Friday, December 11, 2009

BELLANICO ~ Chow Bella!

In search of a new food adventure, I found myself perusing the web a few days ago for any mention of new eateries in the Oakland area. I found a few places that sounded good, but many only served dinners. I am only in the city during the lunch hour most days so that wasn't going to work. A few more minutes perusing various articles brought me across Bellanico, a newish place I had not yet heard of or tried. It is in the Glenview District of Oakland. That's close enough to my office to make an hour of it, so we headed out to test the waters.

We got there, found parking pretty easily around the corner, and since it was late in the lunch hour, the place was already full, so we were seated at the bar. Our partner in food crimes loves to be seated at the bar, he feels it gives you a connection to the establishement and its management that you can't get any other way, and on this occasion he was right. The proprietor, Elizabeth, was extremely helpful in assisting us in selecting a wine, as well as our food choices. Elizabeth was interactive and very attuned to the comfort of her customers, without being at all intrustive. I love Malbec, and on her recommendation we chose a Tiza from Argentina. She has worked with wines for over a decade and she definitely knows her stuff. The Tiza had a ripe, lush aroma, leading into a tangle of rich berry and spice -- complex and sexy, just the way I like it. The three of us shared a bottle between us.

The wine was the perfect beverage to set off the food, which is primarily Italian. The menu here is done with amazing care and inventiveness in presentation. I am second-generation Italian, and I was raised on cuisine from Northern Italy. I know good Italian food when I taste it. This food was both beautiful and perfectly executed.

We began with one of the house specialties, Fried Mondeghili, or meatballs, with Salsa Verde. The dish comes with three large meatballs, encrusted with breadcrumbs and fried to a perfect golden brown. They have a soft, herby center underneath the hot crusty surface and the sauce keeps them from being too dry. I thought they were delicious, and I believe between mouthfuls, my companions did as well.

We also had the Burrata appetizer. It was served with lovely sides of toasted foccacia bread, fresh pomegranate seeds, taggiasca olives, grilled chard and toasted hazelnuts. Burrata, in case you don't know, is a fresh mozzarella that has been filled with a whipped center of cream and more fresh mozzarella. It's the Italian equivalent of a cheese jelly doughnut. The burrata served at Bellanico was as fresh as anything I've had in Italy. One of the best things that has happened to food these days is the emphasis on freshness. Fresh mozzarella that has been spun and cut that day or the day before, is a completely different animal from the chewy dense cheese they sold in the supermarket to put on pizza when I was a kid. They bear almost no resemblance to one another. Anyway, this burrata was not only fresh, but the center was so creamy that the cheese could be easily spread on the toasted foccacia that came with it. The PFC loved it with the pomegranate seeds, I found mixtures of various toppings to my liking. All were delectable. I couldn't get enough of the explosions of complex flavors that were singing in my mouth.

No sooner had we polished off the apps than we were served the first of our lunch mains. We'd let Elizabeth know that we wanted to share everything. Sitting at the bar makes it easy. So she suggested bringing share plates to make it even easier to sample a bit of each dish selected. The first of these next dishes to arrive was the Proscuitto, Onion and Fontina Frittata. I should say that a good frittata is one of my HUGE weaknesses. I grew up with my grandfather's which was a pan-fried variety with a great deal of vegetables as its base and which, once cooked was a heavy (in a good way), rich almost quiche like dish. But, there are many ways to approach a frittata. Bellanico's was a yummy concoction of egg and cheese that was as light and fluffy as a towel pulled straight out of the dryer. The flavors were well-balanced between the cheeses and the proscuitto. They worked together rather than competing with one another. It was delicious.

Next they brought us the Tagliolini Pepati. This is a lovely smoky hot pasta with one of my favorite combinations: tomatos, bacon and heat. The bacon was this magnificent pancetta-style meat that added so much to the pasta. I get weak in the knees over that sweet chewy texture of the bacon when it's coupled with the heat of a good hot pepper (in this case just the right amount of fresh jalapeno). When these ingredients blend into the roasted tomato sauce, there is for me the perfect marriage of flavor. Top it off with a nice grating of grana padano (a lovely aged cheese similar to parmesan) and you have the perfect dish of pasta. Our PFC agreed that this dish was spectacular, but we have very similar tastes in food. We both love heat.

Moments later, if not simultaneously (when I'm eating this well, all is a blur) we had been served another dish. The menu called it a Swiss Chard Malfati, and they arrived looking like little green goose eggs. They are accompanied by a glaze of brown butter & sage and are also topped off with the grated grana padano. (sorry we did not get a good picture, we ate them too readily I'm afraid!) Oddly enough, this dish was eerily evocative of my grandfather's frittata. Much more so than the previous dish that was actually called a frittata. I believe this is because the primary flavors of the Malfati were the spinach and cheese, rather than the egg, which serves as more of a binding agent than the main ingredient. Needless to say I found them sensational as well. I don't know if it was that they were so much like Grandpa Gianni's frittata, which is heaven, or if they were just that good on their own. I suspect is was a little of both.

Since everything up to this point was amazing, we couldn't leave without trying their desserts. We ordered the Bombolini and the Goat Cheese Cheesecake. The Bombolini were a lovely fried doughnut "hole" of sorts, rich and sugary. They were deep fried, but not overly greasy and the spicy dipping sauce, described as an "espresso custard" was a nice sugary taste with the fried doughnut.

The Goat Cheese Cheesecake sounded unusual, but Elizabeth assured us that we would enjoy this dessert. She had not steered us wrong yet, so we told her to bring it on. What we were served may very well have been the best cheesecake I have ever tasted. It was an airy puff-pillow of cheese, gently rolled in pistachio brittle, and served with a nice side of quince, huckleberries and pomegranate. The song of flavor experience while consuming the burrata now became an aria of absolute delight.

Two of us polished these off with perfectly-foamed cappucinos, while the BH enjoyed a lovely milky latte.

This restaurant was amazing. We all left trying to figure out how, with the busy holiday season ahead, we would ever return fast enough. Bellisimo! I say definitely check it out and Bon Appetit!!!!

Bellanico Restaurant
4238 Park Boulevard
Oakland, CA 94602

Dining time: leisurely (but could be done in an hour)
Noise Level: boisterous, might be difficult for some to hear
Cost: moderately expensive (really depends on how many plates, we ordered a lot)
Table size: can't comment, ate at the bar.

Monday, December 7, 2009

CAFE CLAUDE - Mais Oui ...please have another drink?

Black Friday. Shopping day from hell. But such great sales, right? So how does one get the hubby to come with? Ahhh-hah. Offer him lunch at Cafe Claude. So my grad student and I did, as part of our evil plan to get him (and thus, his wallet) into the City with us.

Seriously, the Grad Student and I both love Cafe Claude so we thought it would be a fun family outing. I must admit that the Better Half loves it there too, so it was the perfect place to top off our day-after-Turkey festivities. Food was definitely going to be the highlight of the day, particularly given the fairly obnoxious crowds slugging about the city streets making walking around enjoyably near to impossible. (But the sales!) People are sooo rude these days. We made reservations for 1pm ish and arrived at the restaurant right on time, and starving.

The restaurant itself seems worth a note here. It is a charming, intimate, very authentic European-style little bistro in an alley in San Francisco that transports its clientele, in spirit at least, right to the heart of Paris. The bar is rich wood, the interior long and dark and intimate. It's tiny, but with such an abundance of genuine charm that one doesn't feel packed in like a sardine. I love the place.

Started with a cheeseboard featuring (from what I can remember) a Chevre goat, a soft brie and a lovely French cow's milk. They change out their cheeses constantly and I didn't write much of the cheese course down what with the cocktail in one hand. I remember only that they were delicious and we enjoyed them with cocktails. There's a story about the cocktails, but more about that later. I ordered the Mousse D'Amerique, a lilting combination of rum, lime juice, pineapple and sugar cane. Foamy on top. Yum! The BH had the French 75, a fruity mix of gin and sparkling wine, Double Yum! Our grad student had one as well.

It was about this time that we noticed the bartender was tall, dark and French. As an aside, I should mention that the wait staff at Cafe Claude is often French and almost always pretty. Male & female alike. Young, attractive people abound here. I think I notice because I used to sit on a casting panel for theatrical productions and I can't help but evaluate people a little bit for their stage-worthiness. I think my 24-year-old daughter notices because she is 24 and single. So anyway, the Grad Student and I both commented to one another that our bartender could give Gilles Marini a run for his money, and there might be flirting. Fun Times!

Back at the meal, the BH and Grad Student both love a good French Onion Soup and Cafe Claude's is one of the best. At least as good as Absinthe over in Hayes Valley. A lovely hot mess of golden-kissed cheese over an oniony puddle of perfect broth. Nothing heartier to warm the bones from an outdoor chill.

While I continued to consume my own drink with more cheese, I let the soup divert the attention of both my dining companions. The family was enjoying our environment and the food at Claude quite a bit, so we lingered over these prefatory courses.
When our mains arrived, we ordered a second round of cocktails. My lunch was a lovely special, described as a Veal Stew but which arrived in the form of a rich and creamy (ivory colored,
almost stroganoff-looking) dish. I had anticipated something more traditional --- perhaps a thick brown sauce with a wine reduction --- but this was a nice twist. It had mushrooms and garlic and veal, all tumbled together beneath this aromatic but delicate blanket of cream, au jus and herbs.
My better half and our daughter had their steak and fries. The steak arrived perfectly cooked, rare, as requested. The fries, are well, Cafe Claude's. They are among the best fries ever, anywhere. I have a few places I go just for the fries and this is one of them. The others are Cesar's on Piedmont Avenue (Cesar's may still be absolute number one, but it's close) and Luka's on Grand Avenue. When they are done to perfection, fries can be a real treat. Here they are light, thin and well-seasoned. Hints of garlic. Salted well. Ahhhh. yes!

By now the grad student and I are getting a little liquored up. We've noticed that the very smokin' bartender has taken to deliver her drinks (oh, to be young again) and it's amusing. So she has another. He brings it, but refuses a tip. Politely. Hmm.

We decide that the meal won't be complete without dessert. GS thinks the Tarte Tatin sounds appetizing, so we go for it. What's not to love about upside down apple tart with caramel sauce and whipped cream? I know, right? As we gently drape our bites of hot gooey caramel and apple with fluffy tongues of whipped cream we continue to ogle the hot bartender. My daughter decides she needs him to come back, so she orders, yes, another drink. By the time we leave there is chatting, marginal flirting. He tells her it is his birthday. She says "Happy Birthday" instead of what she is thinking, which is, bien sur, way more Sex & the City. Quel dommage, it was time for us to leave.

It was a lovely afternoon, and as we step out into the brisk post-Thanksgiving crowds once again, we are full, slightly drunk and alive. It's a beautiful world.

I cannot recommend Cafe Claude enough for this sort of an afternoon, or any sort at all. Check it out, and Bon Appetit!

Cafe Claude
7 Claude Lane
San Francisco, CA 94108

Dining Time: leisurely
Table size: small, cramped, European-style
Noise level: It's noisy but intimate enough that I don't have trouble hearing.
Price: moderately expensive