The lush film Babette’s Feast (1987) is about, among other things, the centrality of food in our lives. Babette, the Berkeley café named after the Danish masterpiece, embodies the same values. When the new BAMPFA (Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive) opened in downtown Berkeley last week, the café that has served both museum-goers and local residents for many years accompanied it into the exquisite Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed space. Incorporated into the existing brutalist architecture is a clean, thoroughly contemporary, and aesthetically spare beauty.
Much has been written about the new museum, and Babette deserves equal attention. Owned and run by husband-and-wife-team Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker, the space is inviting and meditative. On the second floor, long and narrow, with generously spaced tables, the café is a respite from the buzz of all the heady art below, and the food is a wonderful combination of elegant and homey.
One of the signature dishes from the former location made its way onto the new menu: a trio of salads that changes monthly. You can order them separately or as a combo. The current trio is a roasted carrot, harissa and olive salad with chickpeas and cilantro, with a nice kick of heat; winter tabouleh of barley, feta cheese, cashews and parsley; and roasted beets with apples, walnuts, chicories, with pomegranate vinaigrette. All are flavor-saturated and speak to all the senses.
Main courses are small and satisfying. We ordered the tamarind-glazed lamb riblets, which Ellis recounts she and Hooker invented on a recent drive up to Wine Country. The beautifully fatty ribs, finger food, are plated with broccolini with sriracha vinaigrette, a nice counterpoint to the sweet tanginess of the tamarind, pickled Asian pear and mashed sweet potatoes. A study in contrasts, the tender olive oil-braised pork shoulder is served atop mashed white beans with pleasingly bitter, earthy grilled radicchio, all doused with gremolata.
There is no wine list yet, but it’s in the works. Sit up near the counter where the action happens or down by the windows looking down, at various angles, onto gallery spaces. By all accounts, the launch of the new Babette has been a community affair. A former employee designed playful t-shirts of animal characters feasting around a dining table. And a friend designed a logo for mugs and other Babette-ware.
The previous incarnation of the café served only breakfast and lunch; these continue at the new space, but dinner is a new and welcome offering. This is some of the loveliest food you can get in a casual, affordable setting anywhere in the East Bay.