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Where To Eat Now: 2013
Josh Sens | Photo: Eva Kolenko | July 25, 2013
Critic Josh Sens plows his way through the Bay Area's newest, hottest restaurants and delivers his annual buffet of estimable eats.
Tapas Take Off (Again)
Like the Gipsy Kings, they were big in the ’80s. Now tapas are back for a reunion tour. This time around, though, they are more attuned to their surroundings (drawing directly on the Bay Area’s bounty), and they take the stage as part of elaborate productions that feature not just small plates but also larger raciones. One of their splashier stops is on the Embarcadero, where celeb chef Michael Chiarello runs Coqueta (Pier 5, at the Embarcadero, 415-704-8866) in the space vacated by Lafitte. Its name speaks of flirtation, but in lieu of sly seduction, the restaurant goes to exhaustive lengths to please. Cured meats, quesos, gazpachos, fideuàs: Chiarello has the canon covered. Clam-and-mussel escabeche is canned fresh every day. You admire the swagger and the scope of the ambition, to say nothing of the setting, the dramatic ocher curtains drawing back on sweet bay views. But many of the dishes—rubbery grilled octopus, shyly seasoned pork-and-duck albóndigas—leave you feeling that the kitchen has bitten off more than it can chew.
Duende (468 19th St., near Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-893-0174) in Oakland’s Uptown district, makes better use of its big budget. A café– cum–restaurant–cum–music venue with Oliveto veteran Paul Canales at the helm, it’s an eclectic place, and its wide-ranging menu shares a kinship with Coqueta’s in its pintxos-to-platos reach. But here, the flavors pop, from the sea bass crudo with espelette pepper to a must-order clam-and-rabbit paella, a lively rendition of the classic that’s often served to the strains of live jazz.
Renewed interest in patatas bravas has also given rise to, appropriately enough, Bravas (420 Center St., near North St., Healdsburg, 707-433-7700) a downtown Healdsburg restaurant from Mark and Terri Stark of Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar. Those traditional potatoes share space with other safe bets—tortilla española, grilled calamari with salsa verde—and more exotic winners such as fried pig ears, crisp and curled like Tiparillos and licked with anchovy vinaigrette. The place is Spanish, sure, but the atmosphere is easy-money Sonoma County, the bar scene so relaxed and sociable that you kick yourself for not buying here decades ago, the last time that tapas had their moment in the sun.
Pizza Gets Deep
Seems like every month, some new place emerges that's out to grab a slice of the growing pizza market. Who can possibly keep up with all the pies? At Campo 185 (185 University Ave., at Emerson St., Palo Alto , 650-614-1177), Pizza Moda (1401 University Ave., at Acton St., Berkeley , 510-841-5200) Vesta (2022 Broadway St., at Main St., Redwood City, 650-362-5052) Ciccio (6770 Washington St., near Madison St., Yountville , 707-945-1000), and Pizzando (301 Healdsburg Ave., at Matheson St., Healdsburg, 707-922-5233)—in Palo Alto, Berkeley, Redwood City, Yountville, and Healdsburg, respectively—they’ve rounded up the usual thin-crust suspects, and if you can tell them apart in a blind tasting, you have a far keener palate than I do. At Forge (66 Franklin St., near Embarcadero West, Oakland, 510-268-3200), on the waterfront in Oakland's Jack London Square, friends informed me that the crust stood out for its perfect salt-and-sourdough balance. I’m not going to argue. But what I remember most is that the festive bar scene and the large, lively space, furnished with big televisions, seemed perfectly designed for the happy hour unwind.
As one pie after another melts together in my memory, my leanings tend toward places that dare to be a little different. Capo’s (641 Vallejo St., near Columbus Ave., 415-986-8998) in North Beach fits that bill. Yes, it’s from Tony Gemignani of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana—an award-winning pizzaiolo who needs press about as badly as Brangelina. And no, you normally can’t get pizza topped with nettles or ramps. But Capo’s failure to follow the predominant wood-fired fashion amounts to a sweet aesthetic of its own. The restaurant’s inspiration, as its name suggests, is Al Capone’s Chicago, a time and place evoked by shiny red, tufted high-back booths, a cash only policy (OK, maybe that’s for tax purposes), Prohibition memorabilia, and the array of stuffed and deep-dish pies, as well as classics such as spaghetti and meatballs and clams Casino. The quattro forni, a sparsely topped (you can add prosciutto and arugula, which I recommend) favorite, only 20 of which are made each day, is baked four times in three ovens and deep-fried to create what I was told were four different textures. Um, OK. Like the restaurant itself, it’s something of a gimmick, but a good one. And in this age of serious pizza overload, it stands out for being a lot of fun.
Dining Defies Definition
Our love of lumping food into simple categories—Cal-Med, Spanish-inspired, Cuban-Viking fusion—is perhaps equaled only by our fondness for restaurants that we can’t quite define. How, for instance, to classify Christopher Kostow’s craftsmanship at the Restaurant at Meadowood? What language to describe State Bird Provisions, the idiosyncratic, dim sum cart–wielding darling from Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, other than to say that it deserves all the acclaim?
As of this summer, there’s also the question raised by Sir and Star (10000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., at Hwy. 1, Olema, 415-663-1034), the superb Olema offering from Manka’s Margaret Gradé and Daniel DeLong. Is it a destination restaurant? The pastoral romance of the out-of-the-way setting, not to mention the splendor of the hyper-local cooking—such as kale-stuffed, apricot-scented roast quail from just down the road, or sparkling fresh wild salmon— suggests yes. But the casual farmhouse vibe makes it feel like a place you just drop by.
All that said, this year’s great taxonomic challenge is none of the above. It goes, instead, by the name Rich Table (199 Gough St., at Oak St., 415-355-9085) the chef-driven but ingredient-focused, rustic but refined standout from husband-and-wife team Evan and Sarah Rich. Just when you think that you can pigeonhole the cooking—spaghetti with goat cheese and mint sounds farmers’ markety enough—out from the kitchen pops a duck lasagna layered with Santa Rosa plums. The straightforward menu descriptions rarely prepare you for the dishes themselves. The prosaically named sardine chips, for example, are crisp potato wafers with a sardine embroidered through them like a hat pin, set over a puddle of horseradish cream. Try any label to pin down Rich Table, and someone will quibble. What no one will dispute is that the crowds keep coming, and with good reason. Maybe this is what we should call Rich Table: the place where you can’t get a seat.