Eleven years ago, Grégoire Jacquet opened a tiny takeout joint around the corner from Chez Panisse. In the shadow of that old, shingled Victorian, Jacquet filled his wooded shack with the stuff of a Francophile's dreams, with the same tastes that first tickled Alice Waters' food fancy. We're talking classic, butter-steeped French fare. But this time, it comes in a cardboard box.
Grégoire has made name for itself as both the most charming picnic table in Berkeley, and the finest takeout you'll find anywhere. It's the kind of place you'll find truffle essence on your fries, chestnut stuffing in your chicken, and fig mousse on the dessert menu. It's the kind of place that puts proscuitto-flecked scallops on a salad of orange and fennel, wraps it in tissue, and sends you out the door. It's the kind of takeout you expect from a Frenchman who manned the pans at a Ritz-Carlton or two before opening his own wooden hut.
But, more than anything, Grégoire owes its local hero status to a simple pile of round, fried potatoes. Hiding under the name "Crispy Potato Puffs," these fried balls are impossibly comforting snacks on a cold autumn night. On opening, the restaurant fielded such a heavy onslaught of inquiries that Grégoire Jacquet has long sworn the cooks to secrecy with a confidentiality contract. As long as the document lives, we'll never know the real secret.
In some ways, the potatoes are a simple thing. In others, they are entirely elusive. Wild-eyed drooling patrons crowd the counter asking for everything from "crispy cheese balls" to "ginger dumplings," apparently confused and trying to land a finger on what magic is happening on the inside. There is no cheese, or ginger (a guess at what produced the warm brown shade of the shell). They are, at the root of if all, just tiny balls of fried mashed potatoes. As an experience, they are something enormously more satisfying. A dense, creamy, savory potato mixture gets scooped into the fryer for just a moment, mysteriously fortified with the most delicate and crisp of shells.
That's the magic of it. The shell. It's a paperthin but toothsome crust to crack into, holding a steaming, silky pillow of creamy, seasoned potato filling. Like a doughnut, but for dinner. A good swipe of olive aioli sooths the hot, crisp edge of the thing, and begs for a glass of wine--a perfect refuge in a box as the cold damp sinks onto the North Berkeley streets.
Grégoire is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the menu changes monthly. If you're feeling fancy, get the duck confit hash with poached eggs. If you're on a date, pop some wine at the table outside and watch the sun go down while doing an adorable job of sharing the pork belly. If it's lunch, get the fried buttermilk chicken filet. Anytime, get the potatoes. Always, always get the potatoes.