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Dine About Oakland: Camino

November 5, 2008

We were lucky enough to get trips to three tasty spots while D.’s parents were in town last week: Blue Bottle Café and Slanted Door in San Francisco, two favorites, and Camino, a new restaurant on Grand in Oakland that opened earlier this year. We’ve been itching to try Camino for a while now, since it’s in the ‘hood and has gotten some pretty stellar reviews in the Chron and even the NYT (in addition to some lukewarm Yelp ratings, though I generally take these with a grain of salt). The chef (and owner with wife Allison Hopelain) is Russell Moore, who was Chez Panisse’s upstairs chef for many years. (Surprise, surprise, another Oakland restaurant opened by a CP alum….but hey, I can’t complain as long as they keep sending us the good ones!)

And we were indeed hugely impressed—all the more so because we’d gone in with mixed expectations after reading of a number of people who didn’t buy into the restaurant’s premise. Here’s the deal: they choose seasonal, local ingredients, and craft several appetizers, entrees, and desserts. You find out what’s on the menu mid-afternoon, and that’s what you get (a la Chez Panisse). The selection isn’t huge, but it was plenty for us. (I can see how vegetarians might have been a bit frustrated, though, as it was largely fish and meat.) Preparation was simple and clean—an art that’s underappreciated these days, if you ask me.

We had:

…as appetizers:

  • Roasted mussels with a touch of saffron and absinthe—mmm! Extremely fresh mussels, too; I want to know where they buy their fish, since we’ve made variations of this at home but the mussels are never quite as fresh and tender. Oh, and to dip in it: fresh Acme epi baguette, my favorite!
  • Ling cod brandade fritters—the only thing that was under expectations. Still tasty but not quite what we expected (not that we knew exactly what to expect!) Soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside—this was fine by me, but got mixed reviews from D. and his parents.
  • Fennel salad—nothing complicated there, but again, simplicity wins big points with me.

…as entrees:

  • Boudin blanc with savoy cabbage and apples
  • Roasted ling cod with vegetables (yup, as an entree to follow up the appetizer!)
  • Roasted chicken with roasted turnips, turnip tops, and other vegetables

…as dessert:

  • Apple tart with cream—the best we’ve had, which is saying a lot since we’ve had some excellent apple tarts at both À Côté and Bay Wolf, and D. makes a pretty mean tarte tatin himself.
  • Mint ice milk—tasty, though with the tart it ended up being more dessert than we needed. But it was an opportunity to reminisce on ice milk and wondered why no one makes it anymore, given how light and lovely it is! Accompanied by unusual buckwheat cookies.
  • No coffee on this visit, which is unusual for us, so I can’t give that a grade.

Basically, although the appetizers and tart were the real winners, we enjoyed every dish (and the wine, to boot), and I didn’t feel like any ingredient was out of place, which is more than I can say about many, many restaurant dishes. The cocktail list is brief, so if you’re devoted to a specific liquor you may have to regroup. We tried a brandy cocktail that was a variation on a Sazerac; it was interesting, but not on par with some of the exceptional cocktails you can get at Flora or Wood Tavern. As far as atmosphere, the space is a bit dark but I rather like that. The open fire and wood oven are at the end of the dining room and add to the atmosphere as you watch the kitchen team at work. I’d eat there again in a heartbeat. It’s not cheap (though in this case we were treated—thanks!) but it’s no pricier than any of the other Oakland hot spots, so I have no issue with that. We also had a lovely experience with service and our (private, but close to others) table, two concerns we’d heard about Camino.

Grade: A
Price: $$$-$$$$

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