But I cannot deny that both the psyche and the palate can benefit from a little comfort food at this time of year, an oasis of calm and restfulness in the midst of the shopping and planning and cooking that can sometimes seem oppressive, no matter how well-organized or strong you are. (And right now I feel neither: I have purchased exactly one present so far, and had the delightful experience of watching as a friend lent my father The Plot Against America, the new Philip Roth book that I'd intended to give him for Christmas. Back to the drawing board.)
A couple of recent meals gave me relief from both malls and malaise. I've walked past the restaurant O Chamé many times. It's located on Fourth Street, the winsome Berkeley shopping mecca, pedestrian-friendly but never pedestrian, a refuge for lovers of quirky non-chain stores such as the Gardener, with its carefully selected pottery, glass, and decorative objects for the home; the prosaically named but hip Builder's Booksource, stuffed full of architecture and design books; Castle in the Air, a curious collection of pens, journals, toys, and imaginative items; and Cody's Books, which has a blindingly efficient wrapping desk at Christmastime. (Even the chains here -- Sur La Table, Restoration Hardware, a Crate & Barrel outlet store, and Anthropologie -- are useful, especially during this time of year.)
Whenever I passed O Chamé, I was often on my way to one of Fourth Street's many other tempting places to eat: Café Rouge, for oysters and great meat; Tacubaya, with its excellent antojitos; Eccolo, a new seasonal Mediterranean spot opened by veterans of Chez Panisse; and the retro-kitsch Bette's Ocean View Diner, purveyor of homey breakfasts and meatloaf sandwiches.
I blush to admit that I skipped O Chamé; without ever trying it, I assumed it was one of those holier-than-thou aging-hippie places that offer veering-toward-macrobiotic food, salt-averse and heavy on thin tasteless broths, undercooked bitter vegetables, and steamed brown rice. I couldn't have been more wrong.
When my friend Suzanne, who works within walking distance, suggested O Chamé for a quick lunch, I figured I'd humor her. She recommended grabbing a couple of bento boxes, already prepared and stacked on the counter in the back room of the two-roomed place, and taking them outside, to a table on the walled patio. It was a lovely, sunny day, and the brightly colored food we could see through the clear plastic tops of the rectangular metal tins looked quite appetizing: snowy rice, orange salmon, verdant spinach. We were on the early side, and the food was still warm.
Our simple little lunch was a revelation. The salmon, slow-roasted so it was firm on the outside but still a little shaky at the heart, peeled off in succulent flakes. The blanched leaf spinach came dressed with sesame oil. The fluffy rice was perfect. There were also a few slices of a bouncy steamed tofu loaf, seasoned with green onions. Everything was full of flavor, even the nutty rice, and I had the pleasant sensation that this food was doing good as well as tasting good: I felt as though its nutrients were going straight to eager receptors in my body. I had the endorphin-rising feeling that some people (me included) claim they get from chocolate. This is what some call clean food: excellent fresh ingredients, cooked simply so that the true flavor of each foodstuff shines. We could have chosen wine, beer, sake, or the fashionable, high-alcohol shochu from a generous and thoughtful list, but we went with a fragrant jasmine tea and Suzanne's favorite champagne oolong from O Chamé's dozen or so green, fermented, and herb teas.
She recommended splitting a sherry custard for dessert. If I wasn't already infatuated with the place, the custard would have put me over the top: an extremely silky, fine-textured, chilly pudding, with a good tablespoon or more of sherry poured on top (to enhance the sherry in the custard itself). I knew that this dish alone would bring me back to O Chamé, even without the promise of strengthening, juicy salmon and spinach. (The bento lunch also seemed an amazing bargain at $7.50.) I looked forward, avidly, to eating there again.
I returned for dinner with my friend Lee, who works at Cal, on an icy, damp night when the deceptively simple rooms, filled with handcrafted wood furniture, seemed seductively warm and cozy. I was reminded of a long-gone restaurant in San Francisco, Mingei-Ya, a woody Japanese country-style place that felt as if you were dining inside an especially beautiful cedar-lined closet. (I initially thought of a cedar cigar box, but that seemed too pungent and tobacco-y a metaphor, unless you're fond of The Borrowers.) We were given a table in the middle of the second room (the first, lined with banquettes, was nearly full on a Wednesday night). There was plenty for us to choose from under appetizers and salads, but my heart sank when I looked at the other two categories, soba or udon noodles in clear fish broth (with a variety of ingredients), and the three main courses, two fish and a steak: Lee is a vegetarian, and she would be eating two starters if the kitchen didn't also offer vegetable broth for the noodle dishes.
Happily, it did, although Lee could eat only one combination of the five listed, a mix of tofu skins, shiitake mushrooms, and spinach. We later learned that O Chamé is happy to craft a bowl of noodles with your own choice of the ingredients on offer, which that night could have included mustard greens, seaweed, and bean or daikon sprouts.
I started with an exquisite dish of seared tuna "sashimi," the rosy slices charred lightly on their edges but still cool and raw at the heart, on a bed of leeks braised with a bit of bitey horseradish: a brilliant combination. Lee and I shared a plate of four fat, sturdy mashed-celery-root-and-green-onion pancakes. Her bowl of chewy soba noodles in broth with the equally chewy aburage (thin tofu skins), spinach, and mushrooms was filling, but I would have preferred the combination of roasted pork tenderloin, mustard greens, and takuan (a crunchy pickled daikon radish). My roasted Atlantic salmon, on a bed of sautéed baby bok choy, wakame seaweed, and tiny enoki mushrooms, was faultless, a generous portion that I somehow managed to finish, feeling stronger with each bite. The sense of being in the right place at the right time increased when Alice Waters showed up with a friend to perch on tall stools at the counter over steamy bowls of noodles.
This time we each got our own sherry custard (no fool I), and shared an amazing almond macaroon, a lumpy, moon-rock-looking confection that was pure satiny almond paste under the thinnest possible crisp exterior.
By my third visit, a lunch with Suzanne and Peter, I felt like a regular: I'd learned that the place is run by its chef/owner, David Vardy, who fell in love with Japanese food after studying tai chi in a monastery under a Taoist master. (His Japanese wife designed O Chamé.) We began with a little heap of lightly oiled arugula leaves with chunks of boiled golden beets and grilled sea scallops; tofu dumplings with hijiki seaweed, which turned out to be an abundant portion of those tofu slices from the bento box; yielding, supple wedges of deep-fried Japanese eggplant, served chilled with grated daikon radish; and small chunks of grilled eel served on leaves of Belgian endive. I found the eel to be somewhat mushy, but Suzanne and Peter said that it was the contrast between the sweet, soft eel and the crunchy, bitter endive that made the dish for them.
Our mains were all delicious: Suzanne's roasted black cod, the oily, sweet fish contrasted with its bed of clean-tasting spinach and endigia (a kind of endive), with fat slices of woodsy chanterelles; Peter's deep bowl of plump udon noodles with roasted oysters, slippery wakame seaweed, and bean sprouts; and especially my enthralling plate of grilled skirt steak on a bed of lacinato kale strewn with toothy, bright emerald edamame beans and thick slices of portobello mushrooms. The rare steak was cut against the grain, more than a dozen pieces gleaming with blood and fat, and it was the highly flavored beef of my dreams: This was as good as any steakhouse steak I'd ever had. (And a far cry from the sort of joyless, unsensuous fare I'd imagined being served here.)
We finished with, yes, sherry custard; a cold, sweet, but bland poached Bosc pear strewn with tiny, tangy huckleberries; and another of those clumsy-looking but refined-tasting macaroons. (Suzanne wished the restaurant would leave off the powdered sugar.) "They're making their own macaroons across the street at Sketch now," Peter said, so we crossed the street to the new and fashionable ice cream parlor, where staffers spin cool confections daily from Straus organic milk, to do a compare-and-contrast. Which was easy, because the two-bite, dome-shaped Sketch macaroons are made with coconut. Luckily I like coconut, and luckily, too, I'd allowed Suzanne to introduce me to O Chamé, a perfect refuge if you visit Fourth Street for last-minute holiday shopping, post-Christmas sales, or any old time for food that feels as if it's improving your body as it enchants your taste buds.