Maritime East Knows the Ropes
Take a First-Class Voyage Toward Gluttony
Maritime East’s success has everything to do with questions of sustainability. Can it reel in enough customers willing to pay the higher tariffs necessitated by serving fish that is procured without decimating the population or jeopardizing the ecosystem? Can the owners keep their hooks into peripatetic chef Sophina Uong, whose résumé includes Left Bank, Globe, Zax Tavern, Sens and 900 Grayson? And can any eatery find safe, permanent harbor in the relatively isolated Telegraph Avenue location that has seen three respected restaurants—Lucio’s, Mazzini and Zax Tavern—come and go in the 11 years since the long-lived Casa de Eva sailed off into the sunset?
If first impressions were in fact the truest, I’d be pessimistic. Maritime East’s chaotic, chilly, appetizers-only soft opening last fall was a lurching launch at best, and my first visit back made me wonder why anyone would pay $16 for glorified fish and chips delivered by an indifferent server. But partners Mark Mitcheltree and Vadim Vozmitsel have steadied their course, and their decision to birth an East Bay sister to their Cafe Maritime in San Francisco seems to be paying off for all concerned.
When Robin and I lived in the neighborhood, when the Co-op market still occupied the corner of Ashby and Telegraph avenues where Whole Foods now sits, we could walk one block from our flat to Casa de Eva, a Mexican restaurant that seemed to have been there since the days of the Spanish land grants. And we walked that block with increasing frequency once we discovered the chalupas.
We had long since moved to Oakland when Casa de Eva retired from its berth in the late ’90s and Paul Carrera sank a bundle into installing windows, high-tech lighting and a beautiful bar. Despite dishing up especially memorable paella, Carrera’s Luicio’s quickly went belly up and yielded the space to Mazzini, a fine trattoria run by Jim and Laura Maser of Picante fame. Mazzini was succeeded by Zax Tavern, which cultivated a following for its burgers, steaks, duck liver salad and twice-baked goat cheese soufflé.
Maritime East reportedly purchased the Zax soufflé recipe, but it doesn’t show up on the menu, and with chef Uong coming up with starters like Dungeness crab gratinee ($14), a timbale of luscious crab meat tantalizing your taste buds in cahoots with slices of Braeburn apple, blood orange and avocado, who needs yesterday’s soufflé?
Much has been done to make Maritime East distinctive. Designer John Lum tweaked the woody interior into an aquatic ambience (fortunately leaving the New England chowder-house look, highlighted by bright blue-on-white signage, outside). The wall-length curtain of vertical, multicolored sand-filled tubes in the “sand room” is more kitsch than class. But the wall-mounted metal sculpture of conjoined circles in the “bubble room,” the waves of clear plastic tubing evoking underwater currents behind the greeter’s podium, the tin fish-scale sheeting around the pass-through to the kitchen and the 1-inch blue, green and white tiles on the back wall of the bar pick up the nautical theme without going overboard.
But Maritime East’s smartest move was putting Uong in charge of the partially open kitchen and its wood-burning oven. On each of three visits, we encountered a challenge or two: We had to request bread and butter every time; I was charged full price for a terrific Stormy Sunset cocktail (dark rum, ginger, lemon, amaro, $9) during the advertised 5 p.m.–7 p.m. $2-discount “easy hour”; I worked fruitlessly to pry open quite a few undercooked black mussels ($10.50) in an otherwise generous and delicately flavored serving from the wood oven; and a burger ordered well-done arrived almost rare. But these missteps were far outstripped by the delicious results of Uong’s deft, sometimes daring but rarely fussy combinations of ingredients.
The one-page menu may seem limited on first glance. But then you realize it takes a while to read. There are five or six oyster and clam choices from the raw bar and half a dozen starters, including seafood chowder ($10), rocket salad with goat cheese, hazelnuts and watermelon radish ($9.25) and grilled baby octopus ( $12). The wood-oven offerings include flatbread ($8) and two pizzas ($12-$13), giant Ecuadorian prawns ($10) and whole Dungeness crab (market price). The six or seven “dinner plates” cater to seafoodies (Petrale sole, $23; arctic char, $24) and meat lovers (grilled lamb merguez [sausage], $15, and a New York strip steak, $28). And side dishes range from onion rings and fries ($5) to grilled asparagus ($7), wood-fired banana squash with salsa verde ($5) and Meyer lemon linguini ($8). All that calls for some serious decision-making.
In Robin’s case, the choice was easy. Twice she opted for the Neuske’s bacon cheeseburger ($10.50), a Uong carryover from 900 Grayson, with Creekstone beef, a glaze of white cheddar, thick crisp slices of extra-smoky bacon and a heap of deep-fried onion rings all packed into a ciabatta roll and served with herbed fries. A tough critic, she judged her first one a perfect 10. If I’m feeling flush after payday, I would never hesitate to order the whole roasted fish again, having been taken to heaven by a lovely orata (a 7-to-8-inch oval-shaped member of the bream family, $28) with its salty, crispy skin, its moist, flaky flesh and the brilliant “salad” garnish of beets, fennel, orange and olives. If I want to savor Uong’s culinary balancing act, I’d return to the seared-rare Hawaiian tombo tuna ($20), a study in accents, what with the accompanying asparagus, artichokes and turnips and the herbal kick of thyme-like zaatar. For sheer comfort food, I’d again fork over a hard-earned $22 for the “Deviled” Dungeness crab, with chunks of succulent crab meat folded into Meyer lemon linguini floating in fish broth and topped with a poached egg.
A first-class voyage through the now-earthy, now-exotic menu can reach tidal-wave proportions of gluttony, capped by Tuscan olive oil cake ($7), chocolate pot de creme ($7) or miniature coconut cream pie with meringue brulee ($8), along with a specialty coffee drink ($8), a top-shelf port, brandy or cognac ($8–$35) or an aged single-malt scotch ($8–$32). But the neighborhood location (easy parking!), the Thursday-through-Saturday late-night specials after 10 p.m. (including $1 oysters), and the small-plate potential of the starters, sides and wood-oven items, such as a cracker-crisp, thin-crust pizza with asparagus, green garlic, goat cheese and lemon oil ($12), make Maritime East as fine a place to drop into for a quick bite at the bar, with a cocktail or glass of wine ($7–$10) from the extensive list (bottles $26–$88), as it is for an indulgent three-hour cruise.
THE DETAILSMaritime east. Seafood, Mediterranean. Serves dinner 5 p.m.–midnight Thu.–Sat., 5 p.m.–10 p.m. Tue., Wed., Sun. 2826 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, (510) 848-9299, www.maritimeeast.com. Credit cards accepted, full bar, reservations accepted, wheelchair access, $$-$$$.
—By Derk Richardson
—Photography by Lori Eanes
—Photography by Lori Eanes