The Benefit of the Doubt
Cuisine traditions converge nicely at the stunning Fourth Street newcomer Pompette, but the restaurant’s service is still finding its footing.
Sleek Pompette pleases.
Photos by Lori Eanes
When David Visick decided to return to the restaurant world, he could hardly have found a more favorable location than the space occupied for the past two decades by Marsha McBride’s Café Rouge. McBride had cultivated tremendous good will with her elegantly comfy restaurant and top-flight butcher shop. And the setting, in the heart of the bustling Fourth Street retail district, is prime real estate for foot traffic and destination dining. So, after refreshing the interior, refinishing the spectacular zinc-topped bar, and creating a kitchen-facing counter and a dining nook where the butchery and walk-through to the Pasta Shop used to be, chef Visick and his front-of-house-managing wife, Caramia, hit the ground running with Pompette.
Visick was inculcated in California cuisine farm-to-table principles when he first cooked locally at Chez Panisse. Caramia’s fine-dining resume includes stints at Oliveto, Zuni, and Stars. But David spent much of the past decade or more working as a high-end private-event chef and assisting Caramia in her jewelry business, Hotcakes Design, and retail shop, Favor. Their respective sensibilities have come together in a beautifully appointed, airy space, with white walls, gray coved ceilings, bare wood tables, long banquettes, loft seating, and distinct light fixtures (fluted column sconces, hanging globes, track spots, and tulip pendants over the bar). The refined but casual feel and daily-changing menu put an original spin on what made Café Rouge a cornerstone of West Berkeley culture.
Visick’s blend of California, French, and Mediterranean culinary traditions is reflected in the range of starters, which on our dinner and lunch visits included escabeche on Acme toast (mussels, wild fennel, and aioli on levain; almonds, fennel, celery, and aioli on rye), rabbit compote, halibut brandade, fennel and beet greens soup, and Monterey squid and Manila clams in tomato saffron broth, as well as a variety of Fatted Calf charcuterie, and snack portions of olives and almonds. Among the salads were warm carrot with rocket, ruby grapefruit with beets and avocado, roasted cauliflower and grilled escarole, artichokes and asparagus with fava beans and baked ricotta, and a simple romaine with cucumbers and an herbed buttermilk dressing.
We got off to a great start at dinner: “Pompette” translates as “tipsy,” which manifests as “House,” “Classic,” and you-name-it cocktail offerings, from which we enjoyed a balanced rye Manhattan and a citrus-forward cognac Sidecar. We sipped them as we tore into an order of Acme bread and butter, and relished the aforementioned mussels escabeche, at once garlicky, briny, tart, and crunchy, and the plate of artichokes, asparagus, and favas, the embodiment of spring, with sharp salsa verde playing off the rich, warm ricotta.
The boules de picolat (pork and beef meatballs in spicy tomato sauce) were fantastic.
Unfortunately, a food runner brought our entrées before the starters had arrived. They went back to kitchen. When they returned after our first course, my boules de picolat (pork and beef meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce with Picholine olives and white beans) arrived so steaming hot that it was 10 minutes before I could find the fantastic flavors. Robin’s otherwise exquisitely rendered grilled monkfish with chickpeas, preserved lemon, broccoli di ciccio, and garlic-parsley butter was barely lukewarm. The temperature discrepancies didn’t ruin the dishes, but they were especially notable when paying roughly $6 per meatball (four to an order) or $27 for monkfish. A shared ample pour of a hearty Cote du Rhone from the list of mostly French and Italian (and a few California) wines took some of the edge off. And a sturdy almond cake topped with fresh whipped cream provided a fine grace note to the meal, although strawberry flavor drowned the tartness in the pool of what was advertised as rhubarb compote.
We returned for lunch on a gorgeous spring afternoon, and Pompette’s ambience, with patio seating beyond sliding doors that welcome light and air into the main dining room, brightens even more in such pleasant weather. By 1:30 p.m., the dishes that called to us—grilled salmon and bucatini alla Bolognese—had already sold out, so we comforted ourselves with a heaping plate of pommes frites and aioli, among the best thin-cut, stay-crispy fries we’ve had (and plentiful enough to last through the meal and warrant a $7 tariff), and, for me, an absolutely beguiling mezcal, Combier, chartreuse, and lime cocktail called La Sarriette.
Chef and owners David and Caramia Visick blend California, French, and Mediterranean culinary traditions.
Everything involved in the roast chicken salad Robin ordered was perfectly fresh and vividly plated, but the dish was really a deconstructed assemblage of discreet salads—rocket, frisée and purple daikon, cucumber, carrot—accompanying a mound of tender, juicy chicken. My high-concept tuna melt was much more satisfying, with the olive oil–poached fish accented with spring onion and celery and smothered in Pilota Onetik cheese, a Basque sheep’s and cow’s milk blend that melts lusciously. Nonetheless, I was glad we ordered the fries, otherwise I would still have been hungry and forced to order a strawberry shortcake, chocolate cinnamon pot de crème, honey orange panna cotta, pastis-scented rice pudding, or sorbet-sherbet combo.
During our lunch, there was a service shift. Our waiter departed without telling us, no one looked in on us for at least 15 minutes, and it took another 10 or 15 to get a check, but only after Robin stood up, walked to the door, waited, and walked back to the table. Pompette had been open slightly more than a month, and so the service deserved the benefit of the doubt, especially during this weird dining bubble with restaurants opening and shuttering left and right, and staffing being a serious issue; it was one of the causes McBride cited for Café Rouge’s closure. The Visicks have taken on a sizeable (110-seat) challenge in a climate seemingly more hospitable to either $200-plus tasting menus or minimally staffed fast-casual formats. And if it takes a while for the entire operation to synchronize, all the other parts of Pompette are lovely enough to warrant measured if not giddy optimism.
Moroccan-spiced Sonoma lamb.
California-Mediterranean. 1782 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-356-4737. Snacks and starters $5-$23, salads $11-$13, sandwiches and entrées $14-$27, desserts $7, House and Classic cocktails $12, wines by the glass $9-$14, by the bottle $30-$92, soft drinks, beer, cider $3-$9. Serves lunch, dinner, and brunch, Mon.-Wed. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Thu.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. PompetteBerkeley.com CCG☎ $$$-$$$$