This restaurant brings simple perfection to Oakland's Grand Lake.
Photography by Maren Caruso
Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain, the owners of Camino, love to travel, and their fondest memories are of visiting small cafés or street stands where the passionate proprietor was preparing a dish that was simple—and perfect. It could have been beans simmering in a clay pot over an open flame served with handmade tortillas, or grilled fish minutes out of the ocean served with a salad of local ingredients.
An open flame, local ingredients, and an uncluttered menu based on the seasons constitute a genre of dining that exists throughout the world, but is not found as often in the United States. It is a genre being re-created at Camino, which gets its Italian name from the fireplace that runs almost the entire width of the restaurant. The restaurant’s camino includes a wood-burning oven and an open pit, with pots nestled in coals or meat roasting on a grill.
Whereas other chefs pursue variety, exotic ingredients, and scientific techniques, Moore would rather engage with the unpredictability of an open flame and the whimsy of local farms. Rather than having a menu 10 pages long, Camino has a single sheet.
Some courses are predictable. For instance, chicken is offered most nights—mostly it is grilled, but it might be roasted. What comes with it varies from wild nettles and fresh shell beans to polenta and roasted vegetables—and nearly everything is cooked in the camino. One thing is for sure: Whatever accompanies the chicken will be homey and satisfying.
The menu is local, sustainable, and green, but not because it’s trendy—it’s the way Hopelain (who manages the front of the house) and Moore cook, eat, and live. Every Tuesday and Saturday, they go to the Berkeley farmers market to augment what vendors bring.
Moore’s relationship with the farmers and artisan purveyors started about 20 years ago at Chez Panisse, where he worked as a chef and produce buyer. Those relationships deepened as he visited their farms, saw how they worked, and came to understand their passion. During this time, he and Hopelain began to discuss having a place of their own. Hopelain had a landscape business, but once she decided to partner with Moore on a restaurant, she took jobs at some of the best establishments in San Francisco: Bar Tartine and Zuni Cafe.
When Moore sat down with pastry chef Blake Brown—formerly of Tartine and Chez Panisse—to create Camino’s pastry department, they decided to go with the same concept underlying the savory dishes. The sugar is unrefined, and the flour is unbleached. Fruits of the season go into the fresh, pure granitas, such as the fragrant palest orange melon granita, which tastes delicately of ripe cantaloupe and has a champagne finish.
Bartender Thad Vogler turned the tables on Moore by inviting him to apply the same principles to the bar. Cocktails change weekly and use spirits made in small batches by cottage distillers. Some customers have complained that the bar does not have vodka. That’s because so far Moore and Vogler haven’t found a vodka that passes muster. Four cocktails and one alcohol-free drink are offered every night. The alcohol-free cocktail might be made from the syrup used to poach the peaches served for dessert, perhaps combined with brewed green tea, citrus zest, and an herb called costmary.
The food menu changes daily and can be mixed and matched. If you like small plates, then order all the first courses. If you like heartier fare, order the second courses. If you want only a cocktail and bar snacks, you can do that, too. If you want to stop by late for a strong cup of Blue Bottle coffee and one of Brown’s buttery, delicate desserts, by all means do.
In any case, you’ll be assured food that is seasonal, simple, local, and genuine. You may even have a food moment that’s, well, perfect.
At a Glance
What Makes it Special: The daily changing menu, the passion the staff has for the live fire concept, and the local seasonal ingredients.
Don’t Miss: Thad Vogler’s cocktails. Inventive and delicious spirits mixed with tea, fruit syrups, herbs, or bitters.
The Space: Large and airy; lots of wood and brick. The kitchen staff is completely visible to diners, and the servers are warm and friendly.
Bonus: The surprises that may show up with your entrée, like slow-cooked greens, lentil salad, or fresh whole milk ricotta under a bed of vegetables.
When to Go: If you like quiet, go early for dinner; the place fills up around 6:30.
Contact: 3917 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-5035, www.caminorestaurant.com.
Hours: Dinner Wed.–Mon.
Price: Appetizers $9–$12, entrées $18–$25, desserts $6–$9.
Alcohol: Wine, beer, and cocktails.