Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Fava Is All About Balance

The tiny North Berkeley lunch spot serves fresh, rustic meals full of herbs and veggies, but don't forget the chocolate chip cookie for dessert.

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Some chefs dream of white tablecloth, three-Michelin-star glory. But Sylvie Osborne-Calierno and Jeremy Scheiblauer, a duo of chefs and best friends, had other plans in mind.

"We always knew we wanted a tiny little spot," Osborne-Calierno said. So when they heard that the 42-year-old Juice Bar Collective on Vine Street was closing, they jumped at the chance to carve out their own tiny slice of North Berkeley.

It's not that Osborne-Calierno and Scheiblauer lacked the pedigrees to open a larger restaurant. The friends met cooking at Chez Panisse 12 years ago, and both went on to open other restaurants — Osborne-Calierno with Toto, a brunch restaurant in Barcelona, Spain, and Scheiblauer with Heyday, a lunch spot in San Francisco's Financial district. Both ultimately returned to Chez Panisse, where they were working until Fava's opening.

Alice Waters' guiding principles are evident in the food that comes out of Fava's kitchen: the insistence upon fresh, top-quality ingredients, simply prepared without relying on fancy equipment. But Fava drops the French cooking techniques, the four-course format, and the triple-digit price tag in favor of a shoebox-sized, counter-service only restaurant, equipped with compostable plates and a few outdoor folding tables and chairs.

With such a small space, the duo had to pare down Fava's menu to just the essentials: a few salads, sandwiches, and a daily soup, plus fresh juices and sesame-chocolate chip cookies.

"It really gives you constraints that sometimes maybe feel a little tight," Osborne-Calierno said. "But at the same time, it really forces you to really hone down and get to the real soul of what you're trying to do."

Fava's style isn't easy to distill into a few words or labels, but the menu, which happens to be entirely housemade and organic, is clearly Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influenced. Latin American influences also make their way onto the menu, albeit more subtly. "We don't really feel pegged to any one culture," Osborne-Calierno said. "We just make things that taste good."

The lamb flatbread is one of the restaurant's best sellers, and for good reason. The bread itself, which lies somewhere between naan and pita, is made in-house every day with whole wheat flour. The last bit of cooking gets done on a plancha, giving it the same effect as freshly made bread. The bread was delightfully airy, chewy, and elastic, with a touch of crispness around the edges and a nutty, toasty flavor. On top of the flatbread was a smear of harissa, which lent bright color and a punch of cumin. Layered on top of that were tender, juicy slices of lamb shoulder braised in a tomatoey broth — "grandma-style," Osborne-Calierno calls it, as opposed to French cooking techniques that incorporate mirepoix and wine. Dollops of creamy, rich yogurt topped the lamb, followed by crunchy red cabbage tossed with a touch of vinegar. The crowning glory was a copious handful of mint, dill, and cilantro.

At first, I was taken aback by how many herbs were on top of the flatbread, and since you're eating it open-faced, you're likely to end up with an entire sprig of mint sticking out of your mouth at some point. But the whole thing was surprisingly well-balanced, and it struck me how the herbs and vegetables shone just as brightly as the lamb. The herbs also kept the sandwich light and refreshing, which was a minor miracle considering that lamb is such a fatty, richly flavored protein. "We don't believe in there being too [many] herbs," Osborne-Calierno laughed. "We like to treat herbs like they're a lettuce, like they're a vegetable."

Fava's menu is primarily vegetable-focused — every other item on the menu when I visited was vegetarian. I particularly enjoyed the escarole salad. The slight bitterness of the crisp, lightly dressed leaves was perfectly balanced by slices of juicy melon, while housemade chile almonds added a little earthiness and spiciness. Bulgur wheat served double duty, not only by making the salad more filling, but also by brightening it up with plenty of lemon juice. The most striking part was the leaves of purple basil on top, which added an unexpected pop of color and flavor.

"I like the purple basil ... it kinda looks crazy," said Osborne-Calierno. "[We] kinda try to be a little crazy, spice up North Berkeley a little bit."

Also on offer was a hummus bowl with roasted eggplant, topped with cherry tomatoes, French feta, red cabbage, and purslane. The hummus was exceptionally smooth with plenty of tahini flavor, while the golden tomatoes were firm and perfectly ripe. I appreciated the use of French feta here, which provided a punch of salt with a creamier, milder flavor than its Greek and Bulgarian counterparts. Like all the other dishes I tried, it was also a beautiful dish to look at, with the green purslane and purple cabbage dominating the dish with little golden tomatoes shining like gems amid a background of hummus.

For maximum Instagrammability, try one of the brightly colored yet not-too-sweet housemade juices to enhance the look of your meal. I particularly loved the mango lassi, which was creamy and tangy with plenty of real mango flavor. The hibiscus lemonade and green juice, on the other hand, were refreshing and tart.

A rotating selection of soups and sides rounds out the menu. I wasn't a big fan of the side of roasted sweet potatoes. Though they were perfectly roasted and caramelized, they needed a little salt for balance.

The soups, though, are worth ordering. On one of my visits, it was a warm tomato soup with firm chickpeas and a dollop of zesty, creamy lime yogurt; on another, it was a red lentil soup topped with a drizzle of lemon oil for an unexpected citrusy kick.

Don't leave Fava without one (or more) of the sesame chocolate chip cookies. The sesame provided a nutty flavor and subtle richness to the cookie, while giving it a chewier-than-usual texture. Best of all, the cookies used dark chocolate wafers rather than chocolate chips, which provided luscious pools of fruity, bitter dark chocolate.

No, it's not health food. But like everything else at Fava, it's all about balance. Asked whether Fava will open for dinner one day, the duo said they'd like to stick to lunch hours — and possibly breakfast one day — so they can balance cooking with having an actual life outside of the kitchen, which is a rarity in the restaurant industry.

Osborne-Calierno is the mother of 5-year-old twins. When Scheiblauer isn't cooking in the kitchen, he's busy playing synths in his post-punk, new wave band called Vandal Moon. Sure, the duo is ushering a youthful, casual vibe with plenty of fresh flavors into North Berkeley — but unlike generations before them, they won't sacrifice having a balanced lifestyle.

"I don't think moms should have to choose between 'I'm either a mom or I'm a chef,'" Osborne-Calierno said. "We are all these things at once, and that's really important." 

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