Saturday, January 16, 2010

SIDEBAR Oakland ~ Lawyers who Lunch

Another day finds me on yet another search for food adventure.  Always on the hunt for new Oakland eateries (particularly those near my office that offer lunch) I came across today's target, Sidebar.

Sidebar is a relatively new Gastropub currently occupying the site that formerly housed Trio Bistro and Grill, on Grand Avenue, right between Coach Sushi and Zza's Pizzeria.    More interesting to me on this venturing out, was the history of the site.  Before it was Trio, it was an amazing French Bistro called La Brasserie.  Both restaurants had essentially the same ownership.  I never went to Trio, but I spent a lot of time at La Brasserie.  Roger Martin was a delightful and handsome Frenchman who hosted the guests.  In the years I frequented his establishment, I grew exceedingly fond of him.  His wife, Kim, was the chef, and always in the kitchen.  She was however, perhaps one of the best chefs I had ever come across.  This was 1978, a time when more restaurants had fry cooks than chefs, never mind female chefs, and Kim could easily hold her own against many chefs of today.  She was just that good.  I can still taste the  perfection her Coquilles St. Jaques. I have yet to taste its equal.  So hats off to the Martin family.  Wherever you are, know you made an lasting and wonderful impression on those of us who appreciate the ritual fo dining.

This is what is on my mind when we arrive at Sidebar.  The amazing food-karma history of the place smacks me in the face when we enter.  It is of course, different now.  Nice different, with a large open almost circular bar filling the center of the space.  Modern different, with hipster decorations and a youngish vibe.  But nothing off-putting.  This is what happens when you live in one place for a long time.  Things change.  It's the way.  But I'm here and I'm hungry.  So I shake off the Ghosts of Restaurants Past, sit down at a table an give the menu my undivided attention. 

First up, the drinks menu.  They have a nice cocktail menu, most offerings varieties of standards from different decades around the country, recipes from different bartenders.  This menu has a lovely little twist: they have a "Classicist" version of each drink, with what one might call the more 'expected' ingredients, and a "Locavore" version, which is a spin on those ingredients that is all found locally or made in-house.  I ordered the Clover Club which came in two 'flavors' as well.  I requested the Locovore version, intrigued by the idea of House-made Grenadine.  Next time I'll try the raspberry syrup. [Classicist:  Gin, raspberry syrup, lemon juice, and egg white. Old Waldorf Bar Days, Albert Stevens Crockett (1931); Locavore: No. 209 Gin, House-made Grenadine, Meyer lemon juice, and egg white.]   I loved the presentation.  The drink was fluffy, light, and gently sweet, (a bit like a traditional Ramos Fizz), but with a strong kick of gin to keep it from being overly saccharine.  It was splendid.  My Better Half had a Castle Harbor Special, he had the Locovore version as well, which was billed as Charbay Rum, Small Hands Pineapple Gum, and House-made Grenadine, and lime juice. [Classicist: White Rum, lime juice, pineapple juice, and grenadine. The Gentlemen's Companion, Charles H. Baker (1946)]

At Sidebar, the bread served is Acme.  They offer those big sourdough twists, that can be taken apart into separate mini-rolls.  This is my favorite sourdough --- I first had them at Luka's Taproom.  The crust is crunchy perfection without being dry, with that soft aerated center that can be peeled away to reveal even more crust. Gotta say we could have used a  bread plate though, but we were given nothing but the bare tables.  Not a critical flaw, just odd and a bit messy.

I think we all ordered the Potato Leek Soup it was cold out, and we were chilled to the bone.  It was served piping hot, a velvety cream of potato that tasted like French Onion Soup. It's consistency was good, it had body and a hint of texture, but remained creamy and satisfying.  The flavor was excellent, an oniony blend of caramelized leek and potato.

I shared two dishes with our PFC.  We had the Jambalaya a blend of Andouille sausage, shrimp, mussels, clams & basmati rice.  Being a fan of true New Orleans food, particularly authentic Jambalaya, I was at the same time apprehensive and excited to try what might be a find.  Real Jambalaya closer to home!  When it arrived it was in no way a letdown.  A spicy, seafood-laden dish, perfectly seasoned, rice awash in a  flavorful sauce.

PFC & I also shared the Roast Pork Sandwich, which was described as seasoned and sliced pork with gruyere and ham. It came with a side of jicama slaw, a well-pickled vinegary affair that when layered onto the sandwich with the jalapeno relish, made it all somewhat similar to a Banh Mi. The soft warm bread over the tender pork meat, , the salty ham blanketed in a thin layer of cheese.  The final perfect touch the sweet, hot kiss of the jalapeno relish.

The Better Half enjoyed his Monte Cristo Sandwich, a lovely concoction of  Niman Ranch applewood smoked ham, smoked turkey, and gruyere which was essentially a "just like mom used to make" grilled cheese, but with a flair all their own.  It had a nice little seasonal compote on the side and he seemed to love it. 

Since we were so pleased with the food at this point, we opted to order a dessert.  There were several choices that appealed, but I was drawn to the Cornmeal Pound Cake.  I won, and noone was sorry I did.  The cake was absolutely stellar.  Now, I must preface this with my love of sweet corn. I love cornbread.  I love sweet white summer corn. Really really love it.  So, that said, this dish was amazing.  It had the texture of a medium rough cornbread, moist and dense like a pound cake on the inside and a touch crunchy on the outer, all imbued with the taste of butter.  Really an inspired take on an old standard.  Add mascarpone whipped cream and voila!

We will most definitely return, and soon.  If you find yourself in the neighborhood, you should check it out, and as always Bon appetit!

542 Grand Avenue
Oakland, CA
(510) 452-9500

Dining time: easily back in an hour
Table size: adequate, maybe just a tad small
Noise level: was okay for us, but with all that wood and windows, it might possibly be too loud for some
Cost: Moderate

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

PLUMED HORSE (Saratoga) - Happy Birthday to Me

January 3 was, ---well, is,--- my birthday.   As a kid growing up, it was always a throwaway day.  A day when everyone was either too broke or too tired to do much celebrating.  It was often the first day back to school, the end of winter break.  I felt cursed.  I hated my birthday.  When I married my current husband he promised to make a fuss for my birthday, to resurrect the date from the ashes of bad memories to turn it into a day I would come to look forward to with anticipation.  It was a promise he kept.  He proposed on my birthday.  It was sweet.   He's been making magic for me ever since.  This year, he asked me what I'd like to do and I said eat out, of course!  It's my new favorite thing to do.

I've been thinking a lot lately about why that is.  Mulling over the ritual that is dining.  Not eating for nourishment, but all the delightful sensations and experiences that can come with dining exceptionally well.  What it means. Why we are willing to pay so much for the pleasure.  What constitutes the perfect meal.  Food, flavor, companionship, ambience --- I think it must be all these things.

The Plumed Horse, in Saratoga, has been fairly recently refurbished.  From the street, it remains an unassuming exterior that fits well with the other buildings along Big Basin Way, the main drag of the sleepy little burgh that is Saratoga.  Once inside it tells an altogether different story.  It is sleek and welcoming, like a really jazzy new sports car.  In fact, this restaurant is a Mazeratti.  We stepped through the door and were immediately struck by the decor.  Upon being ushered into the lounge area, we made ourselves comfy on the lavishly appointed couches and enjoyed the flickering flames in the fireplace, a magnificent vista of glass and flame that completely fills the wall at the end of the room.  I can appreciate good decor just as much as a good meal, and the designer of this place really hit a home run.  The wall of wines beautifully displayed in plexiglass, rising to the ceiling with the promise of abundance.  The perfecly laid out tables, beneath the fragile and jellyfish-like sculptures that are the light fixtures dotting the ceiling.  All in an earthy color pallette of tan and silver.  It seemed like a modern dining palace under the sea, and all of it said "Happy Birthday."

We began with cocktails in the lounge.  I had a Green Eyed Monster which was a refreshing concoction of gin, chartreuse and elderberry.  It was herbal not sweet, and a lovely way to kick off my birthday party.  My Better Half ordered a Raspberry Beret, and our daughter joined him.   I had a sip, it was sweet.  Yummy.  I exhaled a sigh of joy mixed with anticipation for the balance of the evening.  Off to a great start with a drink from a first-rate mixologist.  Mixology is an art a girl could really get used to enjoying.

We took a look at the menu.  The tasting menu was probably not going to work, since we brought our daughter, and she is allergic to most fish.  With the assistance of the waiter, who was exceedingly patient, we were able select a tasting menu of our own.  We decided to share most everything, but we each ordered an appetizer of our own.  While we were waiting, a lovely little flurry of waiters brought us the most amazing warm, fresh bread.  It was basically a sweet roll, and endearing in its simplicity.  Hot, puffy, light and delicious, they were so good I ate four of them.  They were also so light it didn't do a thing to damage my ravenous appetite.  I was ready for more. 

Soon another flurry of attendants produced what they described as a Fried Mozarella on a Stick.   I love when the waitstaff becomes part of the experience, they swirl in with goodies and disappear inobtrustively.  Like food butterflies.  This treat was itself a whimsical delicacy, a bit like a toasted marshmallow --- just as puffy in its consistency --- very airy on the tongue.  This buoyant cheese treat was successful in amusing my bouche to no end.  Another Happy Birthday to me!

My BH had a Lobster Squash Bisque.  It was served by the waiter who carefully poured each soup from a dual pitcher, so that it would remain separated in the bowl.  Each half unique to itself, but able to be tasted together.  The clever little trick was entertaining and delicious.  Another little nod to the ritual.  Another little step in the show. 

The next scene in the performance was a lovely little tray of taste treats.  Quail eggs, Ahi tuna concoction and a third delight I forgot to write down.  It was after all my birthday, and we were well into a bottle of champagne by this point.   Again magnificently presented by the food butterflies.  Shortly after that the food butterflies brought us our Ravioli with Foie Gras and an Abalone dish that was perhaps the best abalone I have ever eaten (and I spent every summer at the Sacramento River Delta eating fried abalone sandwiches that were perfection).  Its meat was the consistency of pastry crust and just as buttery.

The main courses arrived next.  I received a lovely Lamb Loin with Ricotta gnocchi, porcini mushrooms, piperade.  It arrived drizzled in it's own juice and cooked to perfection.  My BH got the Diver's Sea Scallops, accompanied by an onion flan, and adorned with tiny buttons of endive.  The grad student had been offered a single filet mignon prepared similarly to their rib-eye, which they offered to accommodate her food allergy to fish.  The filet came with truffled potato croquettes and Maitake mushrooms.  They were all delicious.   We passed  bites back and forth in a frenzy of food ecstasy that culminated in most of us crying "Uncle," unable to completely finish our fairly large portions.  We had to leave room for desssert.  Good times!
Next up were my, yes, Birthday desserts.  We ordered two.  The I'm Your Huckleberry, which was a ginger-almond financier (a lovely cake/cookie affair), in a huckleberry & creme fraiche ice cream.   The other

was the Sky Rockets in Flight... ... Afternoon Delight, which is a dessert they describe as a 20 hour apple crepe, with a honey- brandy semifreddo.  Both were spectacular.  I'm nothing if not a freak for a sweet treat after a gazillion-course meal.

At this point we had finished our champagne and were on to coffees with our desserts.  I had my usual cappuchino, and the BH had his usual latte.  Our daugher is on a tea kick, so she had a green tea.  It arrived in this lovely glass teapot.  Really pretty tea it was.  Another piece of the ritual.  I love to eat places where even the tea is pretty.  The whole process, start to finish is what makes for a memorable dining experience.  The ritual, the food butterflies, the pretty, the tasty.  All of it.

Eating is a communal act.  A ritual that can be shared with those we love. In it's repetition there is familiarity, a chance to make memories, a sense of the known and the comforting.  Though the act is necessary for our survival, it doesn't have to be mundane or unremarkable.  It should be among our greatest pleasures, this daily ritual of consuming food and sharing time together.

So this is what I've been thinking about, on this anniversary of my birth.  My love of rituals.  Anniversarys, birthdays, weddings, all the traditions that form the moments of our lives.  Maybe that is why dining well is so enjoyable for me.  It provides an opportunity to make any day festive, and can turn a somber mid-winter birthday into a sparkling and joyous occasion.  As we each tick off the milestones in our lives, it's somehow reassuring to know those moments were spent brimming with pleasurable tastes, stimulating conversation and the company of those we love.  To me that is the hallmark of a life well-lived.

I have to say I had a magnificent birthday. Hope to get back to the Plumed Horse again sometime soon. Check it out for yourself, and Bon Appetit!

Plumed Horse
14555 Big Basin Way
Saratoga, CA 95070-6013
(408) 867-4711 

Chef Peter Armellino
Cost: if you need to ask, don't go
Michelin Rated: One Star!