I love the East Bay. I just hate getting there. All San Franciscans do (and our friends who live there rightfully mock us for it). It’s the bridge! It’s BART! It’s the random midday standstill traffic for No Freaking Reason! And it’s worse than ever. Our divide is growing wider. Our loyalties are shifting. Our friendships are suffering.
But the food scene… the food scene to the east is flourishing. It has been for a while, of course, as chefs ditch the city for cheaper rents, easier permits, a more laid-back crowd — and mostly for Oakland. Berkeley has fallen behind in the restaurant renaissance. So when a friend who knows her stuff texted me about a promising new spot that opened, in October, out in Albany of all places, I was intrigued. In part, I admit, because it was called Juanita & Maude (chef-owner Scott Eastman’s grandmother and mom, respectively). I’m a sucker for old-lady names.
For a restaurant to lure us — to lure me — anywhere across the bay on a weeknight, it’s got to be good. Fortunately, my first foray beyond city limits as Eater SF critic was worth the commute.
I took the Transbay bus, actually, and it was kind of amazing. I had a clean seat to myself. I watched the sky turn pink and the water sparkle. And it dropped me right there, on the corner of San Pablo and Solano. A sleepy, suburbanesque strip where the only coffee shop was an old-school Royal Ground and the most fashionable restaurant nearby was Rivoli, which opened in, oh, 1994.
“We needed a place like this,” said two different friends from the neighborhood, on two separate visits. By a place like this, they meant a place that’s urbane, organic, and open after 9. A place with locally sourced, lovingly made food, without wailing kids or anything remotely resembling pizza. They mean a place like Juanita & Maude — arguably the best thing to hit the North Berkeley area since… Whole Foods?
Fronted by large windows, the place was light if narrow, with walnut and warm lighting. It felt a little like an East Bay Frances (the Castro’s Michelin-starred spot, named after Melissa Perello’s grandmother). With elevated comfort food to match — and a neighborhood crowd that was more gray than gay.
Coming from a Neverland like San Francisco, I appreciated it. I also valued the oh-so Berkeley vibe. Professorial men wrapped in plaid scarves, frumpy ladies draped in floral prints, a solo dude adorned in a bowtie, and multiple diners absorbed in musty library books. The food itself, though, was anything but: fresh, lively, current.
The menu was more interesting than you’d expect from a quiet neighborhood place cooking “American cuisine." But as the website’s home page explains, this is chef Scott Eastman’s personal take on it — inspired by his varied culinary career cooking at Scandinavian, Japanese, and Italian restaurants. Now, at Juanita & Maude, he’s free to add a splash of Polish or German or French when he feels like it. As our server put it: “The chef felt stifled by the rules.” After almost a decade pulling pasta at Berkeley’s Corso, “he was ready to have some fun.”
Upon first glance, it seemed like maybe he was having a little too much fun, as the menu didn’t quite make sense. Did I really want massive rosemary-chile-marinated Castelvetrano olives with my hamachi crudo with my chanterelle and whipped chevre strudel? As it turned out, I did. Juanita & Maude was like a surprising 23 and Me result: a little bit of everything — and I was into it.
Even if I wasn’t into every dish. The New York steak tasted as firm and flavorless as a poorly cooked pork chop; its accompanying pommes frites were fine, albeit aching for salt. (At $34 dollars for three small slabs, it was also overpriced.)
The quinoa, listed as simply Quinoa, was not much more than that: a seemingly bottomless bowl of bland. I like quinoa at home and, really, anywhere other than Eatsa, but it was a tad too soft, supposedly mixed with soy and pickled chile, as well as a few hunks of shiitake and sprigs of spigarello, but it needed more of all of it. On another night, though, they dubbed the quinoa dish donburi, and it was fiery and flavorful, with shiitake and sesame, citrus and soy vinaigrette. That was a quinoa I could get behind.
But the gnocchi I’d put on a pedestal. I say this as someone who has long ranked gnocchi toward the bottom of her pasta preferences (but above bowtie). Pillowy, potato-y, and perfect, it came touched in a creamy tomato sauce with a splash of sambuca one night, as cacio e pepe on another. Of everything I ate over three nights, it was this simple Parmesan, pepper, and pecorino dish I’m still thinking about.
Actually, the fleshy Hamachi crudo flanked by a mound of superfresh avocado mash is still floating around my mind, too. As is that flaky, savory, phyllo strudel and a dreamy duck sausage with a butter bean ragout. Not to mention my dessert: a chocolate mousse, so 2009 I could barely stand to order it, but I’m glad I did. Buried with cocoa nibs and house-made graham cracker; topped with a sticky, honey-cinnamon meringue; and served up, like an Irish coffee from Buena Vista Cafe, it made chocolate mousse new again.
Would any of it bring me back to Albany on a random Wednesday night? Well, no. But I’m happy for my friends, for all the locals tired of Little Star. They’ve got a new go-to date night in the neighborhood — and if I ever end up moving across the bridge and up the street, it would be mine, too.