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As Bays second city makes a play for the big time, writer Alec Scott shares his favourite rooms from the booming foodie scene.
My grandmother said that her favourite food was “anything cooked by someone else.” The only time I saw Mema tear up in public after my grandfather’s death was when Johnny, the mâitre d’ at their local Italian spot, Il Tulipano, expressed his condolences—formal and heartfelt, just right.
I don’t share her passion for eating out, but I still enjoy it. The city where I live, Oakland, an old industrial port on San Francisco Bay, is suddenly awash in good restaurants. Food writers from around the continent have descended here, marvelling at the creative ways its chefs have put California’s bounty to admirable use.
For sure, there are lots of trendy places in grand, industrial-chic spaces, plying a diversity of culinary waters—Barbadian, Burmese, Korean fusion, soul food, Japanese, Oaxacan, you name it. But there are just a special few that hit my particular spot: the ones that not only draw accolades from reviewers, but also consistently serve up that something extra.
Camino’s front-of-house manager, Allison Hopelain, is as different a mâitre d’ from Johnny as can be imagined. She dresses in casual, quirky vintage, and notices everything—if something’s off, there she is. “I don’t know what I do here, exactly,” she once said, “but it must be important, because when I’m not here, things fall apart.” At the back of this barn-like space, with its long communal tables cut from a single redwood tree, is her chef/husband Russell Moore, cooking in a blazing hearth, always in a gingham shirt.
Like so many top Oakland chefs, Moore trained at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse under the first lady of California cuisine, Alice Waters. And here, as there, are ingredients of high quality, combined artfully, the tiny menu crafted each day based on what’s in the market. I’ve had extraordinary roasted lamb from his team, a creamy boudin blanc sausage that he makes himself, some succulent cardoons—edible thistles foraged from nearby.
The pair are always in the place, and it’s been great watching their hard work pay off in positive reviews in the New York Times Magazine and Saveur. A restaurant you like has a way of concentrating your memories—I have my mother enjoying the hell out of her first Dungeness crab; a rather unadventurous acquaintance looking down, daunted, at the electric-green nettle soup that he’d gone and ordered; a work colleague of my partner’s trying to wrest a Bacardi and Coke out of the no-national-brands bar. There’s some solid earnestness to the project: the wines are organic, and they’ve led the movement to incorporate tips in the prices. And some whimsy: at this fall’s launch of their cookbook, home-cut paper masks hung from the chandeliers, including one of a gorilla and an excellent Frida Kahlo.
Where Moore’s food is haute rustic, James Syhabout’s is just haute haute. A meal at his tiny restaurant, Commis, will go through eight small tasting courses, each served on pottery to display the dish to maximum effect. The artistry of the presentation is reflected in the subtlety of the tastes—Syhabout trained at Manresa, south of San Francisco, and Commis is, in Bay Area terms, the opposite of Chez Panisse. So prepared, his production values are high, his meal pacing is careful, and the Zen of the staffers in the open kitchen infects the diners, making those scallops surrounded by a crown of woven escarole feel somehow sacramental. Although there’s usually good-time music playing (old Motown), it never feels casual at Commis, with this rare level of excellence on the plate.
Syhabout just got his second Michelin star awarded to him and is the only Oakland chef so recognized. That’s no surprise. Oakland’s restaurants don’t tend to serve food that is Michelin bait.
The old working-class disdain for fancy remains here, in the industrial port whose shipyards helped win the war in the Pacific; its signature fusion is modern-accented soul food, reflecting the city’s storied, long-established black and Asian communities.
That’s maybe the closest, genre-wise, you can get to describing what Sunhui Chang does at his living-room-sized Fusebox. Chang comes from a factory town in Korea and makes his own hot gochujang sauce and kimchi. But he takes these Korean impulses and runs with them. His highly individual food comes from months of experimentation, writing down what works and what doesn’t in a notebook. Even his brief description of the odysseys that got him to his homemade tofu and (particularly excellent) Korean-fried chicken wings gives evidence of an obsessive nature: “The staff hate me because the sauce has to be applied with a paintbrush.” It’s this spirit of from-first-principles experimentation that I admire, his painstaking desire to embody something of himself in his food.
It’s something else that has me returning again and again to our local Italian, in a neighbourhood that’s become a food mecca: Temescal. Pizzaiolo is a far cry from the out-of-The-Sopranos Il Tulipano. Night after night, the diverse and funky humans of Oakland pack its seats, their lively conversations bouncing off the exposed brick walls. The chef, Charlie Hallowell, is another Chez Panisse alum, and it shows. His pizzas are thin-crust, topped with just a few good things; the vegetables and salad greens come from named farms of impeccable pedigree.
When we last came here, in mid-October, I took particular pleasure in eating this food prepared by others—it had been a while. In September, my rather stalwart partner of 10 years, David, had a tangerine-sized tumour removed from his brain. The operation went well, but there was a worrisome month afterward, one where I cooked three meals a day as he came back into himself. When, at last, he felt ready to go out again into the world, this was where we went. We had a waitress we’d often had before. He lobbed a couple of his quips at her, and she had good, smart responses. I told her the origin of the L-shaped scar on his head, and she took it in. When we opted out of the dessert, she brought one anyway, on the house—a fresh pear cake with crème fraîche ice cream and huckleberry sauce. “So glad to see you,” she said. “Welcome back.”