Monday, April 26, 2010

CAMINO - Out of your comfort zone and into the clouds

Cocktails anyone?
 After months of various friends encouraging us to try Camino, the BH and I finally made it there at the end of March. We’d hesitated for ages, unsure as to the wild fare on the menu. Would it appeal? Would we find something we could eat or would it be just too out there? We’ve only dined at similar establishments twice before. Once at Cibreo in Firenze, where the food was way way out of our comfort zone, but amazing, and the other was Cochon in New Orleans, where I’m pretty sure I had rabbit and alligator in the same meal. The fact is, there are many unusual foods that can be done magnificently, and Camino definitely does what they do very well.

To begin with, the restaurant itself is a beautiful open space. It’s a large converted furniture store, that oddly enough used to be the site of a dear friend’s antique store. Entering it was like coming home, as memories flooded my head, I was simultaneously greeted by the warmth of the wood-burning brick ovens that line one end of the high-ceilinged hall. Were it not for something inherently and irresistibly modern about the venue, one might almost imagine Henry VIII and his court holding some sort of post-jousting feast there. The warmth of the oven permeates the entire space - the scent of the smoke wafts everywhere gently, like a subtle breeze off the ocean.  It is very well ventilated, however, so the smoke is not "smoky, per se." The only thing that reaches the customer is the lovely scent of the roasting meats, the wood fire and just enough light and warmth to be pleasurable.  It is an extremely welcoming environment, particularly given the feeling of vast negative space provided by the completely open layout.

We began, as we always do, at the beginning. I had a drink consisting of rum, lime, orgeat, absinthe and coffee bitters. They do not give their drinks names here, the menu simply lists several different cocktails with a variety of ingredients. The bartender is a magician, all the same. Mine was an amazing cocktail, the flavors were very herbal while at the same time being a bit sweet. The mixture had a hint of the absinthe flavor without overwhelming the rest of the drink. It was delicious.

Grilled Pork Belly w/Sauerkraut
The BH had a drink composed of Tequila Blanco, cherry brandy, lime, grapefruit juice and gum syrup. It was sweeter than mine, a balanced and refreshing drink with the nice tart taste of silver tequila providing a final crisp finish to its overall citrusy bite. I loved my taste and he thoroughly enjoyed it. 

We dug into a nice loaf of Acme teardrop loaf bread to begin our evening.

We ordered starters to share. The first was the Grilled pork belly, which came with a side of homemade sauerkraut and carrot salad. The sauerkraut was crisp and airy, like a pickled cotton candy. The flavor of the pork was mouth-watering, it was just a bit fatty, the flavor of the bacon rich against the pickle of the sauerkraut. The carrot was also a bit sweet and complimented the richness of the bacon perfectly.
Bucatini w/Sardines
The other dish we shared was the wood-oven-baked bucatini topped with local sardines. The pasta was a lovely bowl of thick strands of egg-rich noodles with a savory sauce of wild fennel, saffron, almonds and currants. We both loved it. I think the strong briny taste of the sardine over the slightly sweet currants in the buttery pasta was spectacularly unusual and such a treat. The pasta was thick enough to make more of a statement, giving almost a bready consistency to every bit. We both loved the toasty crunch of the croutons as well. This dish had a hearty blend of flavors, each mouthful was like a “surprise” mini-buffet, with every bite a slightly different variation on the theme of the whole. Really creative cooking.

Oven Roasted Sand Dabs
Our mains were both adventurous without being over the top. The BH enjoyed what was essentially a “duck two ways” though it wasn’t called that. It was titled simply, Grilled Duck Breast and Slow-cooked Leg. The grilled duck breast was slightly rare, not at all gamey and perfectly cooked. The slow cooked leg had that lovely vaguely greasy (in a good way) flavor duck can have when the fat is roasted straight into the meat. Very tasty. The sides that came with the dish were some Belgian endives and blood orange, along with a set of roasted potatoes cooked in duck fat. Seriously good eats.
Grilled Duck Breast
& Slow-Cooked Leg
I had the fish, which tonight was the wood-oven roasted Sand Dabs. They were flaky, light and buttery, the lovely bed of farro underneath was similar to wild rice in consistency and flavor, perhaps even a bit more interesting with its herbal crunchiness. The dish was finished off with wild nettles and seasonings.

Desserts here were as varied and unique as the other dishes. My BH tried something incredibly simple, a dish of broken Tcho chocolate, which was served as a lovely little dish comprised of flaked of this magnificent brand of semi-sweet chocolate. He had it with his coffee and found it to be just the thing to finish off his meal. A lovely lingering taste of bitter chocolate on the palate. Something really smart and restrained about the choice to serve an actual “bite” of sweetness at the end of a meal.

I myself sampled (and subsequently devoured) a Cornmeal olive oil cake with poached prunes. The prunes themselves had been cooked at length (virtually stewed in fact) in wine, sugar and blood orange juice which left them soft, almost like peaches and amazingly un-prunelike in the resultant flavor. Not that I mind a good prune necessarily, they are after all, dried plums and plums are delicious. But I digress. They were just lip-smacking good and combined with the density of the cornmeal cake made for nice spongy mouthfuls of tasty.  The olive oil flavoring kept the cake from being overly sweet, and the prunes kept it from being overly savory.  The strong cornmeal texture was just the right balance to offset the creamy sweet of the prunes.

Cornmeal Cake w/ Prunes
With so much dining out, I’ve grown accustomed to having a bit of dessert after a meal quite often.   I prefer to keep it simple and have only a few bites or I'm so full at the end of the meal I don't enjoy the experience.  Just a tiny bit of something pleasantly sweet to complete the dining experience and top off the meal.  In this case the corn meal cake really hit the spot.

Tcho Chocolate
The entire meal was an adventure, as well as an extremely pleasurable experience. The various textures and tastes in the foods we dined on were unique, well-executed and extremely well-balanced. I’ve heard they do a brunch and I’d love to drive in sometime from Newark just to check it out. Well done, Camino! As always check it out, and Bon Appetit!
3917 Grand Avenue
Oakland, CA  94610
Dining time: nothing you'd want to rush, but they don't serve lunch, so no worries
Noise level: potentially very high.  We had no problem because of the way they space out the patrons, but if it's full, then you might have to shout.  3-4
Service: excellent.