Oakland sits a mere twelve miles from San Francisco yet you would think a desert, glacier or an ocean (okay there is the Bay) separates San Francisco residents from the neighboring city.
It is high time to expand beyond the comfort zone of our forty-nine square mile urban sprawl and jump in a car, taxi, or BART to embrace Oakland’s recent exploding dining culture.
Hibiscus just celebrated its one-year anniversary and the crowds and positive reviews are still pouring in for this charming, Oakland spot just a hop away from the Fox Theater.
Head Chef Sarah Kirnon, formerly of Front Porch in San Francisco, infuses the Hibiscus menu with Caribbean-Creole flavors. The scene is hip, laid back and effortlessly warm. A large bar greets guests and memorabilia and books adorn the walls, creating a sense of nostalgia. The background beats and resident dining room piano remind you to settle into a pastel-colored church pew to enjoy an authentic, down-home meal.
The Jamaican salt fish and ackee was one of my favorite dishes of the evening. Ackee is the fruit from an evergreen tree and when cooked, it softens to the consistency of a scrambled egg and offers a touch of sweetness. The dish is served with sweet red peppers, tomatoes, leeks and plantains, elevating the savory goodness. The dish has a bit of heat, which is a common theme throughout the menu.
The side of red beans was served perfectly al dente, not mushy at all. The best part of this dish is the depth of flavor, a result of cooking the beans in coconut milk.
There is really nothing better than a plate of finger-licking chicken and lucky for Oakland diners, Chef Kirnon has brought Miss Ollie’s fried chicken with her across the Bay. The dish is named for her grandmother and is stuffed with herbs and roasted in duck fat. The portion with new potatoes, dandelion greens and chicken gravy promises to satisfy even the heartiest of appetites. The skin is exactly what fried chicken fans seek: crunchy and brown.
Finish off with a house dessert like luscious Madagascar vanilla ice cream doused with warm chocolate sauce. http://www.sfstation.com/hibiscus-b24874751
Perched on a quiet corner on the upper stretch of Grand Ave is Camino, the three-year-old gem from Chef Russell Moore, former produce buyer for Chez Panisse, and his wife Alison. The warm and welcoming owners decorated Camino to echo a rustic, farm-quality feel.
Brick walls, long, communal wooden tables, a tin ceiling, and large electric candle chandeliers laced with vines fill the airy Camino space. Bowls of fresh, locally sourced fruits and vegetables adorn the counter around the restaurant’s main attraction: the hearth stone fireplace where Russ cooks dishes over an open flame.
Russ creates Camino’s daily menu and then tweaks it throughout the day based on what is and is not working. The majority of the food costs at Camino are produce-based, partly because of the quality of goods from local suppliers like Mariquita Farm and River Dog, but also because of the sheer quantity.
Chef Russ emphasizes continuity. The staff works only four shifts per week, but they are long all-day shifts. This practice is purposeful; helping to ensure a dish is prepped, created and finished by the same person.
The food at Camino is simple and traditional. I recommend starting your meal with the grilled local sardine, a plentiful serving with a bed of puntarelle salad and garnish of crispy duck cracklings. The dish bursts with olive oil and herbs and the fish meat separates nicely from the bones.
The half Dungeness crab comes with new potatoes, bitter chicories, sweet julienne carrots and freshly-made herb mayonnaise. I embraced this hands-on dish, devouring the juicy meat and roasted flavor of the sea. The dessert of fresh bay leaf panna cotta with huckleberries tempted, but I was far too full. http://www.sfstation.com/camino-b24874741
Boot and Shoe Service
“Keep it simple, stupid.” Chef Charlie Hallowell, former vet of Chez Panisse and owner of fan favorite Pizzaiolo, appears to identify with this wise adage. His latest offering to the Oakland restaurant scene is Boot and Shoe Service, a pizza joint with a down-sized menu of antipasti appetizers and ten pizza pies.
The clever restaurant name pays homage to a former tenant who operated a cobbler shop in the same space. Boot and Shoe Service is small with brick walls, dim lighting and loud (sometimes raucous) music as your companion for the evening. The restaurant does not accept reservations for its Tuesday through Saturday dinner service so post up at the marble bar and sip a cocktail. I recommend the Corpse Reviver #2, a libation mixing Lillet, Cointreau, gin, absinthe/pastis with lemon juice.
Although some guests complain about the smaller appetizers at Boot and Shoe Service, I am excited to see oven-baked Monterey Bay squid on the menu with Treviso, citrus, and faro. The luscious burrata with a side of toast will make jealous any lactose-intolerant diner.
Yet it really is all about the thin crust pizzas at Boot and Shoe Service. Even Charlie Sheen would call the charred crust and pliable dough from the wood-fired oven a “winning” combination. Hallowell sources local, quality ingredients from suppliers with a penchant for sustainability. Traditionalists will enjoy simple pies like marinara or margherita di bufala. I recommend embracing your more creative taste profile and opting for the potato, pancetta, fontina and rosemary pie or one with manila clams, green garlic and parsley.
If you are a topping whore like me and always scour the menu for an egg to throw on the top, prepare to get happy. Hallowell has standard add-ons of egg, arugula, sausage, calabrian peppers or anchovies. http://www.sfstation.com/boot-and-shoe-service-b24874761