud what that might be like, the waiter carried a fresh example (pictured here) to a neighboring table. I suspect it is every bit as good as it looks. Our entrees arrived in short order. My partner was having fish for the fourth evening in succession, and she promptly pronounced the Firefly Sea Bass as the best of the four. I was skeptical, even after trying it, but then I tucked into the beef. Sirloin is a pretty flavorful cut, and this example competed nicely with the lamb dish at the Range on the previous night. Salads and sides were fresh, organic, and delicious as well. Desserts and coffee made a nice nightcap on the evening.

I suppose if we lived there we could afford to eat there regularly, and I suspect that we would indeed. Surfing for reviews shows raves for the service with a few less than ecstatic aberrations. Our guy was competent and professional, but far from warm or friendly. I'd bet this was not the norm for the place. And to be fair to the Mobil Guide guys, the place IS weird. And then again the whole city is weird, often in a good way. From the Firefly website I have embedded a video that shows what it's like to dine there, or almost anywhere in San Francisco outside of the 5 star places or financial district. It's... different. Not good or bad necessarily, but always entertaining!

Firefly - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED for excellent, organic meats and vegetables prepared with Northern California flair in a whimsical environment. Their menu statement: "All Our Meat Comes From Happy, Never Mad, Drug Free Animals; no Hormones, Antibiotics or Crack Cocaine"

Highs: Comfortable neighborhood feel, whimsical practicality, imaginative preparation of high quality ingredients
Lows: Parking, not being immediately local

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Ajanta - Berkeley, California

1888 Solano Avenue
Berkeley, CA
(510) 526-4373

Date of Visit: Sunday, March 8, 2009
Time: Lunch - 1:00 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 2

Food Quality: 9
Service: 7
Ambiance: 8

I have not had tremendous exposure to the vast variety of foods from the subcontinent of India. So if one is to experiment, one should start with the best! Hidden behind an unassuming storefront on Berkeley's Solano Avenue you can find the top-rated Indian cuisine restaurant in Northern California. Named for the Buddhist Ajanta caves in India and decorated with murals inspired by the cave paintings, Ajanta is near the top of the "Solano Avenue Stroll," and we had a very enjoyable walk from the car to the restaurant. This walk is necessitated by the total absence of parking except for on-street and the myriad of regulations for which Berkeley is so famous. Even on a Sunday afternoon parking was scarce, but the 5 block trek enabled us to absorb the picture-perfect weather. Once inside, a feeling of calm descended upon us, induced by the color scheme and decor of the serene dining area. They were not busy at all, with only three or four of the 20 tables filled, and we were greeted happily and seated promptly. We asked for two bottles of generic still water to sip while perusing the lunch menu. Example dishes from several regions (Chennai, Hyderabad, Kerala, Lucknow, Mumbai, Punjab, Sind, Uttar Pradesh) are randomly distributed throughout, making for dining combinations that would be nearly impossible in India outside of a major city. While the menu was not overly large, we took our time to get a good sampling of all they had to offer.

What we had with menu descriptions...

PAPADAM : Indian lentil wafers, served with mint-cilantro sauce (2 per order) $ 2.50

DAAL SOUP: A lentil soup, made with mung beans $ 4.50 (pictured at right)

Lunches are served with Basmati rice and a side dish of spinach and potatoes (with non-veg lunches) or chickpeas (with veg lunches) . Dishes can be ordered very mild, mild/low medium, medium, high medium or hot.

MILONI SABZI: Mixed vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, blue lake beans) cooked in a sauce made with pureed spinach, onions, garlic, coconut milk, cashews, and spices (Hyderabad) (Vegan) $ 7.00

PUDINA GOSHT: Boneless cubed Colorado lamb cooked in a sauce made with onions, tomatoes, ginger, coriander, turmeric, cumin, paprika, lemon juice and mint (Uttar Pradesh) $ 10.00

NAAN: Leavened dough bread cooked in tandoor oven $ 1.75

TAJ MAHAL BEER, Large (22 oz.) $ 6.00


We opened with Taj Mahal beers, size large. This cool, refreshing beer is not nearly as light as the more well-known Kingfisher. It provided a malty counterpoint to the complex spice in the dishes, though the light, hoppy alternatives might have been better choices. For starters we ordered daal soup and a side of "Papadam." Most frequently spelled "poppadom," there appear to be many acceptable variant spellings (papadam, papaddam, papadom, papadum, papodam, papodum, popadam, popadom, poppadam, poppadum, poppodam, puppadum, puppodam, puppodum). However you choose to spell it, these tasty wafers are what potato chips can only wish to be - light, crunchy, complex, and delicious - these delicacies are prepared with over a dozen ingredients in labor intensive fashion and dried for several days before being grilled or fried. If Ajanta's version ever came near hot oil, it was impossible to tell - they were airy and delicate with no hint of oil or grease. Adding the freshly prepared herb sauce elevated the snack to a higher level. Having skipped breakfast, we opted for a second order. These chips are both delicious and fun - see the end of this post for a PacMan photo I grabbed from the Internet for an example!

The daal soup was as tasty as it was beautiful. Thick but not creamy, redolent of spice and fresh, organic legumes, it was the perfect stage-setter for the entrees to come. Mung beans may sound like something strange, but keep in mind that most bean sprouts you find in salad bars or elsewhere in the USA are mung bean sprouts. These legumes added bright yellow color along with great flavor and complexity to the bean texture of the lentils.

My dining companion ordered the lamb (gosht) with medium spice and I asked for my vegetarian meloni sabsi combo (pictured at right) hot. The waiter discreetly sought to find if I meant hot by American standards or a more global scale. Both diners assured him that I wanted the real deal. When the serving dishes arrived, all together, we prepared our plates with the aromatic rice and ladled portions of each entree onto separate areas. The lamb dish was bright, cheerful, and permeated with the essence of the meat. The melange of spices used added character without overpowering. All in all it was excellent. I tucked into the fresh vegetable dish, which was at once warm, fragrant, spicy, and mildly sweet. It was also very hot from a spice standpoint, bringing me to the edge of perspiration. A perfect execution.

My dining partner began fanning herself. "It's very spicy!" she proclaimed, indicating the lamb. I assured her that the lamb was not hot, and that if she thought so, she should avoid the veggie dish altogether. Instantly a waiter appeared from thin air, having heard me say "not hot." "We can make this hotter!" he assured me. "It will only take thirty seconds." I explained that both dishes were adequately spiced, but he repeated his offer. I suppose he had (quite accurately) targeted my dish for somewhere between an American and Indian hotness scale and was concerned I would need more. I don't mind my taste buds being zapped, but I don't need to break out into a sweat to enjoy it - so I declined his offer.

The side of fresh, plain Naan made a handy tool for pushing the food onto the fork, and was very tasty in its own right. Being famished and delighted with the meal, we eliminated all traces of every dish. I asked the waiter for some guidance with the desserts. Indian drinks and desserts can be extremely sweet, and I was hoping to avoid a sugar rush. He recommended the cardamon (aka cardamom) gelato, and it was a perfect capstone. Cool and fragrant, the cardamom spice is somewhere between cinnamon and clove. In the ice cream concoction it came to life, leaving my mouth with a cool, pleasant taste that lasted well into our walk down the Solano Stroll.

To be fair, if you look at my food scale, any properly prepared Indian food would rate a 7 or 8. Ajanta took it to the next level with their perfect application of dozens of spices to the fresh, organic ingredients. Each dish was a vibrant splash of color on the plate and a work of art on the palate - a solid 9 on the Ego scale.

Ajanta - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED for a top-notch Indian cuisine from several regions

Highs: Quiet and relaxed room, flavorful food, eager service, reasonable prices, free range hormone and antibiotic free meats
Lows: Unobtainable street parking

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego