October 29, 2004

Lunch Break: a Ritual of Respite

Today marked the first time that I have taken the Friday Lunch Series outside of Berkeley, not counting my recap of Ms. Angelee Field's birthday dinner. After class, I took BART from downtown Berkeley to downtown Oakland, to have lunch with J. Ed. Connery (Jed) on his lunch break from his job as a paper-pusher/cubicle drone at Kaiser Healthcare. He decided to take me to Central Park, which is atop the Kaiser shopping center near Lake Merritt.

Central Park is a somewhat upscale, a generic but altogether pleasant restaurant that seems to do a good lunch business among office workers who want something more than take-out food for lunch as well as "ladies who lunch." At 22 and 23, we were the youngest customers in there by at least 15 years; most there seemed to be enjoying their time away from the office. Central Park is a bit of a throwback, as it felt to me like a hotel restaurant in the 1990s, with thick carpets, wood-trimmed walls, upholstered chairs, white tablecloths and white napkins. The spacious restaurant's tables are fairly far apart from each other, adding to the hotel feel. Additionally, one wall is made of picture windows that afford diners a calming view of the Kaiser Center's rooftop garden and Lake Merritt.

The food also felt like hotel food, but using quality ingredients like Niman Ranch meats. The lunch menu consisted of various fancy-sounding sandwiches, large salads, and hot entrées. We both started with an under-salted and herb-laden cup of "Wild Mushroom and Quinoa soup." The mushrooms were not wild either; I identified them as oyster mushrooms and shiitakes. The addition of Quinoa in the rather thin chicken-tasting broth gave the soup body and a deeper flavor than rice or orzo would have given.

Jed had the grilled Niman Ranch beef filet (ordered rare, arrived medium) served with mashed potatoes, crispy shoestring onions and roasted carrots. It arrived neatly arranged, drizzled with some sort of red wine reduction and topped off by an herbed bleu cheese compound butter. I preserved the already high beef quotient at our table by opting for the Niman Ranch hamburger, with an added half avocado for an additional dollar. The 1/3-1/2 pound burger was plated along with lettuce, tomato and red onion in a Kaiser roll, which was the appropriate choice not just because I was eating lunch atop the Kaiser Center with an Kaiser employee, but because soft rolls lose their structural integrity under the weight of large burgers and sourdough rolls are too hard. The Kaiser roll fortunately found the right combination of texture and brawn. A large heap of medium-thick, crisp french fries rounded out the plate, along with a metal cup each of ketchup, mayonaise and a zippy dijon mustard. The burger (served to me medium-well without having a choice) was nicely charred on the outside and still a little juicy in the middle. I mixed the mustard and mayonaise together to serve as a dip for the french fries, a sort of tangy dijon aioli. All in all, the food at Central Park is like the decor--nothing special but still pleasant and good for what it is.

Central Park and places like it serve a greater function than merely dispensing food. They offer a chance for rest and repose in the middle of a hectic day at the office. Though we live in an age where the speed of life increases with every season, where people either skip lunch altogether or swallow a pre-packaged sandwich or salad without tasting it, where many people eat merely to fuel their metabolic functions thereby failing to derive any intellectual or physical pleasure from it, the act of sitting down and taking the time for lunch has important therapeutic effects. Those who feel everyday work-related stress should take a little time each day for a nice little meal away from the office and boss. Lunch is about more than just food; it is also about relaxing and recharging. If Americans work too much and too hard, they deserve a little relaxation time--and there's no time for that like lunch time!


At 10/30/2004 02:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There really is no time like lunch, and it was a great pleasure to join the noble ranks of the FridayLunchSeries.

I thought Central Park would be a fun change from Berkeley sushi and beer gardens, so I'm glad Lou was able to make the trek to Kaiser-owned and opperated downtown Oakland.

The service was typically unimpressive at Central Park yesterday, but the food was predictably satisfying--generally served its purpose.

As our friendly food journalist pointed out, Central Park really holds its appeal in the atmosphere. I'm personally a big fan of the roof garden. A little green in the sky is always a welcome change from trying to earn some green in the sky--on the 16th floor of a highrise.

Anyway, it was fun to share a break in the day with you Lou...keep truckin' and bringing us good company and helpful hints for East Bay dining.


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