New Berkeley restaurant Tigerlily opens in Gourmet Ghetto

Karin Goh/Staff

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Joel Lamica sits on a worn wooden bar stool, fingering through filled pages of a notebook. Written inside are notes from his customers from the previous night, commending him on his new project.

“It inspires me to see how how happy they are,” Lamica says with a smile. “This is what keeps me going.”

Lamica is the executive chef at Tigerlily, an Indo-Asian restaurant that recently opened in Gourmet Ghetto — a North Berkeley neighborhood known for its fast dining and takeout restaurants. The restaurant has been in a soft-opening phase since Jan. 7.

Joel DiGiorgio, along with partner Deepak Aggarwal, were previously owners of Mint Leaf but decided to close their North Indian bistro and start a new restaurant in the same location. DiGiorgio said he wanted to do something “more audacious” and “more in line with the ethos of the area.”

Lamica said the restaurant operates “tiger style” — embracing the challenge of cooking organic food by using ingredients to their full potential with as little waste as possible — and that using every part of an ingredient is a sign of respect to farmers.

“I get to look the person that grew it in the eyes and say, ‘What’s good this week? You grew it, tell me what’s the best,’ ” Lamica said. “If the farmers say that there was a frost and they don’t have any cilantro, then we don’t use any cilantro.”

The menu, which changes daily, is contingent on Lamica’s findings at the local farmer’s market across the street, which he visits three times per week. There, he works with regional vendors and purveyors for meat, fish and produce — most days, fish are delivered with hooks still in their mouths.

While still paying tribute to Mint Leaf’s Indian roots, Tigerlily’s menu places a new focus on California cuisine, which, according to Lamica, originated from Gourmet Ghetto, with restaurants such as neighboring Chez Panisse spearheading the movement.

“We try to give (customers) luxury, not in terms of caviar and lobster, but luxury in the way that we make you feel,” Lamica said. “Like feeling as if you’re coming into our home.”

Because the menu has a Bay Area inspiration, DiGiorgio said he hopes that Tigerlily will “someday be in the same conversation” as neighborhood institutions, such as Michelin-ranked Chez Panisse.

According to Cathy Goldsmith, who works at the Cheese Board Collective nearby, the owners of Mint Leaf experimented with the business’s feel, providing music and quality food, but were not able to attract enough customers to keep the business alive.

Goldsmith said that Tigerlily’s turnover from Mint Leaf moved fast — and quietly, without much fanfare. Already, the restaurant’s neighbors have embraced the arrival of the new restaurant. Many of them, including Goldsmith, are hopeful that Tigerlily will be a greater success than its predecessor.

“We’re trying very hard to do something profound,” DiGiorgio said. “We haven’t had the right to say that we’re a world-class restaurant yet, but we’re working to get there.”

As he walks through Tigerlily’s dimly lit seating area, Lamica points to a stack of cookbooks on display he has kept since his time in culinary school, calling them “reference points” for what originally inspired him to be a chef.

Now, as he looks into the future, Lamica hopes to pay his knowledge forward so that customers will be able to learn more about what they are eating — from the origins of the ingredients to the final dish.

“Food is so much more than going into a restaurant and ordering something,” Lamica said. “It’s about educating the people about what they’re eating.”

Adrienne Shih is the lead city reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @adrienneshih.