James Syhabout's newish restaurant, Commis, already has a Michelin star. It is a small, minimalist space with a central open kitchen, reasonable prices and intense, creative cooking. With the loss of Chez Panisse's star, Commis currently boasts the only Michelin star in the entire East Bay Area. That, however, doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of good cooking going on there.
With a noon arrival at the Oakland airport I was met by my host, one of my very best friends who goes all the way back to Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. and who was also the best man at my wedding. Now an Oakland resident for over twenty years, he is well versed in all aspects of that city. After loading my bags in his car, we made a beeline for Pho 84, located in downtown Oakland and named for the year it opened. I started with the Goi Cuon or shrimp rolls – shrimp with iceberg lettuce, bean sprouts and cilantro rolled in rice paper and served with peanut sauce, a refreshing and tasty welcome back to the Bay Area. With a name like Pho 84, the pho better be good and what I had was quite good and quite satisfying. The Pho 84 House Special was replete with rare done steak, well done flank, tendons and meatballs in a rich beef broth topped with cilantro and onions. My visit was off to a great start.
Oakland is adjacent to and associated with the City of Alameda, a largely residential area that used to be dominated by an Air Force base. While harboring incredible views of San Francisco across the bay, similar to the views of Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights, the old Air Force base is a short drive from downtown Oakland and the home of St. George Spirits, a distillery most well known for their Absinthe, but who also makes notable Eau de Vie's, Whiskeys, Liqueurs and Hangar One Vodkas as well. A thorough tasting of the bulk of their line left me warmed and appreciative of their distilling efforts. I especially enjoyed their Aqua Perfecta Williams Pear Liqueur, the Firelit Coffee Liqueur (made from Oakland's legendary Blue Bottle Coffee) and the St. George Absinthe Verte over ice. Luckily for me, I actually swallowed only a fraction of what I tasted and I was able to walk out of there to continue my Oakland exploration.
That evening, we had dinner at Oakland resident, Chef Daniel Patterson's Coi in San Francisco, an outstanding meal with more than a little bit of its make-up originating in the East Bay. The following morning I was lucky enough to get to accompany Chef Patterson on a trip in the Oakland area foraging for the wild greens he serves with many of his dishes at Coi. It was a special experience from which more will come on this blog.
Patterson is not simply a commuter, though. He recently opened up Plum, a more casual restaurant than its more refined San Francisco sibling, Coi. Situated in a long, narrow and dark space with an open kitchen at the far end inside, Plum is a great place to enjoy sophisticated, inventive and delicious food in a relaxed and comfortable setting at a very reasonable price point. With tasty items like Turnip and Apple Soup with miso, pepper cream and shiso; Olive Oil Braised Cauliflower with bulghur, almonds, dandelion and salsa verde; and Manila Clams Grilled on the Plancha with escarole, green beans and heirloom shelling beans amongst a number of fine dishes, Plum is a bistronomic winner.
Another Oakland must is Brown Sugar Kitchen for Sunday brunch. The unpretentious old style, down-home joint was hopping and based on the excellent New Orleans style Southern fare I understand why. The cornmeal waffles with brown sugar and apple cider syrup were as light and delicious as any that I've ever tasted. When ordered with the fried chicken it made a delicious and hearty meal. The grits with cheddar and poached eggs put me right back in the south and the freshly made beignets were the equal of the original Cafe du Monde in Jackson Square. Chef/owner Tanya Holland just does it right. I'd love to go back for lunch to check out the rest of the menu.
Dopo is a good neighborhood pizza and pasta restaurant reminiscent in style and approach to Brooklyn's Franny's, though not quite as good. Still, Franny's is a tall order to live up to. The arrancino was tasty, though a tad cold in the middle. The pizza was fine and the simple salad with olive oil, anchovies and lemon juice was superb.
I only got to touch the tip of the iceberg here. There is plenty of fine food with a particular bounty of fine ethnic fare, especially from Asia, but also a growing wealth of serious, but relatively economical modern American fare, utilizing all the area's ethnic influences as well as the bounty from the Farmers Markets and foraging.
Oakland has become an impressive city with plenty of good food. The grit and vibe of the city remind me of my original hometown of Brooklyn. Of course, Brooklyn is much larger and has established a number of world class kitchens, such as Roberta's,Ferdinando's and Park Asia amongst others while Oakland does enjoy its proximity to incredible year-round California agriculture. Yet, the similarities are strong. Like Brooklyn, Oakland is primarily a blue collar town with its share of urban gentrification for those seeking a more affordable, yet hip lifestyle in the shadow of a more famous and touristically popular urban setting. Oakland is to San Francisco as Brooklyn is to Manhattan. Both areas have a wealth of ethnic history and cooking and both areas are home to fine restaurants that generally live in the shadows of their generally more well known neighbors and both areas are hotbeds of artisanal food and beverage production. Finally, both areas are generating legitimate and much deserved interest from diners who live outside the areas and should not be ignored when it comes to good food.