Eccolo has Expensive taste


Berkeley restaurant serves decadent meals without the hefty bill.

Christopher Lee cooked for 15 years downstairs at Chez Panisse, weaving together a single, prix-fixe meal each evening. At his smart, long-awaited restaurant, Eccolo, which he opened with his wife/dining room manager, Janet Hankinson, he offers choices. Still, his cooking style remains the same. His dishes are voluptuous, perfectly balanced and driven by great ingredients as if he were still putting out only one meal and each component had to dazzle.

The upside is that diners at Eccolo can have a downstairs-at-Chez-Panisse meal at half the price. The downside is that they have to compose the meal themselves and the menu makes it challenging.

If, like me, you order an extra first course because it sounds so seductive, you won’t be able to finish a main course. And if a single first course happens to be one of Lee’s irresistible, rich, meat dishes, you face the dilemma of what to choose next from only three or four mostly meaty main dishes.

Is that something to complain about? I’m not sure, because I have loved every single dish I’ve tasted at Eccolo. I ate there during the restaurant’s first week, not my usual practice, but I liked it so much I returned two weeks later.

My first bite of Eccolo food — wood-oven baked bread from Della Fattoria in Petaluma — raised the bar for the whole meal. This singular bread has thin, crisp crust and a miraculously tender, chewy interior. Then I devoured a pan-fried oxtail “soppressata” ($9), crisp-edged rounds of pressed-together morsels of oxtail accompanied with a poufy little salad of frisee and cardoon, whose celery-like stalks suggest artichoke. Though the portion was small, it still felt like a complete meal on a plate.


How could I face stuffed loin and braised shoulder of milk-fed Bellwether Farm lamb ($26)? I could and I did, and that was after a buoyant fritto misto ($12) of mozzarella-stuffed zucchini blossoms, spring onions and delicate hunks of Monterey bay squid in a crunchy tempura-like batter.

I also ate most of a side dish of gossamer slices of Spanish ham with olives ($10), and tried to wrest some arugula salad with red beets and the skinniest baby leeks in a bracing vinaigrette ($8) from a companion’s plate.

On the second visit, I couldn’t help but order two meat dishes: an appetizer of moist, velvety slices of brisket and tongue in a piquant, capery, chopped egg sauce ($9), stunningly garnished with jewel-like cubes of pickled beet; and then grilled rack and loin of that excellent young Marin county lamb with a generous portion of labor-intensive, fava bean gratin ($26) (Double peeling but so worth it.). Since it was Mother’s Day, my son promised to share his bi-colored endive, fennel and parsley salad in a bright vinaigrette, drizzled with lots of olive oil ($8), but he wolfed down most of it. Then he took my fava bean gratin and gave me his creamy white halibut in aromatic saffron broth, married by unctuous, strong, garlic mayonnaise spread thickly on toasts that melted into the broth ($22).

For dessert after substantial meals like these, I love ice cream. Lee always has house-made gelati on the menu, like Meyer lemon and strawberry ($8); or orange and yogurt topped with crunchy grapefruit ice ($8).

The reasonable prices of tasty wines by glass and bottle keep the tab for food of such stratospheric quality within reach.

Service has yet to hit its stride, but the interior is fully realized — clean lined, multi-roomed, sky-lit and handsomely modern — with wood or aluminum tables, cherrywood chairs, a polished wood floor and swanky tableware. An active full bar fills up right at 5 p.m. just as it opens.

The noise level is high when the restaurant is full as sound bounces off all the hard surfaces.

Lee has a hit on his hands already. But Eccolo will only get better with a few more simple, salad courses on the menu, which will make life easier both for the diners and the kitchen.


1820 Fourth St., Berkeley 510 644-0444 Open Wednesday through Monday from noon to 2:45 p.m., dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Tuesdays.


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