Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bendean - Berkeley, Ca


So I liked my last experience a lot, Scott had been wanting to try it, and we were hungry and in Berkely on a Sunday, so we went to Bendean for a full meal.

I had been on Solano Ave earlier doing some shopping and homework-ing and had checked out the previous night's menu in the window at Bendean. I was pleasantly surprised to see that about 30% of the menu was different just from the previous night (a Saturday to a Sunday, no less!)

I've really begun to see in action what the force of a dynamic, talented, and committed chef-owner can do to keep a restaurant from getting stagnant. On this night, chef Lance Dean Velasquez patrolled the dining room, greeting customers, chatting about food, clearing and resetting tables, etc. He's not just there, he's present.

Me and Chef Scott

The Space:
Small but well-spaced fifty-seat dining room divided into a lounge-ish area with a handful of high tables and a dining room with a mix of stand-alone four tops along one wall and two-tops along a banquette against the other. Stylish--perhaps overly so--(a little too Restoration Hardware-y remarked Scott) furniture and fixtures with a closed kitchen. Nice, not too loud, but a little too industrial-stark even for my tastes.

The Wine:
You know, this day included a lot of subsequent drinking and I can't remember more than that it was a 2004 Austrian Gruner Veltliner and that it was nice, warm and apple-y with great mineral notes with a finish that was just a touch too acidic.

The wine list itself is fairly small but diverse and well-tailored to the eclectic menu.

First Course:
We opted to try something that Bendean's become known for, chef Lance Velasquez's pork chile rojo. We got it in the form of something called "tostitos." These are ostensibly the same format (as far as I could tell) as the tostaditas you see on some tapas menus--three small discs of fried tortilla piled with tender, slightly spicy pork and some traditional garnishes. The pork was tender and the whole dish was delicious and warming. Nothing remarkable, just tasty.

Our other starter were steamed Fox Island mussels with french fries and aioli. This dish was out of this world--mussels were steamed to the point of tenderness in a rich, creamy, lemony broth that was, to say the least, "retarded." That means good, somehow. The fries were thin and crisp, great with either the creamy, mildly garlicky aioli or dipped in the incredible broth. One of the simplest (and delicious-est) mussels preparations I've had.

I ordered the curried french lentils with cucumber-yogurt raita. The lentils were cooked perfectly, still firm but not at all hard. Most importantly they weren't cooked to mush. The dish was rich in with curry spices that were warming to almost-hot levels. It was a perfect flavor-spiciness and not just capsaicin-spiciness. Building on the eclectic nature of Bendeans menu, a handful of mirepoix vegetables were cooked with the lentils that included incomparably sweet carrots. Whiel I would've liked a bit more of the cooling raita to swirl in and the accompanying lentil-flour crepe was somewhat flavorless, this was still the best vegetarian dish I've had in recent memory.

Scott opted for the chicken pot pie, essentially a piece of puff pastry smothered in a thick and rich chicken and vegetable gravy with a second puff pastry on top. While a few pieces of chicken were a little bit tough, most of it was tender and flavorful. The gravy was thick without being lumpy or gooey and the same ridiculous carrots reappeared in more generous portions. With all of these strong but simple flavors the puff pastry was almost an afterthought--not that it wasn't good (it was what puff pastry should be), it just didn't lend any extra weight (other than caloric heft) to the dish.

After two visits, dessert seems to be Bendean's one somewhat weak point. Like the lemon poppyseed cake on my visit, our chocolate gingerbread cake was bright with flavor but overly dry. Additional whipped cream could've mitigated this, but I'd much rather have a moister cake. The lines of thick dark chocolate ganache decorating the plate were very good and chocolatey and would've been welcomed in greater quantity. In the future, I'll need to give the bread puddings a try.

In Conclusion:
Bendean has firmly placed itself among my favorite restaurants. The execution from the kitchen that I've experienced has been comparable in quality to Chez Panisse Cafe andVelasquez seems committed to a menu that takes risks and challenges diners. With a menu that changes seemingly daily, Bendean also has a reason to keep frequent diners coming back.

Cuisine: Cal-Med/Eclectic
Entree price range: $15-$22
HFF's cost for two (two starters, two entrees, one dessert, one bottle of wine, tax, 20% tip): $120.
Reservations: 510-526-3700
1647 Solano Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94706

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