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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009

A Taste of the Suburbs

Berkeley’s light and healthy fare

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Marija Whitman and Vesna Madunic are no strangers to the restaurant business. The sisters own Gracious Events Catering and previously ran Bjonda in Wauwatosa. That restaurant started with very high ambitions, including a menu featuring caviar and vintage champagnes. In 2007 they renamed it Firefly Urban Bar & Grill and added a more casual menu with lower prices. Last October they opened another restaurant, this time in Whitefish Bay. The name is Berkeley’s Cafe and it’s located at the intersection of Silver Spring Drive and Berkeley Boulevard.

The building that houses Berkeley’s Cafe formerly held a liquor store and has been renovated thoughtfully, with large windows on the eastern wall, a small carry-out counter at the entrance and a comfortable bar—a rarity in this village. The color scheme is bold: Walls are a verdant green and the ceiling and tabletops are black. The chairs are all white and the well-padded bar stools have tufted upholstery that gives the decor a feminine twist. This is a place to order Stoli cosmos, not pitchers of Bud Light.

The cafe is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This fills a gap created when nearby Heinemann’s closed its doors, though the menu is a great deal different. Appetizers have an international flair where samosas meet flautas, the soups and salads are distinctive and the dinner entrees show the homey side of Berkeley’s. Wines ($6-$9.75 per glass) are listed on a chalkboard and by the variety only. Chardonnay will arrive in a curious stem-less glass. An ideal accompaniment is the fondue ($7.75), a blend of Gruyere and white cheddar served in a sensible size for a starter course. The plate also holds apple slices and the perfect type of bread for dipping.

Another item worth considering is the shrimp flautas ($9.75). Three rolled tortillas have a filling of black beans and a bit of shrimp, mildly spicy and soothing in flavor. They are served with ceviche and chimichurri, an Argentine condiment of herbs and olive oil that accompanies grilled meats. This reddish-brown version is served warm. The ceviche is of tiny shrimp with minced sweet red pepper and cilantro, and is adequate as a side.

The three soups are very popular at lunchtime, often accompanied by a side salad or half sandwich. The winter squash soup ($3.95-$4.95) is made of carrot and pumpkin with pumpkin seeds. The creamy puree is fragrant with ginger. The tomato rosemary soup ($3.95-$4.95) is a bisque full of herbs with a bit of olive oil and a few swirls of creme. Some small pieces of rosemary crostini float on top. Again, the bread is up to the task. The four salads are all served in two sizes, as a side or an entree. Chino chicken salad ($5.95-$10.95) includes chopped napa cabbage, bok choy, slices of sesame-crusted chicken and tiny amounts of carrot, scallion and sliced almond. The amount of wonton strips is perfect and the vinaigrette carries hints of soy sauce and mustard. Black sesame seeds add extra crunch. The Berkeley bacon salad ($3.95-$9.95) is utterly rich. Baby spinach meets green beans, crumbled blue cheese and chopped egg. The sweet dressing is loaded with bits of crisp bacon. It seems like an update of the spinach salads with hot bacon dressing found at local German restaurants.

The only weak link in this menu is the entrees. Cafe meatloaf ($14.75) is short on distinction. The meat has plenty of binder and fades into the background. The garlic mashed potatoes are perfectly passable, but the spinach lacks the promised bacon. Katsu maki ($19.25) sounds alluring, a sesame panko-crusted tuna roll with Asian slaw and fried rice. But the tuna is overcooked, half of it is already gray and the thick crust removes any moisture from the tuna, making it very dry. The Asian slaw is mounded over the bed of fried rice—apparently its only purpose is to make the rice soggy.

Luckily the hits at Berkeley’s vastly outnumber the misses, but consistency could be better. The service is perfectly good and the kitchen is efficient. The cafe seems best suited for breakfast or lunch. Relax a bit and chill out in the warmth—the abundant snowflakes hanging from the ceiling remind us that winter is still in the air.

Berkeley’s Cafe 342 E. Silver Spring Drive $$-$$$ (414) 897-8624 Credit Cards: All major Smoke-free Handicap Access: Yes

Photo by Kate Engbring

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