Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Best Restaurants in Oakland - According to Me

This is a departure from my usual tech-oriented writing, but a few of my friends have previously suggested that I write a food blog as I'm always checking out the latest restaurants in Oaktown and have pretty strong opinions about who is or isn't serving quality food. Quite honestly I don't have the time to write such a blog, plus I don't consider myself to be anything close to an expert when it comes to the culinary arts - I just love to eat!  However, I do have my favorite hangouts, and so without further ado here is my official "Top Ten Restaurants in Oakland" list.  In alphabetical order:

B-Side BBQ


If you're looking for quick and cheap BBQ with the meat piled on high then this isn't your place. However, if you're looking for very well prepared fare using quality ingredients and a great atmosphere then you've come to the right BBQ joint.  My favorite two dishes are the brisket and the Dark & Stormy St. Louis ribs.  The sides are excellent too. I've had their cornbread, mac 'n cheese, spicy coleslaw and potato salad...all were great. Even the toast that comes with the BBQ is done really well...no slices of Wonder Bread here.  And finally, how can you not like a place that often shows Blazing Saddles on their big screens?

Camino 


Run by an ex-alum of Chez Panisse (as are a number of restaurants here) I guess it's no surprise that I consider this place to be the closest thing to Chez Panisse without having to actually go there.  Some people might be put off by their "community" seating arrangement, but it doesn't bother me at all.  The reason I don't come here more often, though, is because their menu changes daily, you don't know about it until they post it to their website they day of, and they only serve three entrees per day - so it's always a bit of a gamble.  On the plus side they'll serve you boatloads of Acme's "Pain de Mie" rolls, which I am terribly addicted to. Though I haven't eaten here a lot, the times that I have I've walked away thoroughly satisfied...I think the last time here I had some terrific roasted crab.

Commis


Quite simply, the best fine dining in the East Bay.  James Syhabout's first restaurant is a winner and has deservedly earned its Michelin Star.  The attention to preparation and detail is amazing in this place.  In fact, when you're in there it sometimes feels a bit eerie because the kitchen is right in the middle of the restaurant but you never hear a peep from any of the chefs because they're all meticulously working on the food preparation/presentation.  Their multi-course fixed-price menu changes frequently, but definitely count on a couple of the courses bordering on molecular gastronomy...Mr. Syhabout evidently worked a stint at the famed elBulli restaurant in Spain.  The food here isn't cheap and in fact is probably the most expensive restaurant on this list, but after eating here I've always come walking away thinking it was a bargain.

Dopo


I've eaten at every decent Italian joint in the city, but Dopo stands out for me as having the best pasta and thin crust pizza of the bunch.  Their menu changes constantly, but when they offer a squid ink pasta I almost aways get that.  They serve lasagne pretty regularly and that is excellent as well.  Their calzones are also a great alternative if you're not quite in a pizza mood. I really like that the crust on their pizzas/calzones have that perfect amount of crispness without getting burnt. If there are any downsides it's that the place is pretty noisy, I sometimes feel cramped in there, and their pasta portions are a bit on the small-ish side.

Duende


This is the hot new kid on the block, and I'm currently addicted to it.  Paul Canales of Oliveto fame recently opened up this place, and not only is the food terrific but the space itself is stunning and ambitious - they spent what looks like a small fortune gutting it out and creating a sense of openness throughout.  The restaurant is broken up into several sections: the main restaurant; the central bar area with shared table seating; the all day "Bodega" where among things they offer coffee, dessert, Spanish wine selections and olive oil; and an upstairs lounge where they occasionally host live music.  The food is Spanish tapas style and meant to be shared.  My favorite dishes include the squid ink seafood paella, the prime rib steak, and the stuffed peppers with lamb.

Flora


Whether or not you like this place, you have to give props to Flora for being a groundbreaker in Uptown, being the first ones of their stature to take a huge gamble on the neighborhood.  And it's paid off handsomely for them, as they've continued to be one of the most popular restaurants in the city. They've gone through several chef changes over the years, but I think their most recent one has made them as good as they've ever been. About half the time I go here I sit at the bar and eat their burger, which for my money is the best burger in town.  Their menu changes constantly and I've rarely been disappointed with any of their meat and seafood dishes.  And oh, their caramel pudding, which they've had since the very beginning, is simply to die for.  Great art deco look and feel too, and the best bar and cocktails in town.  They also recently opened up their sister bar Fauna right next door.

Haven


Daniel Patterson's second restaurant in Oakland (Plum being the other) is easily their best.  The location is a bit hard to find for a first-timer, as it's tucked away in an area of Jack London Square that isn't obvious as being a retail space.  But once you go inside, the modern industrial look is great, and I think the best seating location is right at the bar overlooking the kitchen.  Kim Alter is the executive chef here, and I guess the best way to describe her style of cooking is "bold and aggressive", with dishes like bone marrow and shepherd's pie cooked with pig's blood often on their menu.  Some folks think her "bold" style results in dishes being overly salty and/or buttery...but I'm a sucker for all that.

Hawker Fare


James Syhabout's second restaurant is one that I go to quite often for lunch or a casual dinner. They primarily serve Thai rice bowls mixed with various meats and veggies...my favorites are the poached chicken, pork belly and veggie curry.  You would think that Asian restaurants could not possibly screw up making something as simple as steamed rice, but the reality is that many unfortunately do.  Hawker Fare makes their rice just about as perfect as can be, and they also do a great job with it in their congee dish - just the perfect texture and consistency.  Recently they expanded their menu to include more small bites, mainly meat skewers done Izakaya style...they are delicious.  And from what I've heard they plan to offer even more dishes in the not too distant future. Oh, and they've got a cool assortment of old school music posters featuring local acts on their wall, and they often have a lot of soul/R&B classics that I love playing in the background.

Hopscotch


I have a special fondness for this place because they are super close to my office, I was there for dinner the first night they opened and had a fabulous meal, and Jenny and team are always super nice and accommodating...in fact we had our company holiday party there last year and had a blast.  The restaurant looks like a 50's diner which is cool in and of itself, and perhaps the best way to describe the cuisine is "diner food with a Japanese twist". Their signature dish is the fried chicken, marinated in a soy/mustard sauce and perfectly executed.  Other menu items come and go; I recently had an oxtail stew which was just out of this world.  They also open for lunch and serve a fantastic Tonkatsu sandwich, along with their First Base Burger which you can order with a slice of beef tongue on top - awesome!  Within their first year of operation they received a 3-star Michael Bauer review and also made the Chronicle 100...very impressive!  Great bar too, and one of the few that serve Asahi Super Dry on tap.

Pizzaiolo


This place been a Temescal mainstay for a decade now, and it's still going strong.  Excellent pasta and other main dishes, and their pizzas are fantastic as well...just a hair below Dopo's in my opinion.  They also serve homemade toast and Blue Bottle coffee in the mornings...great place to hangout before starting the workday. The vibe at night is pretty hip and so the place does get pretty loud.  The restaurant seems to be booked solid all the time, and for whatever reason they've never taken online reservations; otherwise I'd go a lot more. Wassup with that?

Okay, I just realized that there are a lot more good restaurants in town than just these ten.  Here are a few of my other favorites in no particular order:

Oliveto: Been a Rockridge institution forever and it's had its ups and downs, but recently on an upswing again. Great location on top of Market Hall serving upscale Italian fare.

Wood Tavern: I just haven't been here enough to consider it for my Top Ten, as the place is just so damn hard to get a table. I will say that the last time I went they prepared a fabulous steak.

Stag's Lunchette: Best sandwich shop in Oakland...period.  The grilled cheese and pastrami reuben are menu fixtures and are excellent.  And some of their "guest" sandwiches have just knocked my socks off, like the meatloaf and the coca cola braised beef.

Burma Superstar: Sister restaurant to the SF institution.  Pretty much the same menu, but pricier and in a more upscale setting.  The Rainbow Salad is always popular, though really not my thing. My favorite dish is their pork belly with pickled mustard greens.

Chop Bar: Great place to have brunch on a nice day where you can sit out on their patio area.  Very well prepared egg dishes, nice assortment of muffins/pastries, and very friendly service.

Sidebar: Their ribeye steak frites is huge and the best steak bargain in the city...I pretty much get this every time I go there.

TrueBurger: The closest thing to a Shake Shack experience outside of NYC.  Really well prepared burgers, and I love the brioche-like buns they use. Great shakes too.

Boot and Shoe Service: Same ownership as Pizzaiolo and same thin crust style pizza. However, the place is even louder than Pizzaiolo (and too hipster) and I find the pizza quality to be less consistent.

Miss Ollie's: This place is fast becoming one of my favorites and may be in my Top Ten before too long. Fried chicken is amazing, and other dishes are also excellent.  Very reasonable prices too.

Rosamunde: Recently opened in Old Oakland.  Love the variety of sausages; my two favs are the chicken habanero and the Mission Street.


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