The New Berkeley Bowl: Like a HangarJune 5, 2009 at 2:21 pm | Posted in Adventures | 11 Comments
Yesterday was the grand opening of the new Berkeley Bowl, a 140,000-square-foot second branch of the independently owned, gourmet-magnet supermarket whose produce department (one of the largest in the West) Saveur magazine calls the nation’s best. Because grand openings are almost always freebie territory, we made a scavenging foray.
With a deli section that could outfit every picnic in the state, hangarlike Berkeley Bowl West sprawls far and wide. Its sixteen grocery aisles resemble airport runways (for small planes, but still). Seven years and $30 million in the making, BBW also has enormous seafood, meat, wine, beer and dairy sections. The olive bar includes twenty varieties.
But what makes Berkeley Bowl world-famous, in both of its stores, is its produce: aisle after aisle stocked with thousands of items priced lower than at regular supermarkets (and in most cases unavailable at regular supermarkets), grown locally and internationally — from the familiar (such as apples, but twelve different varieties) to the rarefied (okay, so some recipes actually do call for rambutan and Italian chestnuts) to the truly WTF, such as nuaje beans and horned melons. (We once bought one of the latter, aka kiwano, jelly melon, hedged gourd and horned cucumber, at the Bowl because … well, because we could. Native to Africa but now grown in the US, it’s the size and shape of a hand grenade, but sun-gold, with spikes. Sliced in half, it spurts a clear green ooze that smells, barely and fleetingly, like meat. Laid open, it presents a bright fibrous network of hollows awobble with nodules, glass-green, fingernail-sized. In each nodule is suspended a seed. Sliding on spoons as if alive, it slurps like agar and tastes of cucumber, but faintly — like a whisper — sweet.)
The new Bowl’s produce section is so long that, standing at one end, you can barely see to the other. Upon first reaching it, we thought: This is huge! … Then we realized we were only in the first half, the organic half. Its bags are sustainable, by the way.
When the Yasuda family opened their first store in 1977, it occupied a former bowling alley, hence the name. Its low produce prices make it a sort-of scavenging venue, as does its policy of giving discounts if you buy stuff by the case or by the flat. The store’s most scavengeable aspect is its bags of bruised produce sold for super-cheap. (You can never predict when they’ll be in stock, how many will be on hand or what kinds of bruised produce will be in the bags, so it’s a constant source of creative Scavenger-Style Cuisine: lots of gazpacho one week, lots of onion rings the next.)
On its opening day, the new store was too new to stock any bruised produce. (They should have brought some over from the other store, as a nice gesture. Well, we’re growing our own produce this year anyway.) Freebies were shockingly few and far between, consisting only of some vitamin samples and some cheese cubes.
Granted, that’s way better than nothing. And free Berkeley Bowl tote bags (made of recycled materials) were being given away with every opening-day purchase, as we delightedly learned upon buying a few ounces of active dry yeast (with which to make bread, super-cheaply, in our scavenged bread machine). The yeast was our only purchase. But see, we’re scavengers.