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À Côté

Right Next Door

The French words ‘à côté’ denote, ‘right next to, being nearest, and on the sideline.’ We tend to want to be ‘à côté ‘to the star players, the movers and groovers in life, and, in this case, the night life. Well, there is a cuisine scene with stage presence on College Ave in Rockridge called À Côté , being a mere door away from its sister restaurant and namesake inspiration -- Le Citron. It’s a hip haven offering Spanish/French styled tapas and ample dishes hinging on a multi-Mediterranean theme.

On a Friday eve from San Francisco, we took BART under the big pond and emerged in Rockridge for an easy jaunt to À Côté. As this nightspot is one of the most urban chic restaurants along Rockridge row, patrons were queuing up both outside and inside for a table due to the "no reservations" policy.

As you cross the threshold, the lively bar and its atmospheric backdrop greet you at the left-side of the front room. The bartop flows and curves down the length of the room, and every seat is occupied by a seasoned customer. The slick bartenders are busy, making and shaking their signature drinks. We chose the Fig Martini, Mojito (the best I’ve had), and the Martini Normandie (Calvados, Coeur de Lion Pommeau, and lime) -- all are $8 each. For purists, wines by the glass are varied and fittingly rooted to Western European terroir. The beer selection is phenomenal: Delerium Tremens ($8) to Cantillon ($40) on the Belgian front, and Hop Ottin’ ($5) to an Old Rasputin Imperial Stout on tap.

Chef Matt Colgan (well-trained in Italy and Ireland) is the culinary artist. For small plates, we ordered the smoked trout salad ($8), consisting of fresh and flavorful smoky trout layered on a bed of baby red mustard greens -- a delicious blend of sea and green life. Next came the pommes frites ($4/6) with a fluffy aioli sauce. The "bigger than matchsticks but smaller than fingers" frites (reputed in Esquire magazine) had a nice snap, and we liked the tinge of garlic and herb sprinkles. The croquetas ($8) are cylindrical-shaped croquettes stuffed with jamon Serrano in one version, and shrimp in the other. The Serrano was the winner; the dry cured ham and cheese co-existed in in full merriment. The brisket bollito ($10) is a braised beef brisket accompanied by salsa verde and dashes of watercress. The dish begged for more salt shakes, and the meat was a bit too minced and overdone. Nonetheless, the house cured olives ($5) are a flavor hit. Sometimes it’s the simple things…

The floor manager and the attentive servers were poised and knowledgeable about the menu and wines. It’ was suggested we try a white (to enhance our meal), the Hyppolyte Reverdy Sauvignon Blanc 2003 from the Loire Valley ($9), and choose the Capcanes Costers del Gravet 2001 from Spain ($10) as our red offering. The Sancerre was lovely, with a mineral dry backbone and hint of herbaceous grass. As for the Capcanes, it is a blend of Cab, Grenache, and Carignan, and the rich fruit leaves left a vivid finish on the palate.

Now for les grandes plates: we tried the lamb shank tagine on a bed of kabocha squash, chick peas, dates and couscous ($14) -- the dish was good but needed a bit more oolalah. The lamb was tender and carefully prepared, but a tad more seasoning would have perfected the dish. The grilled steelhead ($14) with citrus braised endive and baby carrots tasted a tad on the fishy side of the pond.

Our most favored and savored plate was the cassoulet ($14) with duck leg confit, Toulouse sausage and Flageolet beans (tiny and tender French bush beans). The sausage was tres magnifique as was the confit, but it still needed more spice in its life. The Italian sausage flatbread ($12) topped with fennel shavings, petit black olives, and Caciotta Peperoncino (zesty cheese akin to manchego) was delicious. The flat bread was crispy on the edges but soft within, and the toppings were a nice medley of rustic tastes.

From the sweeter side, we sampled the: banana cake with dulche de leche mousse, bananas brulee, pecans and rum caramel; the profiteroles, accented with white chocolate cherry ice cream and oozing hot fudge; and the torte beurre noisette, a brown butter torte served warm with winter fruits, and dalloped with a cinnamon caramel gelato. Oh wow! Sweet heaven! The noisette dessert was a stunning cake, and the gelato combines with the fruit and flavors perfectly. (All desserts are $7).

For French-inspired savory, we nibbled on the fromage plate of Caciotta al Tartufo (truffled sheep and cows milk), the Valencay (raw goat from the Loire Valley), and the Petit Agour (Basque sheep milk). These exquisite cheeses ($7 each) come with candied walnuts, toasted almonds, thinly-sliced apple, poached figs and walnut levain bread. Vive l’experience climatique!

On the whole, À Côté is a stylish and popular establishment with a fantastic bar and notable tapas. It’s a place to meet your special date or to celebrate life, libation, and community with your friends. The food is creative and adventurous in its offerings, and the atmosphere is friendly and top-shelf. Now, to try the place next door…

À Côté
French/Mediterranean tapas
Rockridge (Oakland)
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