Berkeley's tony Fourth Street commercial district is a swell place to shop for a davenport, a scarf, a rattle, or a paperback; relax with a latte and watch the world go by; stretch and soak at a high-end spa; or dine in some of the city's best eateries. This half-mile stretch of brasseries and boutiques wasn't always so posh, of course. A century ago, the area was home to a bustling community of waterfront factories and workingman's cottages (and one enduring restaurant, Spenger's), but by the 1960s it was on the decline. Then, in the late Seventies, the Abrams/Millikan & Kent design firm purchased the parcel from the city and transformed it into a high-end shopping and dining corridor.
Today the area is as inviting as ever. Pastel nouveau-Mediterranean stucco mingles with reclaimed industrial sheds, lofts, and factories to create a pleasantly haphazard mix of architectural styles. Benches, trees, and wide brick sidewalks encourage strolling and setting. Upscale tenants offer festive window-shopping, there's live music now and then, and the occasional passenger train adds a touch of last-century glamour. This ever-evolving shopping district has lost a few tenants in recent years, but in late August, Zut!, a new Mediterranean restaurant, opened in the acclaimed Fourth Street Grill's old quarters. (The name comes from the French Zut alors!, an expression of mild surprise that roughly translated means Dang! or Blimey!)
It's owned by Denny Abrams and Rick Millikan, the designers who purchased and developed the district thirty years ago, and the place fits perfectly into the whole Fourth Street milieu. Sidewalk tables, sliding glass windows, and a retractable skylight let diners interact with the world outside. The interior is as classy as any of the showrooms up the street, with a rich chocolate/amber color scheme lit by clear-glass grapevine chandeliers, and bare wooden tables, rough beams, and copper-edged mirrors adding rustic accents. A festive, cafe-themed mural by Danville's Emily Farish wraps around two walls of the main dining room, there's a zinc-topped bar with beautiful custom-cast glass shelving, and a thoughtful mix of cool jazz, R&B, and Cole Porter adds to the restaurant's warm, festive ambience. The house cuisine is regional Mediterranean, and executive chef Jim Wimborough (Kokkari, Rubicon, Boulevard) combines spices, concepts, and cooking techniques from North Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe with protein and produce from small local farms and ranches into dishes that are inventive and usually tasty — if not always well executed.
The sliced ahi, for instance, was beautifully arranged on a bed of really terrific charred beets and a green lentil vinaigrette that would be good spooned over stale Wonder Bread, but the fish itself didn't have that creamy-dreamy texture you want and expect from seared, nearly raw tuna. The spiced half-chicken was served with a wonderful olive-pistachio relish and warm, smoky fingerling potatoes, but the chicken was fairly dry and not particularly spicy to boot. Thick slabs of pork hot from the rotisserie were also on the tough side and were ribboned with a little too much fat, even for us, but the peppery arugula and spicy, creamy polenta that shared the platter sure were tasty.
The starters were a better bet. Lamb meatballs arrived at the table hot, juicy, and fork-tender with lots of smoky flavor and a rich, thick tomato sauce fortified with mashed ripe avocado. Crisp, cracker-thin pizza burbled with creamy mozzarella, nutty parmesan, and sharp pecorino (random branchlets of stinging nettle didn't contribute much, though). And the chorizo-stuffed squid was an unexpected treat: Its mildly briny flavor was perfectly balanced against the peppery sweetness of the sausage and the tangy lemon and warm souk-bazaar spices that accented it.
Vegetarians will find plenty of meat-free options on the Zut! menu. Start your meal with a meze platter of hummus, baba ghanoush, and roasted pepper spread; fried Padrón peppers with lemon and sea salt; or one of the four seasonal salads (greens with sunflower seeds, romaine with radicchio and scallions, tomato with cucumber and feta, or arugula with nectarines and shaved fennel on our visit). Two of the daily pizzas tend to be meatless — perhaps a classic tomato-basil-mozzarella and the three-cheese with stinging nettles. There's usually a meatless pasta on the menu (bucatini with tomatoes, parmesan, and pine nuts, say), as well as a few veggie side dishes.
The well-chosen fifty-item wine list focuses primarily on French and Italian vineyards, with a few small California wineries thrown in. Most are in the $30-$50 range; sixteen are available by the glass. The beer list is brief yet impressive (Ayinger Brauweisse and Bison Chocolate Stout are two of the options), and the bar shakes up half a dozen inventive house cocktails, including the brisk, refreshing Maltese (vodka, grapefruit, mint, and a splash of ouzo) and the rounder, sweeter Agrume (gin, lime, grapefruit bitters, and elderflower syrup). The house-made mint lemonade, meanwhile, is a pleasantly light and fizzy nonalcoholic sipping option.
Dessert was the best part of the meal. There was a lush, silky pot de crème made with unrefined muscovado sugar that gave it a deep, rich, toffee-like flavor. The sourdough bread pudding, like the ahi and the chicken, had a dry, overdone texture, but it tasted nice and buttery, and several plump golden raisins juiced things up nicely. And the strawberry granita was dreamy: bright, cool, and refreshing, it tasted like honest-to-God freshly plucked strawberries distilled into a sherbet glass, and was served with several chopped-up, candy-sweet ruby-red strawberries on top and a delicate little strawberry-jam linzer cookie on the side. Enjoy it out on one of the sidewalk tables with a glass of vin santo or a cup of Moroccan mint tea while you take in the October sunshine and count the passing shopping bags.