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Dine About Oakland: I² (aka I Squared)

December 21, 2008

This weekend, we took a break from my winter eating-out-in-our-‘hood project and headed over to Rockridge, one of Oakland’s biggest restaurant districts. An old friend was in town and craving Italian, and another who frequents Hudson Bay Café had been itching to try I², a new venture by Nori, Sadri and Tanya, the owners of the café. Nori and Sadri are Iranians raised in Scotland, and their new restaurant is a fusion of Iranian and Italian cuisines (hence the name). It’s an intriguing, if slightly unusual, concept, so we were curious to check it out after watching the construction go on for months. (The restaurant is on College right next door to the café; the sign isn’t especially visible yet. I sat facing the window, and it was pretty entertaining to watch people in just about every car that stopped at the light crane their necks to see what was going on inside!)

We were there on a Friday night, and the restaurant was surprisingly empty for peak dinner hour. (Then again, it’s brand new and not highly visible, either…plus, that whole recession thing—tricky time to open a new restaurant!) So we settled in and ordered some drinks and appetizers. I’ll admit that fifteen minutes in, I was worried. Very worried. I² has a few bugs to address (not least of which—how the heck do you write its name?!?)—hopefully all opening month quirks, so we’ll see. First, the bread. It arrived with a lovely little dish of olive oil for dipping. But the thing is—it just wasn’t especially good bread. It reminded me of supermarket Italian bread. Our out-of-town visitor shrugged it off; not every restaurant has good bread, he pointed out. Our local friend stared at him. “Dude, you’re in Oakland.” And he’s right. The Bay Area is blessed with wonderful bread, and superstars like La Farine and Acme don’t charge any more than the mediocre spots. If you’re serving dipping oil in Oakland, there’s no excuse not to have good crusty bread alongside. (Okay, or a good soft-crust Italian loaf, if that’s the restaurant’s speed….though I’m partial to crusty!) Which brings us to the second oddity. We’d no sooner finished our bread than a new plate of tzatziki, vegetables, and pita bread arrived in its place. Yum! But….huh? Technically this was intended as an accompaniment to the Iranian dishes that would follow, but it was a little duplicative. This is a restaurant with a bit of an identity crisis. A better fit might be a hybrid mezze platter that incorporates the two cuisines into a single starter dish, rather than trying to hit the two separately.

Then there were the starters. Our waitress was wonderfully upfront about what she did and didn’t like on the menu, and as it turned out, we should’ve stuck to her advice. (Lesson learned. Love your wait staff!) On her recommendation, we tried the I² salad, a bed of greens with mushrooms, corn, and warmed goat cheese that was tasty, but on par with the salads we make at home. (Granted, I make somewhat elaborate salads in the summertime, so we may not be the norm.) We also had the eggplant parmigiana, against her recommendation, because I wasn’t hungry enough for an entree of my own. (Trust your waiter if he says “well, it’s not our strongest dish….”) Again, it was perfectly fine—but D.’s version is just as good for a fraction of the $9 price. (That’s a compliment to both—his is terrific—but still. We get a week’s worth of lunches out of ours!) As we sat sipping our drinks and waiting for the entrées, I wondered if we’d chosen our restaurant poorly. (Oh, and on the drink front….the wine list is decent, but they just serve bottled Samuel Smith beers—and only oatmeal stout, nut brown ale, and organic lager at that. Samuel Smith is made in England, which is a little nuts given all of the stellar local beers. Maybe in the future they’ll think about adding some. From the looks of the bar, I’m also guessing they eventually plan to pursue a full liquor license, too.)

Luckily, just as I was twirling my wine glass and starting to fret, our entrées arrived. Wow! The entrées (and the Iranian dishes in particular) are where it’s at. We had the shrimp with pearl couscous (outstanding—we all agreed that we should just have ordered four of these and called it a night), the beef kebab (which turned out to be a sausage of types), and the ghorme sabzi (beef stew). Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not even sure if the shrimp dish counts as Iranian or Italian—maybe that’s where the fusion comes in. But whatever you do, get that. (We also agreed that it would have been just as tasty without the shrimp, so if you don’t do the shellfish thing, consider asking for the couscous and vegetables solo.) Sometime midway through the meal, the owner came by to chat, and we complimented him on the terrific entrées. He also wanted to hear what we hadn’t liked, which is a promising sign (though we completely forgot to mention the bread—d’oh!) And he promised that on our next visit, they’d have some additional Italian entrées ready for prime time—risotto and gnocchi, perhaps. D., who’s not a risotto fan after trying too many mediocre attempts, squirmed. “Is it going to be good risotto?” The owner confidently noted that his wife was the one refining the recipe, so it would be the best we’d had. We’ll have to give it a whirl.

Finally, we ended the meal with dessert: delicate profiteroles filled with honey cream and a saffron panna cotta with candied pistachios. Both were excellent—the fusion concept really shone in the desserts, I think. All told, we had a good meal, even if it got off to a somewhat rocky start. The service was strong, which helped. I’ll definitely be back, though, now that I have a sense of how (and what) to order. (I’m not sure if they do takeout, but it seems like a good contender for that as well—the dishes would travel well.) The restaurant is small, but for now it seems to be off the foodie radar, so there was no wait at all. Prices are reasonable; we got in and out with drinks for a little over $30 each before tax and tip. Not bad, and a nice addition to the College Ave scene.

Grade: B+
Price: $$

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