It’s been about a month since Maker’s Common, the community-funded Berkeley cheese-and-charcuterie market and restaurant, has been open for business. The East Bay expansion of the San Francisco cheese shop and café, Mission Cheese on Valencia Street, is co-run by Sarah Dvorak, Oliver Dameron and Eric Miller, who wanted to open a larger space for their second location. Through a direct public offering, they were able to raise $532,000 from 170 investors to open the University Avenue eatery.
Nosh got a sneak peek inside Maker’s Common just before it opened on July 13, and recently we were invited as guests for lunch. Here’s a look at what we ate on our recent visit:
We started with the pork rillettes, a spreadable, yet chunky spread made of shredded fatty pork and spices. Maker’s Common makes its version of the rustic French paté in-house; we liked that it was a bit chunkier than other versions we’ve tried before. Maker’s Common serves its rillettes in a generous mound on a wooden board with a smudge of stone-ground mustard, a dollop of INNA Jam’s Spring Lady peach preserve, a colorful mélange of pickled vegetables and several slices of toasted baguette.
Next up, we had more charcuterie (when in Rome…). The Farmer’s Plate is a great way to sample several of the prepared meats and cheeses in one go. Choose between a board with two cheese and two meats ($19) or three cheese and three meats ($27). As you can see, we went big. We got a taste of the housemade fennel paté, coppa (Smoking Goose, Indianapolis, IN) and soppressata (Fra’Mani, Berkeley), and three domestically produced cheeses: Sofia, a delicate goat cheese marbled with a line of ash (Capriole; Greenville, IN); Everton, a grassy Alpine-style cheese that’s akin to gruyere in texture (Jacobs and Brichford; Connersville, IN) and Buff Blue, an earthy, rich blue cheese made from buffalo milk (Bleating Heart Cheese; Tomales, CA). Cornichons, dried stone fruits and more baguette slices filled up the board. If you can only choose one starter; we’d recommend the Farmer’s Plate to get a good idea of what Maker’s Common is all about.
Lots of restaurants do some version of mac and cheese, and often it’s decent but unmemorable at best, an overcooked flavorless mush at worst. Since Maker’s Common is a cheese shop, we had high expectations for its Mission Cheese Mac, and fortunately, it lived up to them. Made with a blend of cheddars and washed-rind cow’s milk cheeses — including Cabot Clothbound cheddar and Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel — it’s then topped with crispy bread crumbs. The dish, served in the cast-iron pan it’s prepared in, achieves the three Cs of a good mac and cheese: creamy, cheesy and crunchy. The smooth, rich and flavorful béchamel evenly coated and filled each noodle tube, and the whole shebang had a nice crunch from just enough time in the oven and a generous sprinkling of breadcrumbs.
We sampled Maker’s Common’s take on the New Orleans classic sandwich — the muffaletta. Having just visited the Big Easy in the spring, we still had memories of our last muffaletta — a beast of a sandwich, overflowing with chunky marinated olive salad and layers of salami, ham, mortadella, and provolone cheese, served in a muffaletta — the flat, round bread studded with sesame seeds that gives the sandwich its name.
Maker’s Common doesn’t use muffaletta bread, so technically, this isn’t a muffaletta, but we’ll give it this — it’s still delicious. Maker’s Common fills its version with mortadella, soppressata, Suffolk Punch cheese (a buttery Caciocavallo-style cheese from Parish Hill Creamery in Vermont) and olive relish. A lightly dressed salad of greens is a refreshing side. Note that the picture above shows the sandwich cut into many pieces, but it normally comes halved in two.
We tried two sides: the summery burrata and watermelon salad and a wheat berry salad. The former side is made with Di Steffano burrata, watermelon cubes, pickled red onion, chopped basil and mint and a sprinkling of mint oil, mango powder and Aleppo chili flakes. The star here, of course, is the burrata — the pouch of taut mozzarella easily gives way to soft, rich stracciatella with the prod of a fork — but the combo of creamy cheese, sweet melon, herbaceous basil and mint and acidic and spicy onion satisfies all the tastebuds at once. We didn’t detect the mango powder, but when we asked about it, Dvorak explained its purpose: “It provides a mild tartness that helps to counteract the richness of the burrata,” she said.
The wheat berry salad with roasted cauliflower and carrots also served as an interlude from all the fatty, heavy foods. We liked the chew of the wheat berries, but overall, it was a bit lackluster in flavor in comparison with everything else we tried.
If you can believe it, we sampled one last dish, the whey-brined fried chicken. This entreé is regularly served for dinner from 5 p.m. until close, but we were lucky to get a taste at our lunch. The fried chicken comes with corn on the cob and garlicky sautéed mustard greens. The first bite of chicken is the most satisfying. The coating is golden brown and crunchy without being oily. Just underneath that perfectly crisp crust is a tender, juicy, flavorful bird — the result of eight hours in a whey bath. Whey is the sour liquid byproduct produced during cheesemaking. Like buttermilk, whey can be used to tenderize meats and keep them moist during cooking. The Colonel be damned — this is the classic American fried chicken you picture in your head, but rarely get.
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