Saturday, October 31, 2009

CAFE 15 - "Fast Food Redefined"

In my ever-widening search for new places to write about, I am trying to broaden my experiences when it comes to restaurant offerings. That should, it seemed to me, include diners and other niche establishments that don't necessarily have a full bar and plush fancy seating. Great food often comes with a great big price tag that can be hard on a family budget in this down down down economy.

People don't always need to eat high end, but food should always be fresh and healthy. I haven't had a McDonald's burger in over a year, maybe even two. My BH and I are of an age where junk food is just an all around bad idea. With the kid's grown we have time to choose our food with a little more thought to its ultimate effect on our health. If I am honest, I have to say I don't miss the Big Macs and Happy Meals, but I do miss the low prices.

So while scouring the web for a new place to take our fussy and increasingly health-conscious youngest daughter, our Partner in Food Crimes found Cafe 15, a tiny hole-in-the-wall situated between Clay Street and Jefferson, which touts itself as serving food with an emphasis on being local, organic and fresh. The on-line reviews were pretty favorable and the pictures of the food was appetizing as well. So we checked it out. My daughter ended up not being able to join us, but we headed there for lunch in the middle of last week to check it out anyway. The weather was nice, and since the place is tiny, with most of its seating outside, we figured a sunny day was the best time to risk it, just in case the crowd forced us outside into the open air.

The menu is overwhelming. Quite literally. It's huge, the whole front of the ceiling over the counter is covered with choices of delicious sandwiches, soups and salads, all of which were appealing. In addition, they had a pretty extensive list of daily specials. Burgers, Cold Sandwiches, and Salads of all sorts. It was a cacophony of food combinations. Even goat cheese abounded. Yum!

We really lucked out when the party in front of us decided to move outside, allowing us to nabbed one of the few tables indoors. We struggled with the menu for a moment, in that good way when one is presented with just too many options and the decider in your brain just won't quite settle on one thing. We finally settled on what we would choose and put in our order. While we were struggling with the menu, we had let a party go ahead of us, and I have to say the cashier/hostess really handled the situation politely and with patience. We appreciated the gesture. It was nice to be assisted by such a pleasant young woman. It's hard to always be in a hurry.

My better half and our PFC both had the Lamb Burger, and an Orange Juice. My BH also treated himself to a steaming bowl of their French Onion Soup. I ordered off the specials menu, requesting an Organic Pomegranate Salad (a blend of mixed greens, goat cheese, pears and pomegranate). The waiter brought us our meals pretty rapidly. Waiting was not a problem, it came in under five minutes. Seemed immediate.

The OJ was fresh-squeezed (although prepared and packaged before our arrival) and amazing. When an orange is perfect, its juice is too, so clearly they were using high quality fruit. Good sign. The lamb burgers were moist, having been grilled on an open flame to sear in the juices. Both my BH and our PFC commented on the meat's being done exactly as-ordered. They had both requested medium rare, and the burgers arrived perfectly tinged with pink in the middle, rather than gray all the way through as so often happens with incorrectly cooked meat.
On another note, the bread they serve here is exclusively Acme bread. Acme is one of my favorite bread vendors ever. The company is an off-shoot of the Chez Panisse legacy (Acme was the brainchild of one of their dishwashers) and is now considered to be world class. If you love good bread, you'll love Acme. The French Onion Soup was good, ingredients tasty. The BH enjoyed it, but had no specific flavor notes to add. Oddly enough, while he loves French Onion Soup, he is not a fan of onions, so ....

I think my Organic Pomegranate Salad was one of the best salads I have ever had. A big problem with many salads can be in the dressing. The greens are all too often under- or over-dressed. There does seem to be a skill for hand mixing salad that is keeping this from being a problem in current dining experiences, but I have never seen a trick such as the one employed by Cafe 15. The salad was presented almost like a calzone, with the lettuce wrapped gently around and over a beautifully-dressed thick slice of brown bread, layered with warm goat cheese and pears in the center, and dressed with a light fruity vinaigrette. Eating this salad was like working to the chocolate in the center of a tootsie-roll pop. Delicious! It took me awhile to discover that all the goodness was coming from beneath the lettuce, but the experience had this nice reverse-effect from eating most salads. Usually one eats all the goodies from the top of a salad leaving the naked lettuce to pick at for the balance of the meal. That presentation can cause me, at least, not to finish much of my lettuce. But Cafe 15's version has the lettuce come first, and each bite taken catches a bit of the goodies underneath, causing the meal to build to a crescendo, rather than bringing the diner to a disappointing finish. I ate every bite. It was really a masterpiece of a dish. And incredibly inexpensive. Brava.

This tiny little hold-in-the-wall is a must-try. The food is great, and extremely inexpensive for food of this quality. Our meals were about $10 for lunch per person. Their motto is "Fast Food Redefined" and I believe they live up to it. The servers and staff were all very polite and professional, and put up with our temporary ordering chaos with aplomb. It is really small, and tables are at a premium. I recommend you either come early, or get your food to go!

Bon Appetit!
Cafe 15
Downtown Oakland
597 - 15th Street
Oakland, CA 94612

Table size: Adequate
Noise level: Tolerable
Dining time: in and out under an hour, no problem!
Cost: Inexpensive to Reasonable. Approx $10 person

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

CHOP BAR - Gastropub Chic in the 'Hood

Chop Bar is a recently-opened "Gastropub" located over on 4th Street in Oakland. I'm a native Oaklander and spent much of my youth at my grandfather's Bail Bonds office on 7th Street, so finding this hidden gem in the bowels of my favorite Lady City is cool. It reminds me of places my father took me as a young'un, though this place has a newer, hip young vibe to it. I thought that was apt, like a bit of the old neighborhood reviving and reinventing itself. There were places like this all over when I was a kid. I remember a place called Dahlke's that had a different style, it was a different era, but this place still reminded me of that. It had a simple, genuine neighborhood feel to it.

The walls recall a shipwreck, they are a lovely patchwork of wood, imbued with a coppery green sheen or maybe it was just the touches of brass and copper throughout the room. The room itself opens up into a massive dining area that itself opens directly into an arboretum of sorts with an open-air or "al fresco" dining section. Much of the dining is communal, but there are a few smaller tables lining the walls. The place is reminiscent of a shabby chic New Orleans bar.

Now let's get to the food. We went over the lunch hour and during that time the menu features mostly sandwiches. I started with the Carrot, Tomato and Cilantro Soup. The soup was creamy and exceptionally smooth. I don't know if my new fondness for soup is a result of the new techniques that have allowed chefs to make them with the most amazingly complex & textured consistencies, or if I was always a closet soup fan, ready to be sprung into action by a perfectly riced bowl of tomatos. Whichever is my story, we'll never know, because I'm too busy polishing off all of these bowls of soup. This was no exception. It was delicious.

Next, I got to work on a Classic Reuben. They made it with the most amazing corned beef. It was really balanced in flavor, juicy and moist. The sandwich is a favorite of mine, but often the meat is less than stellar, which is why it is traditionally slathered in melted cheese and sauerkraut. This meat did not need to be hidden, it stood out all on its own.

My BH had a Col. Newsom's Ham & Cheese sandwich. The bread was a lovely, fluffy ciabatta-style bread, with a healthy serving of meat and a lovely slab of Fiscalini cheddar, all melted and swoony, it wrapped itself around the chicken like a hug. He loved it. In fact, we were all so hungry, I didn't remember to take my pictures until the meals were half devoured (sorry), but you can still see the lovely quality of the meats & breads. Not much else to see in a sammy.

Our PFC ordered the Grilled Pork Banh Mi, and he said it was tasty. We all came away thinking this was definitely an establishment to add to our rotation. We would like to have seen more than sandwiches, but from the reviews I've read at Yelp, it's likely that there will be other treats if we make a habit of returning. So for now, this is a definitely check it out. It's a bit tough to find at first, but if you follow their website (a single page, no photo) to their blog, you can check out the pictures and find it on the street when driving by more readily. It is in the warehouse section of Oakland, not far from the Webster Street Tube, so parking is not metered, but there is no lot and it might be hard to find.

Bon Appetit!

Chop Bar
247 4th Street, #111
Oakland, CA 94607
510.834.CHOP (2467)

Table Size: Adequate, mostly communal
Dining Time: Easily out in an hour or less over lunch
Price Range: Reasonble
Noise: None while we were there, but I imagine it can get loud at night during happy hour, it's open space with high ceilings

Monday, October 26, 2009

CESAR ~ Fanny's tale comes to Piedmont Avenue

Anyone familiar with Alice Waters' original undertaking, Chez Panisse, knows that the restaurant she began and those restaurants that followed in her path inspired by her desire to feed people in a new and spectacular way --- all conjure up high expectations. For well-prepared and plated food, for a unique and impressive ambiance, and more generally, for excellence. In 2006, Chez Panisse's neighbor, a tapas establishment started by some former employees of Chez Panisse and aptly named Cesar (now distinguished from the Piedmont establishment as "Cesar Shattuck"), opened a second storefront, branching out to a Piedmont Avenue locale. My little band of food vagabonds was among the first to try it out back then. We were amazed, both with the quality of the food, and of course, the prices. But when something is world class, once expects to spend dearly for it, or so I'm told. If you're going to charge a lot, you better be prepared to bring it, day in and day out.

Recently we had occasion to revisit the restaurant on the birthday of our PFC (Partner in Food Crimes, for those of you who don't read regularly). He could pick anywhere and this was where he asked to be taken. Birthday rules. We got there right at noon, not sure how crowded it might be, and they don't take reservations. As an aside, about a year after opening, Cesar Piedmont threw us a curveball. They changed up their menu to serve breakfast, but only until noon. This meant that arriving early to secure a table in lieu of a reservation was complicated by not being able to order (unless one wanted breakfast) until after noon, leaving this weird gap while they changed out the kitchen. It was a confusing alteration to what had previously been a pleasant experience.

But on this particular day, it was not a problem. We got there a bit early and were both allowed to be seated, and to begin ordering from the lunch menu. It seemed that they had relaxed their restrictions from our previous encounter. We began by ordering drinks. The BH and my daughter had the Apricot 76, which was a mixture of (Bombay Gin, Apricot Liquer & Champagne). Rather than being overly sweet, it was a strong drink, but with an airiness to it that I found really appealling (I get to taste everything, since I write the blog -- it's really just my evil plan to eat from the plates of others without fearing rebuke). I myself ordered something called a Tequila Love (a combination of a Herradura Silver Tequila, Moscato & Pressed Pineapple Syrup). This drink was also outstanding. I am a huge fan of the new "mixology" and have gotten so spoiled that ordering a "gin and tonic" seems like punishment, am no longer able to request such a boring cocktail, at least not without running the risk of boring myself to death.

We followed the cocktails rapidly (so much so as to be concurrent) with apps. We began with two meat platters, their Jamon Iberico and their Serrano. The cuts were great and the portions generous enough. We ordered also their Spanish Cheeses, which today were an Urgelia (cow), a Murcia al Vino (goat) and a Tronchon (blending of sheep, goat and cow). I love cheese. These were good, but I was annoyed at the waiter because he sent a busboy over to just drop the platter and disappear. No one introduced which cheese was which. Frankly, the wait staff was a bit disappointing overall on this visit. We were attended well enough, and we didn't lack for food for any length of time, so it was not a major flaw, but when one is paying through the nose, there is a certain 'presentation' that is expected. That is reasonable. We did not receive that level of attention. Someone should have tended to the cheese, guys.

Along with these various meats and cheeses, we ordered their French Fries. Theirs is variety on this 'dish' that may be among the best interpretation of a fried potato anywhere on the planet. If you are a french fry connoisseur, then you have to try these. They are thin, flat slices of crisply fried potato, perfectly infused with just the right levels of garlic and salt. They are more addictive than a potato chip and twice as good.

Next we had several dishes to share. The first we'll discuss was the Paella Cangrejo y Gambas (consisting, according to the menu, of fresh blue crabmeat & large gulf shrimp in a lobster broth with peas & piquillos). Generally I love a paella. Spicy, crunchy on the bottom, flavorful, right? Not on this occasion. It was a wet and sloppy hot mess. Really not up to their standard. It tasted like boiled white rice with a little canned tomato. The prawns were lovely and well cooked, but nothing else about this dish was memorable. It was a huge disappointment.

Next we'll talk about the Canelones de Catalunya (Canelones stuffed with braised beef, bacon and vegetables). In my mind, this dish was as good as the other was watery and unmemorable. It was layered with a delicious creamy sauce, the beef tender and seasoned to perfection. Absolute perfection.

When the Canelones arrived, they also brought us our Roasted Heirloom Tomato (stuffed wtih chanterelle mushrooms & rice). It was, I'm sorry to say, stuffed with the same soggy mess that apparently came in the paella. I really don't know what was going on in the kitchen that day, but I sincerely hope it was an anomaly, and not typical for their new chef. They used to have the best paella anywhere, and this wasn't remotely close to the quality one should expect at an establishment that considers itself this high end.

Then we had the Pollo Asado a la Costa Brava with Grilled Scallions (grilled chicken with garlic & herbs). The grilled chicken was as perfect as the paella was lacking. It is one of their specialties, and the reputation is well-deserved. The meat is moist, and all the flavoring is cooked deep into the meat. Garlic, herbs, the smoke of the grill, all of these things pervade every moist, perfectly-cooked mouthful.

Since this was a birthday celebration, we also ordered dessert. Two. The Bread Pudding with Orange Caramel Sauce (pic: above) and the Cesar Sundae (pic: below). The former was a magnificent concoction of milk, bready goodness and a die-and-go-to-heaven-good caramel sauce. The latter was a bowl of chocolate-y gelato and steaming hot-out-of-the-oven-fresh churros made on the spot. Both were excellent. Seriously, if you order nothing else, come on in here and have yourself a Cesar Sundae. There are just some things worth an extra workout (or two).

Bon Appetit!

4039 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, CA 94611

Table size: Adequate
Dining time: don't be in a rush, can't be done.
Noise level: moderate
Cost: Arm and a leg, maybe both legs.