The line was down the block by 5:20pm last night in anticipation of the opening of The Advocate, Berkeley’s new restaurant from John Paluska and Andrew Hoffman, the partners behind downtown’s wildly successful Comal.
At The Advocate, they’ve turned their attention to the flavors of Morocco and North Africa in the more general context of clean Mediterranean flavors framed by local ingredients. Chef John Griffiths leads the charge in the kitchen, while Matthew Campbell and Corin Weihemuller (both from Comal) oversee the cocktail program and wine/beer list, respectively.
We got there early enough to be about tenth in line, and were seated and served drinks posthaste. The Mary Elke Brut, a friendly North Coast sparkling wine, is a perfect accompaniment to perusing the menu. The space is beautifully distracting, one wall lined with giant grainy prints of vintage Berkeley postcards, and another with a lyrical sculpture by John Bisbee a Maine-based artist who works only with nails.
The persimmon-colored chairs came from a school in Chicago and almost perfectly match the restaurant’s namesake cocktail, The Advocate, made with City of London gin, luxardo apertivo, cocchi rossa, lemon, and grapefruit zest, which smells like orange soda, but tastes more like the nectar of blood-orange peel.
There are three flatbreads from the wood-burning oven on offer, and we began by sharing the one topped with squash blossom, French feta, spinach, and Gaeta olives. While many flatbreads seem like fancy pizza, this version was more Moroccan in style, hand-formed, roughly rectangular in shape, and crisp on the exterior, but light and chewy inside. Cooked spinach serves as a kind of sauce, and the other ingredients are nicely balanced savory accents.
Next up was my favorite dish of the evening: chickpea fritters with pieces of Manila clam tucked inside the custardy middle, stacked on a classic aioli and garnished with celery-heart salsa. Seared squid was paired with fava beans, avocado, and a deeply resonant muhammara.
Another delightful surprise was the pairing of tomatoes and translucent slices of cucumber with anchovy-sesame sauce, a nice mix of sweetness and umami on the palate.
We knew we were over-ordering, but couldn’t restrain ourselves from continuing. We chose the lightest of the main courses, seared albacore tuna with grilled pole beans, more lovely squash blossoms, and black olives. The fish arrived glistening, barely seared on the bottom, placed on a pretty schmear of olive paste and sprinkled with a bit of Aleppo pepper. And who can resist a proper fried potato? This is one of the best versions I’ve had in ages, big chunks of the nightshade smoked, fried and tossed in a scallion salsa with yet another olive variety, Castelvetrano. And the kicker: egg yolk cured in salt until it is firm enough to grate. Just fabulous.
Dessert was a simple olive oil cake with a scoop of floral pistachio ice cream and some nectarine slices.
Our server made it seem as though the restaurant had been in the neighborhood for years, so well-versed was she in both the food and drinks, and more attentive than seemed possible on opening night.