Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Elmwood Cafe (Brunch/American), Berkeley, CA

Are you Berkeley enough? Elmwood is. This restaurant/coffee shop/people watching spot truly makes College Avenue what it is - a haven for everything I love about this city. The multitude of ethnic markets, pot shops, and dream catcher weavers would seem out of place without this world-class brunch establishment anchoring the block. Lines filled with educated undergrads and ravenous residents from neighboring neighborhoods start forming early in the morning and stretch throughout the day. Locals aren't the only fans of Elmwood, though; visiting speakers, tourists, and high school students from out of town flock here after treks around the campus a few blocks North. They do so for good reason - Elmwood is THE spot for a trendy brunch in the East Bay.

I went to Elmwood with a friend after touring the Berkeley campus back in June. Miraculously, no line awaited our arrival. Waltzing straight up to the vintage marble counter, we ordered a pair of Poached Egg Sandwiches, a Blackberry Coffeecake (for me), and a Blueberry Scone (for him). Sitting down at the "bar", a solid slab of marble attached to the coffee station, I noticed for the first time the ridiculous amount of drink-forming-contraptions behind the barrier. Espresso makers, French presses, strainers, Percolators, and other foreign machinery lined both walls, forming a caffeinated gauntlet. Lamenting my lack of hyperactivity, I got up to order a Cafe Au Lait, but was sidetracked by the array of "French Cream Soda" syrups marinating on the window sill. Deciding coffee would affect the hue of my pearly whites, I opted for a Peach soda and returned to my maroon bar stool.

All the food arrived simultaneously, with the drink floating over the bar to my right as egg sandwiches and pastries joined it from the left. The portions were personal, aka small, and pricey. Though disillusioned by the expense, I pushed forward and sunk my teeth into the poached egg. Wow. Perfectly cooked bacon (organic Niman Ranch bacon, to be precise) added a delicious smokiness to the otherwise excellent egg (equally organic). Underneath, tomato (notably organic as well), herbed mayonnaise, and arugula (organic-ness unspecified) added notes of a summer garden. The fresh baked ACME Bread Roll containing it all soaked up the juices of the tomato and ovum alike, allowing the whole sandwich to avoid degradation into an arugula salad topped with bacon.

Next, I sipped my Peach soda. Double wow. I never knew soda could be so beautiful. Fresh peach flavor mixed with the silo of cream I dumped atop the drink and mixed in. It tasted almost dessert like, yet surely cost me no more than 200 calories. The second dessert-like item, the Blackberry Coffeecake (triple wow), cost me upwards of 2,000. Rich and delicious, the thick treat made my arteries feel like Chris Christie's after his third Big Mac. Each bite contained firm little bits of peach and blackberry and almost no sign of blackberry seeds, the bane of my existence (I mean, the fruit would be perfect without seeds, am I right?!). My friend adored his scone, claiming it was the "best he ever ate", and cradled it like a newborn child. To further elaborate on his adoration, he noted the perfect thickness and multitude of berries, a pair of compliments I was unable to confirm as he refused to let me try it. Finishing our pastries, we reluctantly walked out of the shop, and back to the bus stop.

Any doubt I once held about the excellence of Elmwood vanished after that trip. Since then, I have returned twice, ordered the same meal, and been equally happy both times. Even now, I dream of the perfectly runny, lightly salted egg and thick coffeecake that accompanies it. Long story short, this restaurant is a gem in a city chalk-full of gems. Though it lacks the "grunge" of the University District, it has charms of its own (namely the food). For people slightly frightened by the happenings on Telegraph, too poor for Chez Panisse on Shattuck, yet curious enough to check out the "tamer" side of the city, College Avenue, and its flagship restaurant Elmwood Cafe, is the place to be.

Elmwood Cafe on Urbanspoon

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