My plans for my first zillion include a TV station that'll show reruns of St. Elsewhere and I Spy 'round the clock. Then there's the private railway car with the inlaid mahogany and the upright Steinway suitable for noodling. And there's the restaurant, a restaurant where my proclivity for prix fixe dining -- one multicourse menu, one price -- can express itself. (The plan, of course, is that I'd have all the fun planning the menus and everyone else would do all the work. I used to prepare three-hour banquets for a group of friends a few times a year, a different ethnic cuisine each season, and while the cooking and cleaning up was a grind, I loved figuring out what would be on the menu.) The gradual unfolding of a perfectly planned repast can be as suspenseful and rewarding as a Dinesen monologue; besides, the opening of the menu in an untested restaurant is one of life's great anticipatory pleasures, and it's even better when there's only one thing on the bill of fare and you don't have to make the usual mind-cluttering decisions. (A friend says that the concentration I bestow on a restaurant menu is absolutely intimidating.)
There's a real art to balancing the heavy with the light and the spicy with the bland while maintaining a theme or some sort of complementary culinary intelligence. This is accomplished on a regular basis at Lalime's, the brainchild of Cynthia Lalime Krikorian, where a different prix fixe dinner is offered two to four times per week. The menus range from the proletarian (Caesar salad, all-you-can-eat ribs, and chocolate nut sundae, $27) to the aristocratic (salmon tartare timbale, ballottine of duck, pistachios and foie gras, and rhubarb napoleon with mascarpone cream, $32); from the meaty (duck sausage-Asiago pizzetta, flatiron steak with gnocchi-pignola gratin, and caramel ice cream, $27.50) to the veggie (couscous cakes with peach chutney, wild mushroom stroganoff on pappardelle, and star anise crème brûlée, $25.50); from the home-grown (spring vegetables rémoulade, seafood gumbo, and banana cream pie, $24.50) to the Eurocentric (a seven-item tapas feast, $20) to the positively Pacific (Maui onion-coconut soup, ginger-marinated pork fillet, and tropical fruit soup with coconut meringue, $25).
Holidays get their culinary due as well: Cinco de Mayo offered shrimp crepes with pasilla chile sauce, adobo-marinated pork chops, and Ibarra chocolate flan ($26), while a special autumn equinox Provençal feast featured chickpea-eggplant tartines, duck confit salad, roasted sea bass with chanterelles, grilled quail with wild mushrooms, and assorted goat cheeses and white peaches paired with six wines ($52.50). Obviously, a lot of thought and attention goes into the operation.
It's housed in an intimate, unassuming white stucco building in one of Berkeley's quieter stretches, its seven tables, rustic artwork, pasta-dried flower arrangements, and minimalist scale the perfect setting for the lovingly prepared food. The servers know what they're doing, too; suggestions were made and questions were answered with the friendly assurance of a staff that knows its way around a kitchen. In addition to the prix fixe there's an a la carte menu of a dozen dishes; we ordered the former and chose from the latter.
On this night the fixed menu ($41.50 with wine, $27.50 without) began with a hearty, al dente, obviously house-made penne tossed with corn, peas, and gypsy peppers, the fresh flavors of the vegetables adding sparkle to the earthy pasta, and the accompanying glass of 1997 Colterenzio pinot bianco not hurting matters whatsoever. Next: a moist, delicate whole snapper wrapped in grape leaves, roasted and subtly flavored with lemon and thyme, complemented with a glass of 1997 Deux Roches chardonnay. The meal concluded with a flaky, fragrant peach turnover served on a creamy bed of Riesling sabayon, the 1997 Domaine de Durban muscat lending deeply sweet accompaniment.
The a la carte menu conjured up the old decision-making bugaboo: how to choose between, say, the roast poblano chile stuffed with red corn, zucchini, and Crescenza cheese ($7.50) and the duck ravioli with port-star anise sauce ($8)? We settled on the pizzetta of the day, a crisp-crusted dream of a mega-canapé topped with silky smoked trout, spiky red onion, capers, and crème fraîche ($7.75). This was followed by -- what? The juniper-cured pork chop grilled and served with roast garlic mashed potatoes and Toybox tomato salsa ($16.50)? The grilled rack of lamb with couscous cakes and goat cheese ($20)? The decision: marinated quail, of course, its smoky succulence perfectly paired with grilled polenta, earthy mushrooms, and baked figs ($18.50).
Dessert -- strawberry-raspberry soup with champagne-blueberry sorbet ($5.75)? chocolate-rum cake with cinnamon ice cream ($5.75)? -- had to be the stellar, silky crème brûlée flavored with the distinctive edge of star anise ($5.75).
The wine list is extensive and eclectic (low end: an $18 Spanish sauvignon blanc from Basa; high end: Arrowood's 1995 reserve cab at $100), with something for just about everyone (there are some particularly good values among the whites), and the by-the-glass offerings (five whites, four reds, $5-7.50) are surprisingly thoughtful and wide-ranging. There's also Boont Amber Ale and Guinness Stout on tap ($3.50 each), seven aperitifs ($4.25-5.50), and six dessert wines ($4.25-6.75).
Lalime's prix fixe menus are planned a month ahead of time and can be contemplated online at www.lalimes.com or by getting yourself on their mailing list (call 510/527-9838). With their tantalizing preludes, flowing plot lines, and satisfying climaxes, the menus are some of the best reading available in the greater Bay Area.