Posts Tagged ‘dine about oakland’

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Dine About Oakland: CommonWealth

February 14, 2011

Yeah, yeah, yeah, still here. And our kitchen is still not done, so still no time for writing. But one of my new year’s resolutions was to try to shake the dust off this blog and get it up and running again…though given that it’s already February, I’m not doing so well on that front! I’m going to try starting with some bite-sized tidbits in the interim, though.

So for now, here’s a happy Valentine’s post on CommonWealth, one of Oakland’s newer restaurant pubs, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite neighborhood haunts (and that’s not just because we still have no working stove and they have shepherd’s pie!) CommonWealth opened last summer not long before our wedding, so although we sent some of our wedding guests there to watch World Cup games, we didn’t actually go ourselves until many weeks later. For most of 2010, they had pretty limited hours, and were often closed when we wanted to go. (This is, incidentally, one of the biggest frustrations of living in an up-and-coming gourmet hot spot in the shadows of downtown; lots of restaurants debut with weekday lunchtime hours, which I understand but which we can never make, so I get all excited and then have to wait for weeks for nighttime or weekend hours…augh!) But happily, with the arrival of 2011 came expanded hours so that CommonWealth is now open every day of the week, and every night except Sunday! In recent weeks, with no easy way to cook, we’ve headed there for all sorts of tasty goodness. (They also now have a gorgeous new façade, so if you haven’t been to go check it out, go take a look!)

The little storefront CommonWealth is in used to be a coffee shop, and it’s very tiny for a bar. But they’ve packed it with tables and lined the windows with stools, so we’ve never had a problem finding a place to sit (though I will say that they are more and more crowded with each passing week…) On the drinks front they just serve beer and wine, but they always have a great and largely local selection of those (plus interesting sodas, coffee, breakfast, and lunch, too). They also offer wifi, so there’s usually a small laptop contingent.

There’s a basic menu of sandwiches, salads, and soups, but the real treats are usually the specials. Shepherd’s pie pops up regularly, and a few weeks ago they even had a veggie haggis version. We’ve tried mac and cheese, pasties, sandwiches, and my favorite, their excellent beet salad. Dessert was also delicious: a chocolate stout float with cookie ‘n’ caramel sauce on the side! Really, how can you beat that? Beer on tap is often local and always interesting and varied; it’s never been the same selection twice, even when we’ve been there two nights running. There’s also a bottle list that is pretty consistent, plus an assortment of wines, sodas, and other drinks if alcohol isn’t your thing.

My favorite thing about CommonWealth, though, is that they are also an exceptional coffee shop, something that our immediate neighborhood is sorely lacking. (Yeah, I know we can walk to Piedmont or Grand Lake or Telegraph, but the nearest coffee shops on each are a mile away, and even Farley’s East is a ten-minute walk. Need an indication of just how much our ‘hood needs some good local coffee shops? Just go take a peek at how packed Whole Foods Café is from opening to closing every day! ) So it’s good to have coffee a bit closer to home. We’ve taken the dog over a couple of times, and you can either sit outside when the outdoor table and chairs are there as long as you don’t take the alcohol out, or have one person sit inside at the window, since the window sill is a perfect little counter. They have excellent currant scones, and they actually know how to make scones, which is not to be taken lightly. (Okay, I admit it, I’m a scone snob! My mom made us wonderful traditional cream scones growing up, and now I really can’t stomach what many coffee shops, particularly certain national chains, try to pass off as “scones.” But these are terrific!) They also have great coffee—they use Oakland/Emeryville-based Roast and also sell beans. And they make perfect Gibraltars—also not to be taken lightly! (Random factoid: I only recently learned that Blue Bottle invented the Gibraltar, which is named after the Libbey Duratuff rocks glass it’s served in. Granted, a Gibraltar is really just a true short cappuccino—that is to say, not the “short” cappuccino you can order at Starbucks, which is actually what the rest of the world would consider a normal cappuccino—or a tall cortado, which no one but the one barista who briefly worked at the Peet’s by my office two years ago seems to know how to make. But still, both D. and I have happily embraced this new coffee development—it’s a much easier way of ordering a not-too-milky espresso drink without having to specify “a cappuccino with an inch less milk than you were planning to put in.”) There’s also a brunch menu on weekends and a lunch menu on weekdays, though we haven’t ventured into that territory yet.

So, in a nutshell: local beer, local coffee, shepherd’s pie, scones, no wait, and six blocks from my house. What’s not to love?? If they had outdoor seating where you could have a beer too, it would be practically perfect!

Grade: A
Price: $-$$

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Dine About Oakland: Nex

July 14, 2010

This weekend, I wasn’t up for a real night out, but we still wanted to show our support for local restaurants. So, with some friends, we headed out to a brand-new spot that we could walk to: Nex, the latest venture from Hi-Suk and Sanju Dong, the husband-and-wife team behind Mua and Soizic. We had high hopes since we like Mua’s food a lot, but often find it too loud for a weekend dinner. Nex has been billed as more restaurant and less club, but with a similar vibe, which sounded perfect. And though I never made it to Soizic, which is now closed for “reinventing” as someplace new, D. was a fan in its heyday. Nex is at Webster and Broadway right next-door to Mua, in the space that was briefly the short-lived Café Noir. While Café Noir was trying to juggle the coffee shop-pizza joint identity, though, Nex is a bit more upscale and decidedly a dinner spot.

On its first Friday night, the place was pretty quiet, which was also a nice change from Mua, where you can sometimes wait well over an hour for a table on the weekends. That’s not to say it was empty, though: clearly people are beginning to hear about it, and a number of people popped over from Mua to peek in and see what was happening. Interestingly, the crowd had a slightly older leaning; we were probably the youngest people there, which was a funny shift from Mua, where I sometimes feel pretty old. (One of our friends guessed that this might have been the Soizic crowd checking out the new place.) And on a fun side note, about half an hour into our meal, in walks Jerry Brown. Turns out he and his wife are pizza-and-wine fans too. (They also live a couple blocks away in the other direction, so I imagine they had the same walk-to-dinner idea we had.) This also led to a funny exchange at the door, when a group came in to check the place out and decide whether to stay for dinner. As one guy examined the menu, the other kept poking him, saying “Hey. Hey! Isn’t that the governor? Over there?” Finally the first guy, who was more concerned with the pizza list, responds, “Oh. Nah, he’s not the governor right now.” A pause. “Well, then are we eating here or not?” Shrugs. “Let’s keep looking.” And they leave.

Too bad, though, since they missed some good food! Since there were four of us, we gave the menu a good workout, trying:

  • Grilled asparagus with bacon and a poached egg: Excellent. We added this in the end at the advice of the server, who clearly knows what he’s talking about. Egg was perfectly done, and asparagus was just right. Highly recommended. Mmm!
  • House salad with butter lettuce, nectarines, and goat cheese: Also great. D. was initially pushing for the farro salad (which looked great at the table next to us) but after a few bites of the house salad, conceded that it had been a good pick.
  • Gnocchi: Meh. This was the one weak dish. The sauce was a very simple, sweet tomato sauce that overpowered the gnocchi. This turned out not to be bad, though, since the gnocchi were mushy and glutinous. We couldn’t decide if this was a preparation issue (undercooked, one of us wondered?) or a recipe issue (I’ve made gnocchi at home before, and I know that the delicate balance of flour and potato can make all the difference between tender little dumplings and mushiness, so possibly this dish can just be written off to a new restaurant still getting its bearings; they were also listed as being made with mascarpone, so possibly that was contributing too).
  • Nex pizza: The house specialty, this pizza is topped with anchovies, goat cheese, caramelized onions, and olives. We had an anchovy-lover among us, but even he thought this was a little over the top. The cheese, anchovies, and olives are all super salty, so if you got a bite with all three, it was just a bit much. (In contrast, the bites with just one or two and the onions were delicious, so I might order this in the future and ask them to leave either anchovies or olives off.) The crust was good, though, which is our big criterion for good pizza. I had high hopes since we’d liked the crust at Café Noir, and they’re using the same oven. While the pizza isn’t as good as spots like Marzano or Pizzaiolo that specialize in wood oven pizza, it was up there with the crusts at most of the other places in town. Crisp with bubbles…yum!
  • Forest pizza: This was a daily special pizza that featured fiddlehead ferns, hen of the wood mushrooms, and a cheese I’m blanking on (fontina, maybe?) This was probably my favorite, but I also love fiddleheads since you don’t see them too often around here.
  • Roasted cauliflower: D. really wanted to try this, so we threw it into the mix, and were really glad we did. While the dish is simple, it was excellent, and really showcased what a wood oven can do with vegetables.
  • Tarte tatin: Okay. This apple tart was quite tasty, but it was not a tarte tatin in the slightest, which was a bit of an issue for D., who’s a connoisseur of tarte tatins and has been through about a dozen recipes over the last few years trying to make the perfect one. A traditional tarte tatin features apples caramelized in butter and sugar until they’re a deep caramel color, covered with a pastry crust, baked in the same pan until the apples and crust meld, and then inverted and served like an upside-down cake. Nex’s version has lovely baked apples sitting delicately atop puff pastry, but there’s no caramelizing to be found. My vote: keep this on the menu—it’s yummy, especially with the cream alongside—but change the name to “apple tart” to avoid deeply disappointing tarte tatin fans. Meanwhile, our search for a great tarte tatin in Oakland continues…
  • Funnel cake fingers: This was probably the most interesting dish of the meal. Essentially, it’s sweet french fries made of funnel cake batter, served with chocolate (listed on the menu as spicy, but the chocolate we got seemed not to be) and fruit sauce. This is a variation on the fritter/doughnut theme that so many restaurants around town feature right now. We order it every place we see it, too, since both D. and I love really good doughnuts. I didn’t love this version simply because there’s more outside than inside to the treats, and I love the soft inside of bomboloni and zeppole and the like. However, these got points for being creative and unusual, and they really did taste like funnel cake, which was fun. So basically, we probably wouldn’t get them again, but were glad we ordered them once.
  • Cocktails, wine, and beer: We were pleased with the lists for all three of these. Beer is only in the bottle, but they have a great selection. Manhattan was similar to (though not quite as sweet as) the version served next-door at Mu, which I like a lot. Prices on par with most other spots of this flavor in town.

Overall, I was pleased with our first meal at Nex, especially since we were there just days after they opened, so it’s likely to keep getting better. The most exciting part is that the mood is pretty mellow compared to Mua; while we really enjoy Mua (and other spots like Shashamane across the street), these places start spinning music by 10 on weekend nights and become loud and hip. And, well, we’re old! (Okay, not really, but we’re not twenty-somethings anymore and sometimes Mua is just too loud for what we need on a Friday night.) So Nex is a great addition to the neighborhood. I have a feeling as they refine the menu in the coming weeks and months, they’ll get the few kinks out, and it will be the perfect spot. The server (who was great, and even IDed some of the fabulous 80’s they were playing to settle some debates) also reports that the owners are exploring adding outdoor tables, too, which would be great. In fact, the only slightly bittersweet part is that we’re back to having no coffee shop in the immediate neighborhood (unless you count Whole Foods Café, which I don’t, but apparently half the neighborhood does since it’s always packed!) Won’t somebody please open a coffee shop here??

On the opening front, though, I was excited to see that Café Randevu is on the verge of opening across the street from Nex, too. Our little corner of Oakland is slowly turning into a culinary hotspot!

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

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What we’ve been doing: Dining about Downtown Oakland

July 9, 2010

This weekend, many Oaklanders are trying to organize eat-outs in support of Downtown and Uptown Oakland restaurants to help support our local businesses in the wake of last night’s violence following the Mehserle verdict. So in the spirit of that effort, I’ll share some of my favorite downtown eating experiences from the past five months. (These restaurant reports are so overdue that I’m not even going to write them up on their own; when we make repeat visits to these spots, they’ll get their own posts, since things may well have changed in the past six months.) But in the meantime, here’s a little taste of the spots we tried this spring.

Please go out and eat this weekend!

TRUEBURGER (Uptown)
D. still hasn’t been here, so this is just my take; my parents and I stopped in during a visit in March, not long after Trueburger opened. We had milkshakes, burgers, and fries, in classic form. Overall, our take was that Trueburger is good, though not the best burger-n-fries we’ve ever had (but then, that’s a pretty high bar!) Burgers were tasty, but they’re only cooked one way and the day we visited, this was well-done (though I think it’s typically more like medium, so I’ll try again at some point). Fries and milkshake were both tasty; next time I’ll try some milkshake mix-ins. My parents thought it was a bit pricey; I thought it was just right given the restaurant’s commitment to using sustainable meat, dairy, and produce. I’d probably still rather get a burger at Wood Tavern, where I can have it alongside a Manhattan and pretend I’m having a fancy meal. But Trueburger isn’t trying to be Wood Tavern; it’s more like a high-end version of In-N-Out. As someone who doesn’t eat fast food meat because of issues with its questionable sources, I love that there’s now a spot in my neighborhood where I can finally satisfy the burger-and-shake craving. Yay! They are apparently in the process of getting a beer-and-wine license, too, so we’ll check it out again after that’s in place.

Grade: B+
Price: $-$$

HIBISCUS (Uptown)
Okay, so it’s been so long since we had dinner here (just after they opened!) that I almost shouldn’t include this report at all. But it was tasty, and I hear it’s gotten even better since then, so I’ll put this in for now, and write a real report once we’ve tried them again. We tried Hibiscus the week after a friend who knows her Caribbean food had given it an overwhelming thumbs up (one of the only places in the Bay Area that passed muster for her!) So we gave it a pre-Fox run one Saturday. Tasty spots included the split pea fritters, the seafood and grits [it’s crab now, but I seem to remember it being shrimp when we visited, though that may be my memory playing tricks on me], and the fried chicken, although I remember thinking that in the future we should try not to load up on quite so many fried dishes. The fried plantains, which I ordered on a whim, were good but a little much with all the other food. Ah, well. And while the salad was good as simple green salads go, it seemed inordinately expensive for lightly dressed greens. (I don’t think the version we had is on the menu anymore, though.) The only really odd spot was the phone call we got with five minutes to go before our reservation. It’s the restaurant, wondering if we’re coming. I assure the woman that we’re outside locking up and will be there in a moment. Weird, but I’d made the reservation online, and maybe people flake out on online reservations a lot. So I head inside, where the woman behind the bar is telling someone that she just talked to me and I claimed we were parking, but she’s sure I was just saying that and we’ll be late. Err…?? I pipe up that yes, in fact I’m here. She just looks at me for a minute and then seats us; service was lovely from there on out. But so strange. Still has me wondering!

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

LAKE CHALET (Uptown/Lake Merritt)
Oh, Lake Chalet, how I long to love you! I was so excited when this spot opened: housed in the historic city boathouse and renovated as part of the Measure DD project along the lake, it’s gorgeous, with a drop-dead beautiful view. The drinks are excellent. But for some reason, it’s plagued with inconsistency on the food front. We first tried Lake Chalet a month after it opened, and had a bizarre mix of fabulous and pretty blah dishes, so we hadn’t made it back. But this spring, D.’s mother and sister hosted my bridal shower there, and Lake Chalet did an outstanding job. The food was wonderful—I’m still dreaming about the fish and chips!—and the meal convinced me that they had finally figured things out. In fact, we were collectively so impressed that several of us independently made plans to go for dinners and brunches in the weeks that followed. And sadly, we all had the same experience: decidedly mediocre meals. Overcooked eggs, cold soggy french fries, ingredients that just didn’t meld. It just wasn’t there. It’s odd, because generally special events are taxing enough that an otherwise good restaurant might falter; it’s not usually the other way around! I’m now thoroughly convinced that Lake Chalet can do exceptional food; they just need to figure out where the hangup is, whether it’s in the kitchen or in the menu planning. Notably, the restaurant is huge, with 450 seats; that’s potentially a challenge. (The funny part is that almost everyone said “well, I guess I’d still come back here anyway, since the view is so good and the drinks were great.” C’mon, we can have a higher bar than that!) But fair enough. I’ll jump on the bandwagon: I still recommend this spot for drinks with a view, and hey, try the food and you might luck out. (Honestly, I hesitate to even make a list of the things we liked there, since the preparation can vary from visit to visit. So just explore the menu and see what happens.) Fingers crossed that in the months to come, they work out the kinks, because I think this spot has the makings of greatness. Update, 07/13/10: Lake Chalet’s chef has left, and the Chalet empire, which also includes Park Chalet and Beach Chalet in San Francisco, has hired a new executive chef to oversee all three restaurants beginning this summer. So watch for some changes…

Grade: B [A based only on drinks, views, happy hours, and special events]
Price: $$-$$$

COCINA POBLANA (Jack London Square)
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that, although I’ve eaten at Cocina Poblana in Emeryville a couple of times, I had never set foot in the Oakland restaurant until last year, when bizarrely I went to two group events in quick succession there. Both were excellent, and when D.’s family wanted to plan a welcome dinner for our wedding earlier this year, we got in touch with owner Lito Saldana. He suggested we all come by for a tasting, so we did. Now, we went to several tastings over the course of wedding planning, and usually “tasting” means “sample a few of our strongest dishes.” At Cocina Poblana, it means “sample everything on our menu and see what you like!” Quite literally. We had food for four at the tasting, and then they packed up the leftovers and sent it home with us to make another two lunches and four dinners. Insane! And amazing! The restaurant specializes in food from the Puebla region of Mexico, home to mole sauces and other tastiness. Lito described each of the moles the restaurant offers, including its history, as we tried each in turn. (We each had different favorites, too, so you should really try them all.) The chile relleno was one of the best I’ve had. The pork melted right off the bone. The homemade tortillas? Fabulous. We did host our dinner here in the end, and we’re still hearing about how amazing the food was. I offer this little review with the very big caveat that I have still never eaten a normal meal here, but we plan to do this soon, since Lito and his team can clearly cook! And the margaritas are to die for (I love the cucumber and tamarind, but really, you should taste them all to find your own favorite!)

Grade: A
Price: $$-$$$

MISS PEARL’S JAM HOUSE (Jack London Square)
This is another spot we tried for the first time as we were debating where to host a dinner for friends and family staying at the Waterfront Hotel. I’ve been intending to check out Miss Pearl’s for a while, so it was great to finally make it there. We had a late weekday lunch here, so the restaurant was relatively quiet, with only a few people left. We tried the catfish po’boy, the cubano, the crab cakes (no longer on the menu), and the steak sandwich. All were good; the po’boy was especially tasty, as were the sweet potato fries, which they brought in abundance. The service was pretty strong except when they forgot about us near the very end of our meal (but in fairness, it was well beyond the lunch hour at that point, and they were clearly transitioning to the dinner staff). The dinner menu is a bit different, so we’ll have to go back at some point and see what the vibe is like then, but I’d definitely go back for lunch.

Grade: B+
Price: $$-$$$

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Dine About Oakland: Boot and Shoe Service

February 5, 2010

I should probably start this review off by saying that I love-love-love Pizzaiolo. We’ve been waiting excitedly for Charlie Hallowell’s two new projects to open in Grand Lake and Uptown, because then we will live smack in the middle of the Pizzaiolo Golden Triangle, with three different restaurants in easy walking or biking distance. So, obviously, I was a little biased as we finally headed to check out Boot & Shoe Service, Pizzaiolo’s new sister restaurant on Grand, with a friend who was visiting—but I tried to leave my expectations at the door and give this little restaurant a shot at its own identity.

I really didn’t need to. This place is a) wonderful and b) exactly the pieces of Pizzaiolo that I would want to copy and paste into my neighborhood, which is to say that it’s a slightly lower-key version of its big sister. Boot & Shoe, named in honor of the cobbler’s shop that was originally here, serves up pizzas—including takeout—and a small selection of appetizers and salads, but for the most part they leave off the entrees that Pizzaiolo is known for. That’s perfect, since it makes for a casual (and far less costly!) night out. Astoundingly, we walked right in on a Thursday night (after trying and failing to get in a couple of weeks earlier). The space is much smaller than Pizzaiolo, but it works with the scaled down menu. The front half of the space that once housed DiBartolo is tables, while the back has a bar that stretches across if all you want is a cocktail and a snack.

We tried a mix of dishes, including one pizza that we’d had at Pizziolo a couple of times as a reference point. We also happened to be there on Stand with Haiti night when the restaurant and wait staff were donating 15 percent of sales and tips to Partners in Health, so we ordered an extra dish for good measure. Our meal started off with the complimentary house olives—mmm!—and included:

  • Burrata with toast and radishes: This was good burrata, although my favorite version of this dish uses warm burrata, and this was cold (as is most common). However, the bread-and-cheese theme ended up overlapping a bit too much with the pizza that followed, so I think next time I’d try one of their other starters, and save this for a night when I’m just headed there for a cocktail and a snack.
  • Salad! Forgot this the first time. And I can’t remember what kind it was, since D. picked it. I wanna say there were beets involved, but I might be making that up.
  • Margherita pizza: Astoundingly, we’ve never tried Pizzaiolo’s version of this, even though D. swears you must use the margherita pizza as the baseline to judge any good pizza joint. Great mozzarella and good tomatoes with a perfect crust—D. pronounced it better than Marzano’s (which is a high compliment since we’re big Marzano fans).
  • Wild nettle and ricotta salata pizza: Wild nettle pizza is one of my favorites at Pizzaiolo, and I was pleased to find the Boot & Shoe version very comparable. If you’ve never had nettles, try some! Again, a great crust on this. (I’ve seen B&S list this with other types of cheese some nights as well, so it would be interesting to see how they compare.)
  • Beer and housemade tonic: To drink, the boys ordered local beer while I had my favorite, a gin and tonic made with the housemade tonic. (It’s the same as the housemade tonic at Pizzaiolo, which they didn’t have the last time we ate there—so I was excited to see it again!)
  • And finally,  a cannoli filled with ricotta, pistachios, and blood oranges. We ordered this on a whim, and it was an unusual pick. First, I grew up in New Haven and also spent a lot of years in Boston, where cannolis are an art form, so I’m a pretty picky cannoli eater. And D. generally hates them altogether since he’s not a fan of ricotta-based anything. But the pistachios and oranges sold him on this one, so we gave it a spin. Yum! Not quite a traditional cannoli, but very good in its own right, with a light filling and a crispy shell. Not a dessert to get for takeout—the shell wouldn’t last long—but a nice bit of sweetness to end a meal.

Here are some shots D. took with his schmancy new phone to send to our friend’s wife back in Colorado (with apologies to our wonderful waitress, who asked with a raised eyebrow, “oh, are you Yelpers?” when D. started snapping shots…err, not exactly?)

Mmm....

Mmm....

Move along, now, nothing to see here...

Move along, now, nothing to see here...

All-in-all, I’m excited to welcome this spot to our neighborhood. It’s practically perfect. Our dinner—which included a bit more than we generally order, plus a round-and-a half of drinks and great service!—still wound up under $100 for three of us, which really can’t be beat. The only things that could be improved? I would love for Boot & Shoe to be open on Sundays (they’re currently closed Sundays and Mondays, and Pizzaiolo’s closed Sundays too). And I’d REALLY love for them to be open for breakfast a la Pizzaiolo (or even weekend brunch with doughnuts and breakfast pizzas like Marzano used to serve). But for now I’ll be content to dream about buttermilk doughnuts while we enjoy dinners and takeout there.

Update, 5/4/10: Boot and Shoe is now open on Sundays!

Grade: A A+
Price: $$

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Dine About Oakland: Grand Tavern

December 28, 2009

I’ve been really curious about Grand Tavern ever since they opened earlier this year, but somehow we just never seem to end up out and about in Grand Lake at an appropriate tavern time. (Also, for a while D. was resisting because their website plays music—a pet peeve of his—so that took a little coaxing!) A couple weeks ago, though, we were over at Grand Lake Ace for some errands, and it was cold, mucky, and drizzling out. As we passed Grand Tavern on the way home, it looked oh-so-appealing decked out in Christmas lights, and I suddenly remembered they had a fireplace, too. A few minutes later, we were headed in the door.

Grand Tavern moved into the Arts and Crafts house on Upper Grand that was home to Señor Nero’s until it closed last year. During the day, you can get a drink with light food; in the evening hours, they serve a full dinner. They still seem to be figuring out their place, caught between being a pub and being a restaurant. It was actually a perfect fit for what we wanted, though—drinks by the fire with a little snack. We ended up staying for a couple of hours, which meant an opportunity to really give the cocktail menu a workout. On the side, we tried some “small social bites” (or so says the menu). The vegetarian chili was okay, but not too exciting—in the category of “things I can make just as well at home” (and for considerably less!) The fries, on the other hand, were fabulous. “Fries” is something of a misnomer, since the “social skin fries” are actually more like potato chips—warm, crispy rounds of potato with a softer bit on the inside. We’ll definitely get them again, and might give the dinner menu a spin too. When we were there it had a burger in addition to several fancier main dishes; seems like the kind of menu that you can swing towards the casual or the upscale (which is to say, my favorite kind of menu, a la Wood Tavern and Sidebar!)

The list of wines, beers, spirits, and cocktails is extensive, with a distinctively “speakeasy” vibe. (Four different absinthes…!) The cocktails are old school classics reminiscent of the Prohibition era. I tried the Ward 8 and the Old Fashioned, which were both well made; D. was surprised to find that neither was too sweet for him, since generally if the cocktail description includes grenadine or gum syrup, it doesn’t bode well on that front. He stuck with the beer list, though, which features a lot of Belgian ales (including a few I’m not used to seeing anywhere but the Trappist and occasionally Luka’s) plus a good mix of local brews to round it out.

The early evening crowd was mixed on a Saturday night; people trickled in and out, but generally I don’t think this place has been discovered yet (which may be a good thing—a lot of its charm was the quiet by-the-fire environment). We didn’t stay into the dinner hour, so I’m not sure what it’s like then or as you get into going-out time (but generally I’ve found that Grand Lake shuts down a little earlier than some other parts of town, perhaps because it leans to the family side of things).

At any rate, this place was a nice discovery, and one we’ll be back to. While we savored the warm fire during the wintry rain, they also have a back patio that looks like it would be a great spot in the summer. If you bike, skate, or walk to the Tavern, you also get a $2 discount on your second drink, which is good news for us since it’s (sort of!) in the neighborhood.

Grade: A−
Cost: $$-$$$

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Dine About Oakland: Oasis Food Market

November 30, 2009

Tucked in amidst the medical buildings on Pill Hill in the KoreaTown-Northgate District, Oasis Food Market opened earlier this fall as a combination restaurant/grocery store. I’d had my eye on it for months since I frequently catch the 1R bus across the street and had been admiring the beautiful tilework they were restoring on their building—but little did I know what was in store for me once they finally opened!

Oasis is divided into two halves: restaurant on one side, grocery on the other. It’s worth noting that the grocery is remarkably complete—they carry a nice selection of produce, all sorts of Middle Eastern and British specialties (canned, boxed, prepared, and frozen), and organic coffee beans. There’s even a halal meat counter hidden way in the back. This is important since they’re open until 10 pm (and even later during Ramadan, when many Muslims fast during the day), providing a nice late-night alternative to Whole Foods and the 24-hour Safeway. There’s also an impressive selection of Middle Eastern spices.

But what you really want to head to Oasis for is the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurant that occupies the other half of the (huge!) storefront. First, there’s the deli counter, lined above and below with fresh Middle Eastern breads. You can get all sorts of spreads, salads, and other goodness here (including, of course, hummus and baba ghanoush—very reasonably priced!) The last time we visited, they had started to label the dishes, which is good since one of the major challenges is figuring out what each dish is. But all of them are tasty, and there’s a huge selection of fetas and other cheeses to go alongside. The house-made pita bread is excellent, as are the stuffed breads. The Afghan bread also looks like it has a lot of potential, though I have yet to try it.

Then there are the sandwiches. From the street, you can see the lamb and chicken shawarma roasting on spits, and both are good, though I thought the lamb was a notch above. We’ve tried them both as wraps (my pick) and as a plate with rice and salad. The falafel offers a good option for vegetarians (or for anybody who appreciates a good falafel sandwich!) The lines can sometimes be long—the neighborhood has definitely discovered this spot!—but it’s well worth the wait. There are still a few holes to fill—the coffee bar (or what looks like it will be the coffee bar?) isn’t quite set up yet, and the staff are still getting into the swing of things as they get through opening kinks like what to do when the restaurant’s credit card machine goes down and takes the grocery store’s computer system with it. But all of that will sort itself out in time, and the staff are good-natured and patient. (They’re also very willing to help; on one visit, the owner wanted to know what else he could stock for someone, even with the impressive array they already have!)  It’s a great addition to the neighborhood, and will definitely have us heading over to that stretch of Telegraph a lot more often.

Grade: A−
Cost: $

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Dine About Oakland: Bocanova

November 28, 2009

This is a long overdue review, since it’s been close to six weeks since we had a terrific dinner at Bocanova, one of the newest spots in Jack London Square. But I finally have a little time to write today, so here’s a quick rundown.

Bocanova had been on our list to try ever since the Eat Real Festival, when I poked my head into their almost-open space and was excited to see what they’d have to offer. D. also liked the idea that it had a tapas-ish menu with a lot of Spanish/Latin inspiration. We finally made it there in mid-October when we headed to Jack London Square for dinner and a movie—the perfect combination.

I knew it was promising when D. took a look at the menu and announced that he wanted “pretty much everything.” After a little debate, we settled on an avocado, endive, and heart of palm salad; fried yuca; smashed roasted beets;  and the day’s special, mahi mahi crusted in roasted plaintains. (I was also supposed to order the fried padrone peppers, but forgot; they’re on the list for our next visit.) For the most part, we enjoyed everything we tried; the salad was the one weak point since it was mostly endive (normally that wouldn’t be something to complain about, but we wanted a bit more balance!) The yuca, which had been a spur-of-the-moment order because it’s one of my favorite foods, was terrific, as was the fish special. I liked the beets, though they were less up D.’s alley; in retrospect we would have swapped them out for something a little less starchy, though. We rounded out the meal with a Bocanova Manhattan, which was excellent (and even prompted the people at the next table to lean over and ask, “What is that? It looks amazing!”), and a Drake’s IPA for D.

While we didn’t get to sample a huge chunk of the menu (which has a sea of small dishes to choose from), the ones we did try got points for being creative (in the case of the fish and the salad) and just plain old well-prepared (in the case of the yuca, which was prepared in a pretty traditional style, but was fried to perfection—soft and moist inside, crispy outside, with just the right amount of sauce). I was sorry to see that the mahi mahi wasn’t on the regular menu, so we may not have another chance to try it—ah, well, more room to taste something else!

For dessert, we tried another daily special: tiny doughnuts with pumpkin cream filling. These were excellent—D. rated them as “not quite as good as Marzano‘s” (our gold standard, although sadly you can no longer get these now that they’ve stopped serving brunch!) and better than everywhere else we’ve tried them (which is quite a lot of places, since we’ve been on a doughnut kick lately; we still need to make it to Flora for brunch to round out the Oakland variations). The dessert menu had several other items that are on my list for next time, too, including a flan and a banana cake that sound tasty.

Overall, we had a wonderful first experience with Bocanova—I’m excited to add this to the growing list of Jack London Square destinations! We’ll definitely be back for more.

Grade: A
Cost: $$-$$$