Berkeley's O Chame as alluring as ever
Wednesday, November 1, 2006
When the air picks up a damp chill, as it inevitably does this time of year, I hanker for the udon noodle soup at O Chame in Berkeley. Lots of places in the Bay Area offer this bracing elixir, but David Vardy’s version tops them all. The big pottery bowls are filled with a rich, clear fish broth, thick with noodles (either udon or soba) and toppings such as salted halibut, wakame seaweed and daikon sprouts ($13.50) or smoked trout with mustard greens and enoki mushrooms ($11.50). My favorite combination is pork tenderloin, mustard greens and takuan, a daikon pickle ($11.50). Juicy coins of tender pork float on top of a nest of mustard greens and a tangle of fleshy noodles, with the salty pickles adding a dose of excitement. When he opened in 1990, Vardy was a pioneer in using the best local ingredients in Japanese way; he still does it better than anyone -- one reason O Chame is one of The Chronicle's Top 100 restaurants. Aside from the soups -- the heart of the menu -- Vardy features a dozen appetizers and salads, including gooey eel with endive ($10.50); puffy tofu "dumplings" ($6.50) browned on the outside and floating in a rich herbed broth pumped up with hijiki seaweed; a simple radish and cucumber salad with the spirited addition of shiso ($6); and exceptional white corn and green onion pancakes ($7.50). Each night Vardy creates three main courses, and they are perfect. Some are delicately flavored, such as the fillets of Hawaiian monchong ($22.50), a firm textured, oily pomfret, served atop wakame seaweed, warm cherry tomatoes and zucchini. Other choices, such as rich braised beef, are heftier. This dish, or braised pork shoulder, make it onto the menu from time to time, and both are worth at least an hour's drive for the pleasure of tucking into the dark pottery bowl heaped with slices of rich, fatty meat, greens, mushrooms and bright nuggets of edamame ($21.50-$22.50). The accompanying horseradish adds an extra jolt. It's one of the best braised dishes I've ever had. Desserts are simple -- poached plums with strawberries and blueberries in an aromatic sauce that conjures images of a flower shop ($7), caramel balsamic gelato ($5), Japanese rice pastry with sweet red bean filling ($5) and the signature sherry custard ($5), another item I order every time I dine at O Chame. Part of the allure of dining here is this touchstone of familiar dishes that never go off the menu; the other part is the sophisticated, unfretted surroundings. A large weathered table in the center of the 40-seat dining room is set on an Oriental rug and is topped with a pottery vase of willowy branches and flowers. The terra-cotta walls are etched with mystical scenes that glow seductively, thanks to subtle lights from the soffit ceiling. There's a bar where singles come to dine, and larger booths in back for groups. It's a convivial stop that's low-key and peaceful, which belies the sometimes perfunctory and uninformed service. While the service could use a little shoring up, it's not so annoying as to upset the zen of the experience.
Even after 16 years, Vardy continues to cook with passion -- and restraint. O Chame illustrates everything that's right about "fusion'' cuisine.
Michael Bauer is executive food and wine editor and restaurant critic
for the San Francisco Chronicle.