Friday, December 4, 2009

SOMERSET - An afternoon at the Manse

Though the name might conjure up an image of a stuffy English Manor with miles of lawns and butlers and mysteriously-shuttered windows, this restaurant is neither pretentious nor off-putting. Though it's decor is subdued and warmly elegant, there is nothing stuffy about Somerset Restaurant on College. It's another one of those places one can stumble into and feel immediately at home. And the food is a happy adventure in tastes and textures so good it gave me dreams... sweet, wonderful, dreams.

We were there just about a week ago. A friend recommended it and our daughter was looking to get us to buy her some good free chow, so there you have it.

We began by ordering drinks from the deliciously enticing specialty cocktail menu. I have become a fan of the Sazerac and there it was at the top of the menu. It called to me and I answered. It was a wonderful licoricy-concoction of rye whisky, with just a hint of bitters. My husband ordered the Pineapple coconut agua fresca, which he found to his liking, and the little one (though she is indeed over 21) had the same. Studying. Law School.

We began this meal with their bread. Warm Rosemary foccacia and buttermilk biscuits. Wow. One was herby and aromatic, the other was the simplest, most perfectly flaky buttermilk biscuit --- both were hot out of the oven. The waiter next brought my salad. It was a Roasted Corn Salad with peppers, tomatoes and onions. The description sounded very much like a traditional mexican take on the dish, but it was lighter in flavor and the "salsa" was so fresh that the tomato flavor wasn't fighting the corn. It was all sweet, and smoky with just a hint of heat. The flavors in that salad fell together as easily, as a slightly tipsy coed falls into bed.

Then came our entrees. I had the pizza special, which was a delightful flatbread sized concoction of warm flaky dough and strips of ham on a blanket of cheese and tomato sauce. Their pizza is billed as a thin crust, which it would be if I'd never had a pizza at Dopo on Piedmont Avenue, where they have mastered that art to perfection. That said, the sauce was flavorful and tasted home made, which is a huge plus. Nothing ruins a pizza quicker than heavy tomato. My grandmother once told me tomato is a heavy fruit, with the kind of flavor that can bury everything else in a dish if not balanced properly. I believe she was right.

The BH ordered the Crab Melt, which you can see in the picture is a lovely open face of fresh crab and avocado. He raved about that sandwich for the rest of the day, so it must have been good. The law student had the Barbeque Pork Sandwich, which was a sweetly spicy blend of shredded moist pork on a lovely fluffly bun. The side of sliced baby tomatoes with a subtle oil and vinegar dressing was heavenly. I couldn't stop stealing bites off her plate.

When a place is this good, I will often allow the BH and little one to talk me into a dessert. In this case I will be forever glad I did. We ordered an Apple Crisp for the little one who is ever so fond of her apples, and a coconut cake for the "grownups." The crisp arrived still warm, the scent of cinnamon wafting off it's inviting brown and crunchy surface causing an immediate response of mouth-watering goodness. The vanilla bean ice cream melting into the apple filling was as basic a flavor as one can get. That familiar taste that sends you back to grandma's kitchen and simpler times. The Coconut Cake was something else altogether. It too, was simple perfection, but in an airy ephemeral way that set my mouth to quivering. Both desserts were delicious.

This place I can most definitely recommend. But hey, if you take your time getting there, there's just gonna be that much more for me.

Check it out. Bon Appetit!

Somerset Restaurant
5912 College Avenue
Oakland, CA 94618

Noise level: muted, good for conversation
Table size: adequate
Price: Moderately expensive
Dining time: Took us an hour and a half for lunch, but might have been done a bit quicker. This is the sort of place one wants to linger in.

MILANO - There's a giant pothole in memory lane

Some things we can go home to, others we have once and never can find again. Everyone has them. That dish you can't get out of your head. For me, there were the szechwan green beans at what used to be the Maple Village on Grand Avenue. Those beans, with their perfect combination of pan-simmered green beans and peppery sweet sauce sustained me in my youth during many a hangover. Once the restaurant went out of business, they vanished into the great restaurant in the sky. I've ordered similar dishes since then, but so far nothing has managed to come even close to my memory of that perfect dish.

Another dish that rocked my world was the gnocchi at Milano, the restaurant that replaced my dad's old favorite, Mitch & Jim's. (Oddly enough, Mitch & Jim's had another dish I was wild about, the Beefsteak Tomato and Red Onion Salad).

So I went back to Milano recently, in search of the gnocchi. Unfortunately, the place has changed ownership and sad to say, the gnocchi are gone. Forever.

In it's place is uneven and fairly uninteresting Italian food. They still have the cheesy garlic bread, but other than that, any resemblance to the old Milano is long gone.

We didn't particularly love our meal, but the owners did make it an interesting visit. To make up for the lackluster food, we asked for an Irish Coffee. The sweet vacant-looking waitress looked as if we'd asked her to find us an extinct DoDo bird. We got a recipe off the internet via iPhone, and let her copy it down. She gave it to the bartender (who was actually not a bartender, but the owner who just happened to be behind the bar) and they tried. They really did. They brought us back glasses of black coffee with about a gallon of Irish whiskey. Two of us were fine, my poor Better Half was a little overwhelmed by the quantity of whiskey.

So some days you win, some days you lose. I guess I have to accept it, Milano as I knew it, is gone. Sorry to say, I can't recommend it, unless you want to get really drunk while eating only cheese bread.

3425 Grand Avenue
Oakland, CA