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Dine About Oakland: Sidebar

February 16, 2009

Valentine’s Day brought a trip to one of our neighborhood’s newest dining spots, Sidebar, which opened a few weeks ago in the former Trio location on Grand, right across from Lake Shore Park. We’d heard that it was shaping up to be a terrific addition to the lake food scene from some parents-of-friends who are friendly with the owners, so shortly after they opened I snagged a Valentine’s dinner reservation to check it out.

We started off the evening with a bottle of wine, a splurge for us—but possible because Sidebar’s wines are quite reasonably priced. The wine list seems well put together, and importantly, offers a number of excellent California wines (not to mention some local beers, too). Then our feast began with the mascarpone-manchego polenta cake, a side dish that we’d thought would be served alongside the entrée. Instead, it arrived solo to kick off the meal. It was tasty, but definitely needed some company (and, D. noted, “more manchego!”—but then again, he thinks the world is under-manchegoed in general). I suspect it would have been great with vegetables on the side—if I try it again, it will be alongside some greens or fish as the main meal. The portion was quite healthy, and as a starter dish, a little too filling for two to share before the appetizers even appeared on the scene—could easily have been a side for a table of four, which may be what the chef intended.

The next two dishes really set the bar for the night, though. The mussels, which arrived with very fine shoestring potatoes on top in a broth of shallots, cream, and pernod, were exceptional—even better than an excellent version we had at Camino a few months back, and worlds above most of the iterations we have of mussels (which I order pretty regularly and also periodically make at home, so I feel safe saying I know the ins and outs of this dish!) As at Camino, the dish came with Acme epi, the perfect accompaniment to the cream sauce. (The one really odd moment of the evening was when the epi pieces arrived on a sheet of paper. On a larger table, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but Sidebar’s two-tops are pretty tiny, so it had the unfortunate effect of taking up a big chunk of the available real estate at the table and necessarily sitting too close to the water glasses, which meant that the paper slowly got damp. We rescued the bread in time, but the restaurant could use some smaller versions of the wire baskets they seemed to have at the larger tables for bread to get it off the table with as small a footprint as possible.) Alongside the mussels, we had the pear and gorgonzola salad, which came on a bed of greens with a walnut vinaigrette. It was really lovely as salads go, and quite large—a great dish to share.

We split a Sidebar burger as our entrée, mostly because I wanted to see how it measured up to Oakland’s other top gourmet burger contenders. I’m pretty lukewarm on this one—in the future we’ll probably choose one of the other excellent-sounding (and looking) entrées instead. We ordered our Niman Ranch burger medium rare, but it came rare as can be. (True, we could have sent it back, but I figured it was an opportunity to see what a rare burger had to offer, since I never order them that way. And, in fairness, I can’t count the number of times that a burger ordered medium rare has arrived closer to well done, so I guess the cook is erring on the side of caution.) The burger itself was fine, but not outstanding. The bun, a traditional hamburger bun, ended up soggy with the juices before we even took the first bite; a better bread choice would have been one of Acme’s rolls or another heartier roll that can hold its own against a juicy burger. (I see that the menu notes that the burger bun is toasted. Ours didn’t seem to be, so maybe that was part of the problem…) The oven baked fries (called “OBF” in Sidebar lingo, so I think the plan is for this to become a signature dish) were quite good, though I’m a bigger fan of thin-cut fries with burgers. The OBF could also be great rolled in some herbs and salt as a side dish, though—they had a crispy edge and soft mealy inside, just as potatoes like that should. All in all, a decent burger option if you’re going for a sandwich-and-beer night—and at $10 the price is right—but Wood Tavern, Luka’s, and Mua all offer stronger versions.

We ended the evening with an Almond Joy, a scrumptious dessert that involved a dense chocolate pavé, coconut ice cream, caramel sauce, whipped cream, and almonds. It’s funny, because this type of dessert really isn’t my style. I’d listened to the tables on either side of us order it but figured we’d look for something light and fruity instead. As it turned out, there were only a few dessert options, none of them fruity (though in fairness, this is a challenge this time of year at every restaurant that sources locally, since citrus is really all that’s in season right now). But “coconut” and “caramel” were enough to lure D. in, so we gave it a try, even though I’m not remotely a fan of the dessert’s candy namesake. Surprise—it was wonderful! The almonds had caramelized, and with the rich coconut ice cream were a perfect match for the chocolate cake. I may well order it again even with a tasty fruit competitor…

Sidebar service was generally good—especially given that the restaurant is only a few weeks old—though our table was juggled between a couple of servers as shifts changed, which led to some oddities like being presented with multiple unneeded place settings and the like. When our check arrived and listed the wrong price for the bottle of wine we’d chosen, the staff were quick to correct it, and when the computer wouldn’t cooperate and let them adjust the wine charge, they comped the dessert instead without missing a beat. (D. had already worked out the math to bring the grand total to some interesting number before we noticed the error, and was so pleased with the quick resolution that he just left the total unchanged and added the extra to the tip—hopefully some of that will make its way to the hostess, who handled the situation extremely well.)

One of the best parts of the meal: even with splurging on an entire bottle of wine and ordering just a bit too much food, the check came in (or would have, with the correct dessert and wine prices) at $80 before tax and tip, which was a really pleasant surprise. That puts the prices on par with neighborhood spots like Glenview’s Bellanico, and a notch below destination restaurants like Rockridge’s Wood Tavern (which I really will write up one of these days, because it’s one of our favorites!) and À Côté, where we typically spend closer to $100 for a similar meal. The combination of reasonable prices, good food, and an almost-walkable location means that we just may become regulars at Sidebar.

Update, 03/21/09: We made a repeat visit to Sidebar since I’d heard they’d gotten their full liquor license, and wanted to check out the cocktails. They have, and they’re great. They have a list of eight or so, and each comes in two versions: a “classic,” made the traditional way, and a “locavore,” made with local liquors and other ingredients, including house-made bitters. We tried the locavore Manhattan and Aviation, both excellent. On the food front, we tried the steak frites, also tasty—a bit chewier than the melt-in-your-mouth version we used to get at Jojo’s, but (as D. put it) still much tastier with excellent seasoning. Repeated the mussels, which are still good, and tried out the chopped salad. I liked this a lot with its creamy green goddess dressing, but it was a touch too creamy for D.’s taste. Ended with the profiteroles, which were on the stale side and nowhere near as good as the Almond Joy.  Ah, well. Overall, though, reinforced its status as a great neighborhood restaurant (especially since we only waited ten minutes at 8 pm on a Friday, and our grand total with two cocktails and a filling meal still only came to $35 each before tax and tip!) Kudos, Sidebar.

Grade: A−
Price: $$-$$$

For another take on Sidebar, check out Becks’ review over at Living in the O.

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