Oakland's Exciting East Bay Culinary Scene

Oakland's Exciting East Bay Culinary Scene
Recently I had the good fortune to be invited on a culinary tour of the Bay area to eat interesting food and meet talented chefs. I couldn’t resist. My first stop was Oakland, San Francisco’s sister city in the East Bay and the home of the amazing Golden State Warriors.

A meal with a view at the Limewood Bar and Restaurant

Picking up a car at the Oakland International Airport, I headed to the Limewood Bar and Restaurant in the Claremont Club & Spa Hotel. The hotel and restaurant are perched on a hill overlooking Oakland. The day was bright and sunny. I was tempted to eat outside on the palm tree shaded deck, but it was a little cool so I sat inside the casually elegant dining room, next to the window with a spectacular view of the Bay Bridge in the distance.

To try out the menu for an early lunch, I ordered two soups and two appetizers.

I was happy when a basket of Acme Bread sourdough and organic unsalted Strauss Farms European style butter arrived at the table. Any visit I make to San Francisco involves a visit to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. I always stop at the Acme stall to sample their excellent breads and baked goods. I buttered a piece of sourdough and enjoyed its thin crust and soft crumb.

The first soup was a gazpacho. Usually this warm weather soup relies on a mix of tomatoes and cucumber to make a statement about summer’s bounty. Executive chef Joseph Humphrey removed acidic tomatoes from the equation and relied instead on rice wine vinegar and jalapeños to brighten a creamy cucumber puree. A good helping of Albacore tuna crudo and slabs of peeled lemon cucumbers added texture to a thoroughly refreshing dish.

The other soup of the day was a smoked mussel chowder. Resting in the fragrant broth were melt-in-your-mouth tender mussels in their shells, thin bacon strips, pickled Fresno chilies, a scattering of fresh dill and almost translucent Yukon potato cubes. I used bits of Acme bread to soak up the last of the delicious broth. This was an-out-of-the-ballpark combination of savory flavors, heat and luxurious textures.

For me, traveling to an area blessed with a coastline means ordering seafood whenever possible. In addition to the mussels, fresh oysters were on the menu that day. You may want to do as I did and split an order, choosing to have half served raw and the other half lightly roasted.

The Tomales Bay oysters were served in their shell, accompanied by a grilled lemon and a small bowl of an innocent looking, clear sauce. You will be well-advised to squeeze a few drops of grilled lemon juice and to add a demitasse spoonful of the clean sauce onto each oyster.

You will smile at the sweetness of the plump oysters. Their singular flavor is clean and briny. Close your eyes and you can imagine the cold waters of Tomales Bay. Then the lemon and clear sauce will kick in. At first you will be shocked at the heat that strikes the back of your throat. Then the sensation will make you very happy.

For the other preparation, Humphrey also served the oysters on the half shell, but these had been blasted with heat that curled their edges, melted the seaweed butter and toasted the bread crumbs on top. Instead of singularity, these oysters had a layered, textured complexity.

Small plates were the perfect way to begin my culinary road trip. And yet…

Had I been staying at the hotel and had I worked out by swimming laps in the beautiful turquoise pool, played tennis at the 100+ year old Berkeley Tennis Club at the bottom of the hill or taken a long bicycle tour of the hills, then I would have ordered one of Limewood’s larger entrees.

Vowing to return for a heartier meal, I watched as other diners were served plates of grass fed hamburgers on potato buns with slices of sharp cheddar, creamed horseradish and Kennebec fries. Next time I would happily try the roasted porchetta sandwich, the club sandwich with slices of fried chicken and smoked bacon on toasted sourdough, or the vegetarian sweet corn agnolotti with smoked Hon Shimeji mushrooms, caramelized fennel, ricotta salata and shiso.

Pizza and so much more at A16 Rockridge

My next stop was for pizza at A16 Rockridge on College Avenue, a street booming with boutique stores, markets and restaurants. The inspiration for the menu comes from the region along Italy’s A16 highway that cuts from Naples on the Tyrrhenian Sea to Canosa on the Adriatic.

The original A16 San Francisco and A16 Rockridge are the neighborhood restaurants you dream about after taking a trip to Italy. The love of food and wine, friendliness and attention to the smallest details that you enjoyed in Italy are here.

To be close to the action, I requested a seat at the counter that wraps around the work area in front of the wood burning oven. Reading through the extensive menu, I wanted to try a great many dishes. If you came alone, as I did, you will look longingly out into the busy dining room at the groups of four, five and six who came together, knowing they wanted to share dishes and pizzas.

The first dish was a palate teaser. Executive sous chef Isaiah Martinez placed an elegantly posed fried squash blossom in front of me. The batter clung like lace to the delicate petals which surrounded a knob of ricotta cheese mixed with the Tuscan herb nepitella. Martinez sprinkled on a few flakes of crunchy Jacobsen’s sea salt. I hesitated to eat the blossom, it was so beautiful. He urged me to take a bite. I did. The batter, filling and petals evaporated in a flash of crispness and salty creaminess. What an extraordinary creation.

Given my place at the counter, I enjoyed watching the chefs work the pizza dough before choosing the toppings and placing them into the wood burning oven. Within minutes, the heat had done its magic and the pizza returned to sight, cheese bubbling, the dough charred around the edges.

Personally, I love a thin crust because I believe the true delight of pizza is the “stuff” on top. The crust should complement, contrast and delight, but not overwhelm. No deep dish pizza for me.

I watched the chefs create vegetarian pizzas--the Margherita, Marinara, Montanara, Pomodoro and the very delicious Melanzana, topped with a roasted eggplant puree scented with garlic, basil, oregano, pecorino and salty cracked green olives.

Meat lovers would be very happy ordering the Salsiccia with crumbled pork sausage, chili and grana Padano and the Testa with a scattering of pitted Castelvetrano olives and soppressata crisped into delicate ribbons of fat.

In addition to great pizzas, the kitchen turns out authentic regional Italian dishes. On Mondays there are beef meatballs served with thick basil-tomato sauce. Every day the kitchen makes Napoli style tripe (Trippa Napoletana) in tomato sauce, with chili, white wine and toasted breadcrumbs. My mother loved chewy tripe. Me, not so much. Martinez said I had to give it a taste. The soft luxurious tripe was delicious. I was converted.

When I saw calamari on the menu, I expected calamari fritti because, well, this is a pizza joint, right? Wrong. I was served roasted Monterey calamari, the bodies whole, the tentacles flash fried to crispness along with paper thin slices of lemon. Added to the dish were a handful of oversized corona beans. As they fried, the beans’ skins became parchment paper crisp. Delicious.

Given the friendly ambiance and the quality of the food, at A16 Rockridge, it was easy to imagine I was having a meal in Italy, except for the sounds of the American voices in the dining room.

Fine dining soul food at Brown Sugar Kitchen

As I approached the entrance to the Brown Sugar Kitchen, I heard the warm sound of voices, silverware clinking on plates, coffee cups settling back onto tables and music. When I walked inside, I knew immediately I was in the domain of Chef Tanya Holland.

Even though she was in an open kitchen facing the dining room, her focus was on her stove and her staff. Working confidently and efficiently, she tended to a pot of grits. She knew just how long to stir and when the grits were ready to serve. In command of that dish, she also kept watch over the chefs who worked around her. Out of the corner of her eye she watched a cook flipping waffles on the three irons to confirm she was working as efficiently as she should. As another cook was about to put breaded chicken pieces into hot oil, she had him pause and shake the bin to remove the excess flour.

Brown Sugar Kitchen has won countless awards and Holland has become a local celebrity with a national reputation. But that was not her original plan.

Studying and working in France, Holland knew she would return to the United States. Her plan was to open a French bistro. When she moved to Oakland, something happened. She loved French cooking but the food she wanted to share with her customers was the food of her childhood. She wanted to make soul food. To do that, she would reinterpret those childhood favorites using the skills of a classically trained chef.

The menu is a compendium of Southern cooking’s greatest hits. On the breakfast and lunch menus, you’ll have your pick of ham hocks, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, mashed yams, cast iron skillet cornbread, mac & cheese, spicy Cole slaw, baby back ribs, pulled pork, oyster po-boy sandwiches, gumbo, creole barbecue shrimp, blackened catfish, biscuits and more.

Her fine dining training means that the ingredients come with a locavore pedigree. Niman Ranch ham and bacon. Aidells chicken-apple sausage. Fulton Valley Chicken. The coffee is an artisanal roast from Bicycle Coffee Co., made on an espresso machine would make any barista happy. In addition to espresso drinks, the beverages list includes chai latte, coffee and premium sodas like Abita Root Beer and Orangina as well as Coke and orange juice.

The beer and wine list is a mix of local and international labels. Beer from Calicraft Brewing Company (Oaktown Brown), Stella Artois Lager, Red Stripe Jamaican Lager, Lagunitas Dogtown Pale Ale. Wine from Spain (2015 Montsant, Vendrell “Sere”, 2015 Ruedo Rey Santos Verdejo) and the Bay Area (2013 Jeff Cohn Cellars, Smoke & Mirrors/Oakland, 2015 Urbano Cellars Viognier/Berkeley). The ice cream comes from Strauss Family Creamery.

There are many signature dishes here, but one of the best known is her buttermilk fried chicken and cornmeal waffle with brown sage sugar butter & apple cider syrup. When mine arrived, I loved the look of the dish. The golden brown waffle shared the plate with a chicken leg and a breast with a carafe of syrup in the middle. The chicken was everything I wanted. Crisp outside, with moist meat and a hint of heat. Her waffles were as light and airy as a crepe.

With so many other dishes to consider, I enjoyed the cast iron skillet cornbread which arrived with a daub of sweetened butter. Holland’s cornbread has a thin crust with a hint of sweetness that protects and contrasts with the moist cornbread crumb beneath.

Perhaps as a nod to the former occupant of the building, Holland makes Jamaican jerk chicken. Served on the bone, the chicken has a rich flavor that evokes the smoke from an open wood fire. With my plate of jerk chicken, I ordered a side of the black pepper, vinegar sauced cabbage slaw. I loved the combination of moist chicken meat and tart slaw.

When you are thinking about leaving, don’t. Not until you have dessert.

When I visited, I ordered the delicious brown butter coffee cake but I wished I could have also tasted the apple crisp, sweet potato pie, chocolate chip coconut bread pudding and the homemade pop tarts that were made with pluots and blackberries but that change with the seasons.

When it was time to go, I wanted to say goodbye chef Holland. I hesitated to interrupt her focus. But I couldn’t leave without saying thank you. I caught her eye. She looked up and I told her how much I enjoyed her food. She nodded and her dazzling smile told me she appreciated the compliment.

Remembrances of a mother’s kitchen at Calavera Mexican Restaurant & Agave Bar

Sun poured in the glass fronted windows facing Broadway as I walked into Calavera in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood. The high ceilings, exposed brick and open kitchen gave the dining room an inviting, airy and spacious look.

Most people have eaten Mexican food at inexpensive cafes or take out restaurants. For chef Gustavo Romero Veytia that is good news. Diners are familiar with the basic flavors and dishes of Mexican cuisine, tomato salsa, tacos, burritos, refried beans, rice, tortillas, enchiladas and chiles rellenos. But the goal of Calavera is to create sophisticated and elegant versions of those dishes, to take the appreciation of Mexican cooking to another level.

Like chef Tanya Holland, chef Veytia is classically trained. In a two-decade career, he worked at fine dining restaurants but never at a Mexican restaurant. In a way, being at Calavera is a homecoming. He decided to fashion a menu that commemorated the food he loved in his family’s kitchens, reinvigorated with fine dining ingredients and sophisticated techniques.

He is helped in that effort by Ryan Benguerel who crafted the beverage program. Together they created an innovative menu with inventive pairings that include wine, mescal and tequila from their extensive collection.

At Calavera, most people order family style. The menu is organized around small plates (Para Emperar), salads and soups (Ensalada de Tomate), sides (Mas Placeres), tacos and main courses (Platos Fuertes).

With so many choices, I ordered a small plate to have with the house margarita. For Benguerel, margarita salt rims are so last year. Paired with a duck taco on a jicama tortilla (taco de pato), the margarita arrived, not in a flat topped cocktail glass with a coating of salt crystals on the rim, but in a fluted champagne glass topped with a bouffant of foam. The margarita had my attention as I leaned close to take a sip and the foam released a delightful burst of lemony salinity. What a delicious mix of lime, orange peel, agave nectar, Oaxacan sea salt and pueblo veno.

Calavera’s attention to quality vegetables appeared with dramatic clarity when the Ensalada de Tomate arrived at my table on an onyx-black oval plate. The perfectly ripe Comanche Creek heirloom tomatoes, a mix of yellow, red and orange tomato sections were tossed with paper thin watermelon radish slices. Veytia gave these Northern California tomatoes a Mexican treatment with a vinaigrette flavored with the milky white, salty cheese requeson and a crumble of fiery chorizo. The white and red confetti scattered on the edge of the plate were more evidence of Veytia’s invention. Blessed with mounds of tomato skins from roasting tomatoes used in salsas and sauces, he transformed the skins into spicy tomato salt flakes. You will want to sprinkle some on the tomatoes to enjoy their delightful crunch.

Reflecting Calavera’s fine dining point of view, the suggested pairing for the salad was not one of the hundred excellent tequilas and mezcals on display behind the long bar but a light and refreshing Italian Lambrusco, Clento Chiarli from Emilia Romagna.

Exemplifying Veytia’s love of building flavors, I ordered his favorite entre, one that reminds him of his mother’s kitchen, chiles rellenos. My previous encounters with this classic of Mexican cuisine involved a lot of melted cheese. The chile relleno served at Calavera is a distant cousin to that familiar dish.

Key to the relleno was its filling. No large piece of cheese for Veytia inserted inside the pepper. Instead he charred ears of corn on the wood fired grill. The kernels were combined with thin slivers of sweet sautéed onions and red peppers. Dry cotjia cheese added saltiness and a creamy puree of black beans layered on more flavors and textures. The main attraction, a large pasilla chile was charred on the wood grill. The smoky, sweet pepper had the right amount of heat, adding a subtle undercurrent to the mix of flavors and textures.

From the large menu you will want to order several small plates, a taco or two and maybe another main course, but you will want to leave room for dessert. There are classics here, a deliciously rich tres leches cake with banana dulce de leche ice cream, churros with Oaxacan chocolate and guava dipping sauce, fried plantains, ice creams and sorbets. Veytia recommended I try the chocolate flan cake (Pastel Imposible).

The thick rich chocolate cake was topped with a layer of flan. The cold and creamy goat’s milk ice cream (cajeta) contrasted perfectly with the intoxicatingly rich cake. The dessert, like his other dishes, built a pleasing complexity of flavors and textures. To counter the sweetness, he poured a small glass of a dessert mezcal, Tobalá Vago, en Barro, Sola de Vega. Fiery and dry, the clear liquid balanced the lingering intensity of the Pastel Imposible.

Oakland is a richly diverse and complex city. In my all too brief visit I had the good fortune to eat very good food and meet very interesting chefs. I look forward to returning very soon. There is so much more to explore and so much more to enjoy.

When you go:

A16 Rockridge, 5356 College Avenue, Oakland, CA 94618, (510) 768-8003, www.a16pizza.com

Brown Sugar Kitchen, 2534 Mandela Parkway, Oakland, CA 94607, 510/839-SOUL (7685), www.brownsugarkitchen.com, serves breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday

Calavera Mexican Kitchen & Agave Bar, 2337 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612, 510/338-3273, www.calaveraoakland.com

Limewood Bar & Restaurant, the Claremont Club & Spa, a Fairmont Hotel, 41 Tunnel Road, Berkeley, CA 94705 (at the Short Cut in the Oakland Hills, (510) 549-8510, www.limewoodrestaurant.com