Labor of Love
A Walnut Creek couple brings a Homey style and Chez Panisse sensibility to main Street.
When Arash and Lauren Ghasemi opened Main St. Kitchen in Walnut Creek, they brought their work home: cases of spring peas and fava beans that their three-year-old son, Lorenzo, would help shuck on the family’s porch.
It’s a scene that reflects the Kitchen’s seasonal ingredients and laid-back style, yet it also reflects the all-consuming nature of the restaurant business. Because the Ghasemis have a second son, Armando—just five months old when they opened their Walnut Creek restaurant in April—you might even call their timing for opening a restaurant crazy.
“If it wasn’t a labor of love,” says Lauren, “we’d be certifiably insane.”
Luckily, there are grandparents in the wings, and much of Arash’s food is crazy good—the result of a long culinary journey. When he was 14 years old, Arash fled Iran over the Zagros Mountains, eventually finding his way to the Netherlands, where he lived and cooked for many years. After immigrating here in 2004, he briefly worked at Subway in Lafayette to get his bearings, then cooked at restaurants in Danville, Pleasanton, and—most influentially—Berkeley’s (now closed) Eccolo, under chef Christopher Lee, a longtime Chez Panisse alum.
That Chez Panisse spirit is evident in Arash’s simple, seasonal, ingredient-driven menu, where he’s particularly adept with seafood. On our visit, flash-fried whole smelt—a welcome reprieve from calamari—set the tone for an entrée of delicate local cod atop a stunning mélange of spring veggies. (Thanks, Lorenzo.)
At lunch, Arash’s distinctive fish and chips delivers moist and supple cod with hand-cut chips sprinkled with fresh herbs and sea salt. Our side of cabbage slaw—simply seasoned with lime, cilantro, and flecks of jalapeño—delivered a refreshing counterpoint to the deep-fried fare.
If you want an even more casual meal, the changing menu features a selection of signature sandwiches, including an organic grass-fed burger and a Fra’ Mani ham panino with Brie, ricotta, and house-made apricot jam. Best of all, the crispy fried soft-shell crab—stuffed in an Acme bun and slathered with a fresh tarragon tartar sauce—shows just how far Arash has come since that stint at Subway.
Main St. Kitchen exudes the relaxed sophistication that defines the Oakland-Berkeley dining scene—a sophistication that is all too scarce in the greater East Bay. On the French bistro–style patio, Lauren created a living wall of herbs and succulents that echoes the menu’s freshness. Inside, Lauren did away with a partition to showcase the copper-accented kitchen, and used soothing grays and blues throughout the dining room as a backdrop to the dramatic framework. Spiky sea urchin art, spidery chandeliers, and silverware presented in honeypots complete the decor.
There is also mismatched and flowery china (including dainty teacups to complement the delicate teas), adding a whimsical touch to the more rustic dishes and a lovely frame for the colorful ones, such as Arash’s salad of arugula, citrus, stone fruit, and dates. Those dates—one of the few nods to Arash’s Persian heritage—also appear in an open-faced goat cheese omelet. There is one Iranian-style dish that sometimes appears on the menu: the rich olvia chicken salad made with potato and egg, and served either as an appetizer with Acme toast points or as a sandwich with house-made pickles.
Lauren’s good cheer and Arash’s serious disposition make a good combination for such a demanding profession. The couple also own Café 15 in Oakland, a weekday breakfast and lunch–only restaurant that opened in 2009. But Walnut Creek is home, as evidenced by the frequent presence in the restaurant of Lorenzo, who on our early evening visit was playing in the dining room under the watchful eye of Grandpa. “We really want to be close to home,” says Lauren. “The perfect lifestyle is living close to home.”
When using top-notch ingredients and making most elements from scratch, it’s hard to compete on price. But Main St. Kitchen does it well, with most dishes less than $20. It’s heartening to know you’re supporting a local family that is bringing an urban sensibility to the suburbs—but having ulterior motives is OK, too. Our ethereal chocolate bread pudding (more like a soufflé) and naturally rich apricot upside-down cake (just sweet enough) were inspired homey indulgences.
Contact: 1358 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 933-1001, mainstkitchen.com. Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sat.–Sun.