Reminiscences on the Bay, Part I: Books and Brunch

7 Feb

Today I woke to gorgeous weather: the bright sun shining unhindered by cloud, smog, or fog, the temperature reading at a relatively warm 55 degrees.  I then had the good fortune of scheduling a Sunday brunch with my friends Dre and Mia from California (Dre works in California, and Mia works for the State Department), and, feeling warm and good and content I decided to postpone work by calling Megan for a cappuccino at Illy.

Based on Alex’s early-morning observation that a jacket was unnecessary, I decided to dress in a shirt and light sweater, and instead of wearing shoes decided on my much-neglected pair of Rainbows.  Thus clad, I went outside and was greeted by the most beautiful weather I had experienced in a while.  It was so wonderful, in fact, that Megan and I decided to take our drinks outside, where we talked at the little patch of grass between 22nd, M, and New Hampshire.

There are certain moments that seem archetypal, aren’t there, where sipping a coffee in the sun isn’t just a contemporaneous event but a continuance from your past.  It’s like having two mirrors facing each other: you look at one mirror and see your reflection repeated endlessly and endlessly behind you.  This moment with Megan drinking coffee on the bench transported me back to memories of Berkeley, where you could find me on any number of their infinite perfect days reading a novel with an iced Americano underneath shady trees.

Berkeley is my “happy” place–which is strange because for so long it was not a very happy place for me at all.  Nonetheless, I experienced so much–and so much good–there that it would be impossible not to have a special place in my heart for that city.  With that in mind, I promised to write notes on Berkeley and the Bay Area for Shea of Just Grapes (an excellent and much more detailed wine blog than my own, I’ll confess), who is spending a semester studying at Boalt Law.  That promise was made many months ago–sorry!–but I’ll be writing with some level of regularity on this topic in the upcoming weeks.

la-noteThis specific post will not be about wine at all but rather about one of my favorite ways to spend a Sunday morning: brunch at La Note.

The thing about Sunday brunches at La Note is that they are very, very popular.  Thus, it requires you to sign in and wait anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes for a table.  On a beautiful day it’s good to sign up for a table in the outdoor patio; otherwise, a table inside is perfectly fine.  Sometimes you will have the good fortune to land a table in one of the window nooks, which are the coziest spots in the restaurant.

While waiting for a place, you could try and grab a seat on one of the benches outside, or you can go to Pegasus and Pendragon, a wonderful small independent bookstore that specializes in small and local press, used books, and great new releases.  They have a “New Arrivals” shelf which always has gems, and their used poetry collection, while not as large as that at Moe’s, is higher quality.  It’s especially nice to browse the small and local press section at the front of the store; McSweeney’s and Cloverfield figure prominently.

I can draw an analogy between bookstores and wine shops that will probably be a familiar one: many of the associates at wine shops are extremely knowledgeable about wine but can be huge, pretentious snobs.  On the other hand, there are a few wine shops where the associates, while knowledgeable, are genuinely passionate about wine and eager to please customers.  This distinction applies as well to bookstores and record shops.  Pegasus belongs to the latter camp, where you can spend fifteen or twenty minutes chatting about Michael Chabon’s latest release or discuss the difference between this and that translation of Zbigniew Herbert.  One time I purchased a limited-issue Cloverfield run of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Tony Takitani,” which led to a general discussion to Murakami, which led to the cashier asking for my e-mail to send me a unpublished-in-the-U.S. Murakami story that I still have in my inbox.

It is easy to lose track of time at Pegasus, so the twenty or so minutes it takes to wait for a table at La Note goes by quickly.  Once at La Note, take note of the lumps of brown sugar in yellow bowls on your table, the little containers of berry jam, the small pitchers of water, and the authentic French servers.  Order a latte and you’ll get it in a huge latte cup; the house coffee is very good, too, and a perfect follow-up if you happened to spend the previous evening out on the town.

For starters, the tartine (one-half toasted baguette) or tartine mistral (same, but with goat cheese, basil, and roasted peppers) are fantastic.  For lighter fare, les pancakes et le pain perdu (pancakes made with creme fraiche) are excellent; the lemon gingerbread pancakes with poached pears is also good but a bit too sweet for my tooth.  Any of the eggs dishes are superb, with the cote nord (two eggs lightly scrambled with cream cheese or goat cheese and served over toasted levain bread) or les oeufs lucas (two eggs lightly scrambled with goat cheese and chives) being my recommendations for lighter appetites and omelette au fromage et jambon (emmenthal cheese and ham omelet) or the omelette de pommes de terre (open-face potato and caramelized onion omelet) my recommendations for heartier ones.  These eggs dishes are served with a side of breakfast potatoes–which are heartbreakingly good, with whole roasted cloves of garlic–and roasted Provencal tomatoes–which are even more heartbreaking.

La Note is an archetype for me as well–that of the perfect brunch spot.  Every brunch I’ve had since has been but a reflection of those I enjoyed so much at La Note.

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2 Responses to “Reminiscences on the Bay, Part I: Books and Brunch”

  1. theeatenpath February 9, 2009 at 10:33 am #

    Ah, bougie brunch: the idyllic ideal of a morning meal. Someday I’ll learn to like La Note; for now, if I’m limited to Berkeley’s borders, give me Ann’s Kitchen.

  2. Shea February 9, 2009 at 11:33 pm #

    Thanks for that! I will be sure to head there in the next couple of weeks.

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