Hunched parka-clad bodies hurry past the windows, bracing against the wind. But all is warm and cozy on our side of the glass. The bartender keeps the liquids flowing and chats up the patrons seated on white, tufted bar chairs. They stretch like a chain of paper snowflakes, with diners settled arm to arm on […]

Hunched parka-clad bodies hurry past the windows, bracing against the wind. But all is warm and cozy on our side of the glass. The bartender keeps the liquids flowing and chats up the patrons seated on white, tufted bar chairs. They stretch like a chain of paper snowflakes, with diners settled arm to arm on the green banquette. Hanging lanterns, with a handmade crochet look, give off a vintage-hip glow.

Now is when I usually tell you we’re on Milwaukee Street or Broadway in the Third Ward. But lo, such is not the case. The new restaurant that’s brought dining back to Silver Spring Drive is Berkeley’s Café.If you can make peace with the construction on this commercial street, there’s charm to be found in the bones of an old liquor store.

Last year, owners Marija Whitman, her husband Ryan Whitman and sister Vesna Madunic – whose businesses include Gracious Catering – changed the scope of their Wauwatosa restaurant Bjonda, renaming its more casual successor Firefly Urban Bar & Grill. I expect to see more approachable, modestly priced fare cornering the market in the year ahead. The low-key Berkeley’s is certainly riding that train. Having very little nearby competition – except the chains at Bayshore Town Center – can only be an advantage.

The early signs for the food are good. On the interior, the owners collaborated with designers they’d partnered with before – Jon Schlagenhaft and Curt Stern, who died in a plane crash just weeks before Berkeley’s opened in early November. The café’s name matches the street that crosses Silver Spring right around its front door. But Berkeley also happens to be a city in California, and the décor channels a ’70s West Coast café mystique. There’s no shag carpeting, but the floor is checkered linoleum that looks original. In order to make room for an 80-seat dining room (bar included), the owners got a small kitchen, which makes a less-complicated menu even more imperative.

Berkeley’s is doing three square meals a day, and offering to-go items (salads, sandwiches) from the express counter just inside the entrance. But just as some soul is grabbing a wrap to wolf down in his car, another person is seated at the bar, nursing a Cosmo and watching MSNBC.

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The menu reflects the varied appetites of the crowd. On one occasion, I’m dipping apple slices into fondue and biting into a burger smothered in goat cheese. Another night, it’s cornmeal-crusted mahi mahi with a coriander black bean cake and a rioja broth, its flavor set aflame by jalapeño and poblano chiles.

The food’s execution was wobbly at times, but as Marija told me by phone later on, there was no time for a dry run. The fondue suited the damp, windy fall night on which we ordered it, but was too thick – fondue should be a smooth sauce, not the texture of cottage cheese – and the cheese (Gruyère and white cheddar) wasn’t fully melted when it came to the table ($7.75). I’m a fan of samosas – triangle-shaped stuffed pastries of Indian origination – but I wasn’t thrilled with the meager potato filling in the Berkeley’s version, nor with the gingered applesauce-like condiment served with it ($8.95).

Beyond the initial blips, there’s satisfaction to be had. Two soups hit the spot on a bitter-cold day – the rich, well-balanced tomato bisque daubed with rosemary crème and, even better, the “green” soup: a thick, smoky puree of asparagus, peas and spinach with crisp bacon and little dollops of Boursin cheese ($3.95 and $4.95).

The old Bjonda had trademark dishes like the crunch salad, trio of micro burgers and roasted pork loin with creamy sage polenta. The “tried and trues,” as Marija calls them, are also on Berkeley’s roster. All three are worth rediscovering. The aptly named crunch salad is a deliciously noisy experience, from the baby spinach and bok choy to the fried wasabi peas tossed in chile buttermilk dressing ($3.95 and $9.95). The burgers are an increasingly obligatory menu staple – three bantam-sized patties, each wearing different clothes (Boursin cheese and mushrooms, Gorgonzola and smoked onion mustard, smoked bacon and white cheddar). For $13.25, you’ll want to share them – but if you cut them in half for a friend, make sure you get the bigger half.

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If the entrées could talk, they’d say, “Don’t worry about the carbs.” Comfort food is in vogue. For example, chicken and mushrooms with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and a Dijon sauce. It screams for a full-bodied red wine. The chicken is cut in the French style – a half-breast with a joint of the wing attached – grilled and nestled into the potatoes with a mushroom sauté. This is good “Mom” food ($16.75).

Comfort is also writ large in the apple duck confit and pork loin with sage polenta. The duck leg is salt-cured and slow-cooked in its own fat, so that “tender” is the operative word. The apple flavor that comes to play here is in the stock reduction that permeates the squash puree ($19.25). The pork loin – cut in half-inch slices and best released from its state of roasting while the meat is still pink inside – makes a semi-dreamy team with the creamy sage polenta ($18.75). I say semi because the meat could have been tenderer.

When two spoons annihilate a dessert so swiftly, the face behind at least one of the spoons wonders what’s going on. Berkeley’s vanilla pot de crème is about as rich as a custard can get. And the delicate cinnamon syrup topping just makes the spoons work more furiously to scoop up the last bites. Ultimately, though, the pot itself is too petite for the price ($6.50), and the fresh berries served with it are a bit past their prime.

This summer, Berkeley’s will get even bigger, so to speak. When the outdoor tables are added, the café will nearly double its seating capacity. That’s good news for Whitefish Bay, for which this place seems uniquely suited. It’s affordable and laid-back, but still has an undeniable style.

Berkeley’s Café, 342 E. Silver Spring Dr., 414-897-8624. Hours: B, L and D Sun-Mon 7 a.m.-9 p.m., Tues-Thurs 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Prices: starters $5.95-$12.75; soups/salads $3.95-$10.95; sandwiches $8.95-$13.25; entrées $13.75-$19.50; desserts $6.50-$7.25. Service: learning the ropes. Dress: a casual crowd. Nonsmoking. Handicap access: yes. Credit cards: M V A DS. Reservations: parties of five or more.


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