Sunday, August 31, 2014

Oaktown Restaurant Update - September 2014

Whether you love or hate this "Brooklynization of Oakland" movement that's been going on, as a foodie you've got to acknowledge that it's done nothing but wonders for the Oakland dining scene. New restaurants are still popping up at an incredible clip throughout the city. Over the past few months I've dined at a number of new places that have recently opened and which I wouldn't hesitate to go back to - Captain & Corset, Shakewell, The Dock at Linden Street, Michel, Belly Uptown, Abura-Ya, Bissap Baobab and Liba Falafel are amongst the newbies and are all excellent.

I guess it's also time to update my "Top 10" Oakland restaurant list again, though it's getting really hard with the proliferation of all these new great places. I've adjusted my list a bit to include more balance in terms of food variety as well as price points. So, without further ado, here they are in alphabetical order:

B-Side BBQ


Still the best BBQ joint in the city, and by a long shot. They recently tweaked their dinner menu a bit to allow you to order a two-way combo...which is fantastic because I love both the St. Louis ribs and the brisket. They also now include a side with your dinner entree, and only charge a couple of bucks more than they used to...so it's even a better deal now. For awhile they stopped serving lunch, which was really a bummer, but I'm pleased to report that they resumed lunch service a couple of months ago.

Commis


James Syabout's flagship is still worthy of its Michelin Star, and it's the only restaurant in the entire East Bay to be awarded one (Chez Panisse lost theirs a few years ago). Though the price of the prix fix menu has continued to crawl up I still think it's a relative bargain given the quality and preparation being put into each meal. When booking a reservation I would highly recommend requesting seats at the Chef's Counter, so you can watch the artisans at work. The wine pairing at ~$55 is also a bargain in my opinion.

The Dock at Linden Street


Syabout's latest has fast become one of my favorites. The place is split up into two halves; the main restaurant and the beer garden, which has its own hours and serves a few snacks and desserts from the restaurant menu in addition to the wide variety of beer selections...many of which are from the Linden Street Brewery right next door. The food menu mainly consists of small plates meant to be shared, and can best be described as upscale bar food with an Asian twist. Gorgeous restaurant and in a very cool West Oakland location with plenty of free parking onsite. And oh, you must order one of the sundaes for dessert!

Dopo


A fair number of Italian restaurants have opened in Oaktown during the past couple of years, but Dopo continues to be the king when it comes to pizza and pasta. Their thin pizza crust is still consistently the best of the bunch, and their pastas are also expertly prepared and never overcooked. I've heard of some service issues there from a couple of my friends, but never a complaint about the food quality. They also take a limited number of reservations now, which is great because the waits can be on the long-ish side there.

Duende


Into its second year now, Paul Canalis' beautifully designed restaurant is still firing on all cylinders. The arroz negro paella is still one of my favorite dishes anywhere, as is the steak. Their menu changes constantly, and one of my current favorites is the lamb and lobster sausage...delicious! And in addition to their live music they're now starting to show art house films, free of charge. Their Bodega is also a cool place to hangout during mornings or on weekends for some coffee, pastries or an ice cream sandwich made from Ici in Berkeley - owned by Paul's wife.

Hopscotch


I was there the day they first opened, there again on their first anniversary, and again on their second anniversary...that's how much I love this place. Still going very strong, so much so that it's getting pretty hard to get a seat in the place without booking well in advance. To keep up with the demand they've rented out the space two doors away which they typically use for larger groups. The fried chicken continues to be amongst the best anywhere, and lately I've been enjoying some of their brunch specialties such as the Soy Braised Pork Belly Benedict...very yummy indeed! And for those of you who are whiskey lovers, Jenny has curated a most impressive collection of Japanese whiskeys in their bar.

Miss Ollie's


Speaking of fried chicken, I would say that Miss Ollie's is in a tie with Hopscotch for the best fried chicken dish in Oakland, though the preparations are totally different. For about $18 you get 4 pieces of creole-style fried chicken, plus a bowl of potato salad and some greens...quite the bargain! The staff at Miss Ollies is always friendly and helpful, and you definitely must remember to order the Creole doughnuts for dessert.

Nido


It took me three visits to finally warm up to this place, but I have to say now that this is the finest Mexican restaurant in Oakland. The best dishes there are ones that are non-traditional, with the pork Chuleta perhaps being the best pork chop I've had anywhere. They serve some great margaritas as well, with my favorite being the spicy Picosa. Believe it or not, their kitchen does not have a refrigerator...so you know everything they serve is going to be fresh.

Osmanthus


Growing up Asian, I'm always a bit suspicious of Asian restaurants touted as "fusion" or being run by non-Asians. However, after a couple of friends recommended this place I decided to try it for myself, and boy I'm really glad I did. Located in the old Nan-Yang location in Rockridge, Osmanthus serves up modern renditions of classic dishes across all of Asia. Among the dishes I've tried are the tea leaf salad, trout fried rice, kabocha short ribs,  brussel sprouts  and the pork belly...all are highly recommended. The menus somewhat resembles that of the uber-popular Burma Superstar, but their preparations are a bit more refined in my opinion.

Ramen Shop


I resisted going to this place for the first couple of months after it opened, because I couldn't understand how anyone could get away with selling $17 bowls of ramen. But when I finally gave in and tried it I became a total convert and now it's one of my main "go to" places...despite their no reservation policy. If you're looking for traditional Japanese ramen you might be disappointed, but if you've wondered what it would be like if Chez Panisse alum were to make ramen...well, that's exactly what you get here. In addition to three ramen choices per day they also serve a number of tasty side dishes, including some type of fried rice which I usually get as an appetizer. And for dessert the black sesame ice cream sandwich is the bomb!

And now a few comments about some the restaurants that dropped out of the Top 10, as well as a few other notables that didn't quite make it:

Flora: Kind of pains me not to include them, as they were the first ones to embrace Uptown and set the stage for what that area has turned out to be. But their food is a lot more hit-and-miss these days, plus they continue to suffer from constant staff turnover...I keep seeing all their good bartenders and waiters showing up at some of the other restaurants listed here. I'm still a fan, though, and I think their burger is still one of the best in town...as is their bar.

Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service and Penrose: All three of Charlie Hallowell's restaurants are excellent and come close to making the list, and Penrose has one of the coolest interior designs of any Oakland restaurant. But I do find that the pizzas at Pizzaiolo and especially at Boot & Shoe to be inconsistent in terms of the all important "crispy crust" factor. And one thing that all three of these restaurants share - very high interior noise levels.

Haven: Daniel Patterson's Jack London joint has unfortunately gone downhill. I was so in love with this place when it first opened, when Kim Alter was at the helm in the kitchen. But after she left in an effort to salvage Patterson's other restaurant Plum the food quality suffered, and the service issues which I had previously overlooked became a lot more bothersome to me as a result. And speaking of Plum, though I was pleased with the improvements when Alter took over their kitchen, that proved to be short lived as the restaurant was recently rebranded as Ume and Alter was gone as well. Now both of Patterson's Oakland restaurants are merely okay, but definitely not great.

Hawker Fare and Box & Bells: Either of these can justify being on my Top 10, but hey, we can't have all four of Syabout's restaurants on the list, can we? Hawker Fare recently changed up their menu for dinner, so now there's quite a selection of new and tasty items to try. And Box & Bells is a great addition to Rockridge, taking over the former (and mediocre) Somerset space. The fare there is high-end gastropub, a bit on the "heavy" side but which is fine by me.

Camino: Still very good, though the last couple of times I went there I thought it was just okay. What's always a bit challenging with this place is the fact that they only serve three entrees per day, so you sometimes end up going there just to find out that nothing sounds terribly appealing.

Cosecha: This is the best tacqueria in town, which is not surprising since it's another restaurant run by a Chez Panisse alum. I actually boycotted this place for over a year because of some horrific service I received on one occasion, but after finally coming back I was happy to see that the food quality has remained consistently great...I particularly like the shrimp and pork belly tacos.

Abura-Ya: This new pop-up in downtown Oakland is housed in a salad bar on 15th St. and serves 6 varieties of the most awesome and tastiest Japanese chicken karaage that you'll find anywhere. And dirt cheap too...4 large pieces for $7; 8 pieces for $12. In addition to the karaage they serve some really tasty salads, including a delicious and creamy wasabi slaw.

Belly Uptown: Finally...a takeout place just a stone's throw from my office that serves high quality food. I love, love everything this place serves. The burgers are delicious and sort of Umami Burger-like, and the tacos and burritos have Asian influences in them that work just perfectly. In particular, I'm nuts for the burritos because they use sushi rice which gives them an additional slight chewy texture in the fillings...really well done!
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