If there’s one thing that the two guys behind downtown spot Comal know how to do, it’s create a buzzy restaurant. John Paluska and Andrew Hoffman held the second of two “friends and family” nights at their new, second Berkeley restaurant, The Advocate, in the city’s Elmwood neighborhood, on Thursday night. And already, you just know it’s going to be fun trying to get a table at this place once it opens to the public on Friday, Aug. 7.
The 3,400-square foot space at 2635 Ashby Ave. — once part of the old Wright’s Garage — has been transformed into an airy, modern restaurant whose decor has echoes of Comal, but retains its own personality. It seats 100 comfortably with room for about 14 at the bar, where bar manager Matthew Campbell has concocted an intriguing menu of hand-crafted cocktails. Like Campbell, Corin Weihemuller, the new restaurant’s wine director, has come over from Comal to see the new restaurant bedded in.
Berkeley-based Abueg-Morris Architects designed both restaurants, and similarities include the booths with built-in wooden benches, the large open-plan kitchen, complete with wood-burning stove, and exposed structural elements such as beams and ventilation pipes. A large, distinctive art-work made up of squiggly lines by Maine-based sculptor John Bisbee covers much of the wall behind the bar.
Many of the design elements are locally sourced, however, including the blown-glass lights created by Lee Miltier, and the custom sound system Berkeley’s Meyer Sound has installed to ensure everyone can hear themselves speak. The sound quality is enhanced by padding between the ceiling joists and two large sound boards disguised as works of art — in fact, blown-up vintage postcards depicting Berkeley scenes that were the brainchild of artist Deborah O’Grady.
While the color palette is muted, made up of soft taupes and lemon tiles in the kitchen, shots of color are provided by a wall of aqua-hued tile at the entrance and midcentury-style orange padded chairs — an eBay find, according to co-owner Hoffman.
Nosh was invited to enjoy a complimentary dinner at the restaurant while it was in preview mode, and started with two cocktails: The Advocate (City of London gin, luxardo aperitivo, cocchi rossa, lemon and grapefruit zest — $11) and a Dust Jacket (Advocate botanicals spirit no. 1, cappelletti aperitivo, alesio chinato and bergamot — $12). The latter is Campbell’s take on a Negroni, made with one of the many infused spirits created in-house with ingredients ranging from ginger to chrysanthemums and summer berries.
Other drinks include the Ashby Swizzle (Banks 5-year rum, anchor Old Tom gin, lime, grapefruit, ginger and pistachio — $11), and Interstate Love Song (St. George Green Chile Vodka, cimarron tequila, green chartreuse, line and pineapple — $11).
For the early days of opening, Executive Chef John Griffiths has devised a short but appealing menu of dishes inspired, the restaurant says, by southern Mediterranean and Moroccan/North African cooking, all viewed through a Northern Californian lens.
Wood-grilled flatbreads will be a constant — just as soon the kitchen has ironed out some wrinkles on the recipe front. The three listed on the menu — confit cherry tomatoes, burrata and basil ($12); squash blossoms, French feta, spinach and Gaeta olives ($13); and pork sausage, eggplant, preserved lemon and chermoula ($13) – were not available on Wednesday night because, as Hoffman put it, the yeast-based dough did not behave itself “when it was woken up in the morning.”
Starters include a carrot soup with ras el hanout, pickled vegetables, dates, saffron yogurt ($10), roasted cauliflower with green harissa and ginger ($10) and smoked and fried potatoes with Castelvetrano olives, scallion salsa and cured egg yolk ($10). There’s also a “Today’s ricotta” with charred spring onions, herbs and grilled Acme levain ($9), and chickpea fritters with Manila clams, celery heart salsa verde and aioli ($12).
Entrées run the gamut from squid on the plancha with muhammara, fava bean salad, yogurt and walnuts ($16), gnocchi sardi with lamb sausage, tomato, brocolli di cicco and olives ($18), and wood-grilled beef short rib with stewed peppers, eggplant and lentils — at $29, the most expensive dish on the menu.
While there were fewer vegetarian or vegan dishes than might be expected at a Bay Area restaurant, Hoffman said this would not necessarily be the case going forward. The menu is deliberately concise while the kitchen finds its feet in the first few weeks, he said.
Nosh tried two of the restaurant’s three listed desserts: the olive oil shortcake with poached peaches, peach leaf gelato and almond meringue ($10), and the honey-roasted figs with lightly whipped cream, pistachio-phyllo crisps and sumac ($10). The other choice was a panna cotta with strawberries and lavender cookies ($10).
The wine list comprises only Californian bottles, mainly from small-batch producers such as Donkey & Goat and Broc Cellars, both based in Berkeley, Sandhi Wines in Rita Hills, Poco a Poco in Sonoma, and Copain in Mendocino County.
The beer offerings include draft IPA and Kolsch-style ale from San Francisco’s Fort Point Beer Company, and bottles of Pt. Bonita Pilsner from Headlands Brewing Co. in Davis, and 1500 Pale Ale from Drake’s in San Leandro.
Given that Nosh visited on only the restaurant’s second night in operation, the kitchen seemed to be functioning remarkably smoothly and service was swift, friendly and professional. As at Comal, and an increasing number of local restaurants, The Advocate applies a 20% service charge to all checks in lieu of tips.
Hoffman, who mentioned that sleep has been something of a luxury for him of late, said he was delighted with the front-of-house staff he has recruited. A total of 50 employees were hired and trained in the past two weeks alone. Good kitchen staff prove much harder to find than wait staff, he said. Needless to say, a few Comal veterans have been commandeered to help the new venture in its opening phase, he said.
Hoffman’s business partner John Paluska, meanwhile, remarked that opening a restaurant is no easy task.
“I have learned that you can never judge a restaurant in its first month because so many things can go wrong,” he said.
Beyond faulty light switches or uncooperative flatbread dough, Paluska and Hoffman had to contend with a very long gestation period for The Advocate. The pair began planning the new Elmwood restaurant in the summer of 2013, although they were aware that a previous attempt to open a restaurant in the space had been unsuccessful following a lawsuit brought by a group known as the Elmwood Neighborhood Association.The same group lodged an appeal and then filed suit to put a halt to the Advocate project, arguing that the new upscale eatery would cause unacceptable parking and traffic problems. The suit was settled in September 2014.
So it’s fair to assume that the pleasure the two derived from seeing the new restaurant finally open and full of people this week was tinged with an element of sheer relief.
The Advocate is at 2635 Ashby Ave. (at College) in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood. It opens for dinner on Friday Aug. 7. Dinner hours are 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Weekend brunch should follow soon afterwards. The restaurant does not take reservations. Tel: 510-370 2200. Connect with The Advocate on Facebook and visit the restaurant’s website.
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