But two new Berkeley cafes have found something new to offer. In the Gourmet Ghetto, the Bay Area’s first dedicated grain-free restaurant, Mission Heirloom, serves coffee with everything from camel’s milk to butter. Down on University, MeloMelo Kava Bar is introducing customers to drinks made with kava.
The two cafes are very similar. Both are beautiful spaces, filled with little details like Mission Heirloom’s elegant Heath Ceramic dishes and MeloMelo’s lighting system, which changes colors if they’re mentioned on Twitter or Instagram. Both inspire evangelical devotion among their respective fans. And both are expensive, with drinks hovering around the six to seven dollar range. Your impression of them will likely depend on your tolerance for both acquired tastes and alternative health.
It was only a matter of time before the Bay Area got its first paleo eatery. Mission Heirloom, which opened last fall in a former vegetarian Chinese food restaurant, offers an impressive array of options for the modern caveman: not only do they offer breakfast, lunch and dinner, they host classes and events with such Paleo luminaries as Robb Wolf. It’s impressively inclusive and free of every aspect of modern life that could possibly harm you: not only is the food grain, gluten and legume free, they don’t use any plastic and only use steel cookware. Like their neighbors in the Gourmet Ghetto, they’re passionate about sourcing quality ingredients from local farms: their blog is filled with pictures of them visiting the farms where they get everything from eggs to raisins.
The space is large, with a sunny patio in the back that's filled with plants and charmingly mismatched furniture, and they’ve obviously found their niche. During the sunny weekend late morning I’m there, there’s a steady stream of customers, and a line stretches to the door.
The coffee drinks at Mission Heirloom are a far cry from the ones at the original Peet’s up the street. They proudly serve a non-local coffee, Chicago’s Intelligentsia, a bold move in an area that that prides itself on its number of excellent coffee roasters. On their website they say that they were drawn to the roaster for its commitment to developing a Direct Trade relationship with their farmers and emphasizing seasonality. Don’t expect to see any familiar little pink or blue packets, either: the only sweeteners the cafe offers are honey and coconut sugar.
Mission Heirloom gives customers a chance to make any espresso drinks with raw milk, which they source from Organic Pastures in Fresno. Why raw milk? Some believe that consuming milk in its original form, free from pasteurization and processing, is easier to digest. There are also claims that people who are otherwise lactose intolerant can drink raw milk, though that’s been challenged.
“Buying quality dairy products for cooking and drinking is an important part of our mission. While many of our customers cannot tolerate dairy, those that do deserve the best,” explains their website. “Organic raw milk provides beneficial bacteria for our guts in addition to CLA saturated fats and a beneficial ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.”
A raw milk cappuccino tasted startlingly different from one made with traditional milk--even though you could argue that heating the milk for a cappuccino took the edge off its rawness. It’s thicker than the 2% Clover I grew up eating with my Cheerios, with a sweetness and roundness that complements the fruitiness of Intelligentsia’s Black Cat espresso blend.
The bulletproof coffee is weirder. A mix of special bulletproof beans, Straus unsalted butter and “brain octane,” it’s supposed to boost your metabolism, giving you consistent energy throughout the day without any of the crashes typical of a traditional cup.
It’s satisfying, in the comforting way that all all warm-creamy drinks are. Thanks to a whiz in their high powered blender, it’s smooth and rich, with a sharp, somewhat aggressively nutty flavor that masks much of the coffee taste. It’s best drunk while warm. When it cools, it becomes increasingly bitter and the butterfat start to separate, pooling in unappetizing yellow dots on the drink’s surface.
I hadn’t eaten anything that morning, and the bulletproof coffee seemed to work, staving off my hangriness. While normally I would have usually been snapping at my loved ones and rushing to neighboring Cheeseboard for a desperate injection of carbs, my cup of fat left me feeling oddly satisfied, without the usual caffeine crash.
MeloMelo Kava Bar on University also want to help people avoid that crash, albeit in a caffeine-free way. Their bar is the first in the Bay Area to offer a range of drinks made from root of kava, the South Pacific plant that’s been used for thousands of years for its calming and anxiety lessening effects. The owners source the kava from a few different sources around the South Pacific and grind it themselves in-house. Legally, it's classified as a supplement, and it's composed of 18 different active ingredients called kavalactones that produce sedative effects. It’s also pretty gross.
The cafe’s owners, Nico Rivard and Rami Kayali, encourage all first timers to try kava in its pure form. “The only drawback of kava is that it tastes like the earth it's harvested in,” Kayali warns, and accordingly, it looks like mud in my cup and tastes like it too (He euphemistically refers to it as it as having “pepper notes.”) After clinking coconut shells and toasting “bula,” (A Fijian toast meaning “life” or health”), I choke it down, the slices of pineapple they offer a welcome chaser. Almost immediately, my mouth started to tingle. I flash back to my first Sephora purchase, a lipgloss made with cinnamon oil, designed to sting your lips, producing a painfully attractive swollen pout.
Eventually, the tingling disappeared and I started to feel relaxed, my internal CNN ticker tape of constant minor worries and anxieties fading away for a few hours. “It’s relaxing, calming,” Rivard said. “I have bartended with and without kava, and I can tell you that I’m certainly much more on my game after I’ve had a little kava. I usually have sleep problems and now that we’re at the point where we’re drinking it every day, I find that my sleep has improved threefold.”
In an effort to make kava more palatable, Rivard and Kayali offer a few more variations on their menu, including kava mixed with coconut water and tea infused kava (“It tastes like kava flavored Vitamin Water,” my friend observed.) They’re all enjoyable, especially the “kava koncoction” I tried, a velvety mix of cream of coconut and kava (the koncoction changes weekly, depending what look good at the farmers' market).
In the six weeks that the cafe has been open, the cafe has developed a loyal following of locals. On a recent weekday afternoon, a steady stream of customers came through the light-filled, high-ceilinged room. Many were new customers, receiving the bitter initiation, but several were regulars, greeting the owners by name. A Philz barista told me she liked to come there to relax and counteract the effects of chugging coffee all day. Since the cafe is open from 12-12 almost every day, it provides a unique bar-like but alcohol-free environment.
“There isn’t any of the aggressiveness or stupor associated with alcohol bars where you’re like “Oh God, was I an idiot the night before, did I do something stupid? Did I say something stupid?’’ Kayali said (There is, however, the danger of becoming “shell-faced,” their term for anyone who imbibes one too many coconut shells of the bitter drink).
It’s easy to while away the hours at MeloMelo. There’s a couch, board games, and at night, they project movies on the walls. Rivard just bought seven sets of Jenga in preparation for a tournament they're hosting. Sitting at the bar after trying all the variations of kava, I was surprised to find myself craving the bracing original blend, but Kayali said it’s a common reaction.
“Time and again we’ve been noticing that people come back, and after a few drinks, they’ll gravitate back to the traditional serving, and it’s been our best seller,” he said, adding that while they’ll be experimenting with their menu (they currently offer kombucha and yerba mate as well), they’d like to keep it simple and centered around kava. “We like giving that modern twist to this ancient tradition, bringing it and giving it a Bay Area twist.”