Just What the Elmwood Ordered
The Advocate brings upscale Cal-Med dining with its own slant to the neighborhood.
The Advocate puts its spin on flatbread and chickpea and clam fritters.
Photos by Lori Eanes
Almost everything about the Advocate looks forward from the hallmarks of today’s Bay Area dining scene. There’s the wide, open kitchen at the back of the restaurant that puts the chefs in-action and the wood-burning oven on display. There’s the sleek, postindustrial interior design marked by super-high ceilings, exposed steel beams and ducts. A long, abundantly stocked bar runs along one side, and a maze of wood-topped tables and booths of various configurations are amid low-rise dividers in what feels like an acre of airy space. There is also the revolutionary Meyer noise-cancelling, music-friendly sound system that allows you to converse with your dining companion in normal voice and hear Van Morrison or African pop music in crystal-clear audio in the background. And there’s the almost-familiar but unconventional Cal-Med menu that’s designed for sharing and tilts toward the southern and eastern Mediterranean in its use of ingredients and spices.
But the Advocate, the new Elmwood project from Comal owner John Paluska with chef John Griffiths, also conjures the near and distant past—both deliberately and de facto. The bones of the building belong to Wright’s, the automotive garage that stood for many decades at this Ashby address, a couple of doors down from College Avenue. The two sound-absorbing panels on the east wall are giant blown-up prints of old postcards depicting Berkeley in the early- to mid-20th century. And the restaurant’s name comes from a long-gone local publication that, as far as I can tell, almost nobody remembers.
What Robin and I do remember is that Elmwood didn’t have anything remotely like this in 1971 when we moved into an apartment one block north, at Russell Street, in the building that houses Global Exchange and Slash. Very little remains from that time, when a 1950s neighborhood ethos still held sway in the hardware, grocery, book, clothing, furniture, shoe, and variety stores, the hair salons, the barbershop, and two drugstore soda fountains, one in Carter’s, where Roma Cafe is now, and the other, Ozzie’s lunch counter, in Beretta’s Elmwood Pharmacy. Dream Fluff Donuts does still send sweet, greasy plumes of fragrance up the airshaft next to the apartment Robin and I occupied in 1972 after rolling our belongings one block down the sidewalk on top of our double bed. And eras still overlap in the presence of such enduring entrepreneurial enterprises as Lewin’s Metaphysical Bookstore, Sweet Dreams, and Your Basic Bird. The advent of The Advocate, though, is a fresh, gleaming reminder of what is gone—Bott’s, the Ivy Shoppe, Bolfing’s Hardware, Burnaford’s Produce, the New Claremont Market (with Bernardo’s freshly butchered meats), the College Kitchen (with its threat of MSG in the chow mein), and more.
The Elmwood’s culinary evolution has been gradual: better Chinese food at King Yen and Shen Hua, authentic bucatini chi finucchiede sauce at La Siciliana. But the Advocate raises the stakes on the more recent upward momentum of Elmwood eats represented by Ici Ice Cream, Summer Kitchen, the Elmwood Cafe, most dramatically in terms of its size (met with some resistance by Elmwood residents) and in the neighborhood’s first full-fledged bar—one that is both casual enough for a quick drink and sophisticated enough to encourage extended, investigative imbibing.
We experienced dinner at the Advocate in three different formats. First was during the restaurant’s first two weeks, with five members of the “Ozzie’s Survivors” group who still meet for breakfast in Elmwood every Saturday; intense conversation made it tricky to keep track of the various cocktails, starters, salads, and desserts we all shared, but we determined that the early buzz about the smoked and roasted potatoes and the chickpea fries with manila clams was warranted. Next, a month or so later, we dined alone as a couple at the bar, facing the fantastic wall art of organic iron squiggles and eating wood-grilled flatbread, nicely blistered and topped with squash blossoms, feta, spinach, and Gaeta olives. The bartender, John, formerly of Comal, gave us detailed analyses of the craft cocktails, and, with theatrical panache, mixed us several gems. Finally, another week later, we sat at a table for two in the regular dining area, casting an envious eye at the tables next to us where what we didn’t order—thick toasts spread with chicken liver and topped with grapes, charred herbs, and almonds; seared albacore tuna with grilled pole bean salad; and wood-grilled bavette steak with cranberry beans, roasted eggplant, cherry tomatoes, and pickled peppers—beckoned mercilessly. We nonetheless satiated ourselves with a feast of squid on the plancha, carrot soup with saffron yogurt, summer vegetable tagine, and farfalle with braised duck, pancetta, and Swiss chard. We took home leftovers for the next day’s lunch.
Across those three visits—from a menu organized into small plates and starters, medium-size portions of pasta, and large plates or entrées, and from a cocktail list of 10 original concoctions (we didn’t dip into the restrained but unusual and diverse beer and wine offerings)—we sampled enough to come to several conclusions.
Chef Griffiths will take standard starting points of California and Mediterranean cuisine, broadly defined, and challenge your expectations of texture and flavor by conflating techniques and ingredients from near (local farms and ranches) and far (Italy, Spain, Morocco, and points east), without ever going overboard. Things start out sounding familiar—seared squid, ricotta cannelloni, slow-roasted pork loin or shoulder—but you might have to test your memory, consult your smart phone, or ask a server to know what harissa or muhammara or quince saba or ras el hanout or flowering coriander or grilled treviso will taste like and add to the dish. (The servers, consistently cheerful and attentive, seem well schooled to answer.) And still, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the crunch of sweet corn and toasted hazelnuts, the earthy funk of chanterelles and truffled percorino, the tang of pickled fennel and vegetables and salsa verde, or the jolt of that one spicy padron pepper when it shows up in one of Griffiths’ subtle cross-cultural mash-ups.
The same sensibilities of balanced experimentation, precise execution, and sharp presentation inform the routine-sounding desserts (panna cotta, olive oil cake, roasted figs, chocolate cake) and the fancifully named cocktails such as the Belt & Suspenders, the Dust Jacket, Swords in the Dirt, and the Ashby Swizzle. You’ll find bourbon, gin, rum, rye, vodka, mezcal, tequila, and house-made botanical spirits beautifully augmented by various aperitivi, fortified wines, bitters, fruits, flowers, herbs, and spices. But you’ll also be able to drink an exemplary Sazerac or Sidecar.
The Advocate may raise questions about how many upscale restaurants a region can sustain, about how income inequality is shaping the way our society eats, about the impact of a destination restaurant on a neighborhood, and about how people will look back on this point in time another 40 years on. But for this moment, the Advocate seems to be just what the Elmwood ordered.
California-Mediterranean. 2635 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, 510-370-2200, Cocktails $10-$12; starters, salads, and sides $7-$15; pastas $16-$18; entrées $20-$29. Serves dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu. and Sun., 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. CC Full Bar Wheelchair Accessible $$$-$$$$. www.TheAdvocateBerkeley.com.