October 08, 2004

A Momentous Time to Live in Berkeley

It is an interesting time to be in Berkeley, California. First, The Free Speech Movement celebrated its 40th birthday, commemorated by speeches from the student body president, the new Chancellor, and former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean from atop a kindly donated University of Calfornia Police Car. Unlike in 1964, when the speeches were over, everyone went home.

Second, it is arguably more intriguing that the Cal Football team is better now than it was then. On Saturday 10/9, the 7th-ranked Golden Bears will face #1-ranked USC. Gentle Readers in Buffalo, my college is referred to by two names: Berkeley and Cal. A recent article, courtesy of ESPN, explains the difference between Berkeley and its doppelgänger. The local sports pundits are even calling it bigger than the Big Game, played against cross-town rival Stanford.

And third, for the purposes of the Friday Lunch Series, an event of similar scale has taken place. Buttercup Cafe, the quaint College Avenue coffee shop/diner closed down and in its place opened up a new, relatively slick-looking Japanese restaurant.

In the end, both the Free Speech movement and the upcoming football game will have more of an impact than this place. To be honest, I forgot the name as soon as I left.

So, early this Friday afternoon, my friends Matt Springer and Jon Levinson and I headed down into this restaurant, which Jon believes is named Mitami. I will take his word for it.

Mitami's interior bears no resemblance to a quaint neighborhood diner, or to anything named in a cutesy manner, like Buttercup. Gone are the wood panelling and the wallpaper. They have been replaced by slightly odd but very clean looking pale lime green walls, track lighting, and a blown-glass divider that separates the entrance from the rest of the restaurant. The floor, formerly worn hardwood, is now attractively tiled. Fortunately, they kept the large windows in front, keeping the room light.

We were seated promptly in the empty dining room and given menus. They offered typical Japanese restaurant standards--Teriyakis, Tempura, Donburi, and some sushi. Nothing unusual or particularly bold. The prices were slightly higher than other places I had been. Jon decided on some version of a spicy tuna roll, amended with some avacado and some tai (red snapper) and hirame (halibut) nigiri. The halibut looked good, but one of the slices of the snapper was cut oddly. Matt ordered a caterpillar roll (in this case, a rice-outside roll filled with grilled eel, radish sprouts in the end pieces, thin strips of cucumber and topped with avacado) and oyako donburi, which is a bowl of rice topped with stirfried chicken and onions scrambled into eggs and topped with donburi sauce. I opted for the bento box lunch. This consisted of a juicy grilled teriyaki chicken thigh on a bed of shredded cabbage, two slightly oily tempura shrimp, some tempura vegetables, a little fried salmon cutlet (katsu) about the size of 3 matchbooks, some leafy plastic-bag salad (thankfully with some sort of vinaigrette instead of the watery Thousand Island or Ranch dressings that are common to these sorts of restaurants), some white rice, and a tiny pile of finely grated radish.

The caterpillar roll, while tasty, skimped on the eel and was served completely at room temperature. I have found that in better caterpillar rolls, the eel is warm and the cucumber is cold, creating an interesting contrast which the room-temperature avocado smooths out. My bento was good, but nothing special. Nothing was inedible, nor was anything memorable.

The lack of memorable food, plus the rest of the days exciting events led me to forget that the place was called Mitami. So, I phoned Jon, who remembered, despite the fact that he was (and as of this moment) still is en route to the aformentioned football game. A more memorable meal may not have paled in comparison to the other events going on. As Brillat-Savarin has said in The Physiology of Taste, "The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star." Or free speech or football for that matter.

Go Bears!

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