The East Bay's favorite Spanish tapas restaurant enlivens Piedmont Avenue
The recent openings of César, Tango Gelato (an Argentine gelato shop), and Grégoire (a high-end take-out shop) on Piedmont Avenue are turning the area into its own version of the Gourmet Ghetto. Indeed, the new César on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue is a lot like the old César on Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue. It has the same blue-tiled walls, the same enormous earthenware cazuela of olives on the bar, and a similarly rushed but extremely skilled waitstaff.
Co-owner and general manager Richard Mazzera, a longtime East Bay restaurant player with interests in Berkeley’s Downtown restaurant as well as the two Césars, was one of three Chez Panisse alums who introduced Berkeley to the attractions of Spanish bar cuisine with the original César nine years ago. Mazzera says he couldn’t be happier with the new location—the result of a five-year search. “I probably looked at 80 properties all over the Bay Area,” he says, “and Piedmont Avenue has so many of the things that were exactly what we were looking for.”
Among the attractions of the new location are the restaurant’s historic building, which was the site of the first Longs Pharmacy in 1938, ample parking (at least compared with Shattuck Avenue), and a densely residential neighborhood that was hungry for another fun, sophisticated place to eat and drink.
The most notable difference between the two Césars is that the new location has a lot more space. In addition to more seating, there’s a bigger kitchen, which enables the cooks to prepare some larger dishes, such as whole grilled tai snapper sprinkled with thin rings of dried hot Spanish pepper and slices of darkly pungent fried garlic. The larger space also accommodates an adjacent retail shop, Mercado César, which stocks authentic Spanish ingredients, such as saffron and marcona almonds, paella pans, and a few prepared tapas. Aside from these differences, the food is essentially the same, and it’s very good.
The cuisine is a fittingly Spanish celebration of pork and little fish, such as sardines. Chef and co-owner Maggie Pond offers an intriguing selection of her own charcuterie, including house-cured chorizo and a pork-and-rabbit pâté; all of the charcuterie items can be ordered individually or in combination as a tabla and are for sale in the mercado.
Another good charcuterie option is a plate of rosy, glistening slices of sweet serrano ham, which, on a recent visit, I could have made a meal of, along with the crusty Acme bread, high-quality butter, and fleshy, citrus-infused olives. Little bunches of red flame grapes dressed in sherry vinegar and roasted until bursting—a preparation that Pond dreamed up—were a nice, winey-sweet accompaniment.
The menu is delightful, even as reading material, as each item sounds more enticing than the last. Don’t be afraid to ask for an explanation of dishes such as pimientos de padrón (small fried green peppers, some sweet and some hot, glossy with olive oil). But even if you don’t ask questions, you’re unlikely to go wrong. The Moroccan pepper salad with shrimp and black olives is a moist tangle, delicious when spooned over slices of bread. The same bread is useful for soaking up the remaining juices from a plate of tender baby clams in a spicy mojo verde, a cilantro pesto typical of the Canary Islands.
A“little sandwich,” the spicy tuna-and-egg bocadillo is every bit as tasty as you’d expect house-made tuna confit and hard-cooked egg to be. But it’s finished with enough olive oil to deter some. I know it’s the “good” fat, but still I admit to trying to blot the sandwich with my napkin as rivulets of oil ran down my arm and onto my plate. The oil is delicious, though, sharp and green, and as it retails for $24 a liter in the mercado, one can’t accuse the kitchen of stinginess.
Some well-made vegetable dishes add depth to the menu. Plank-roasted brussels sprouts with a flavorful garlic-parsley oil are perfect.
César’s beverage menu of carefully chosen wines by the glass, sherries, ports, hard ciders, and refined cocktails is nearly as much of a draw as the food. Tapas are, after all, bar cuisine, having evolved from simple snacks to nibble with sherry. On our visit, my husband and I adored glasses of Campo de Borja Crianza, a plummy red blend.
It’s tempting to end a meal at César on a savory note, allowing the memory of the pure flavors to linger awhile longer, but the menu has a few fine desserts, including a plate of honey-drizzled fresh cheese served alongside grilled seasonal fruit and a chocolate-cinnamon ice-cream sundae. We opted for pinchos de chocolate, squares of buttery chocolate ganache with hazelnuts, which we enjoyed with the remaining Campo de Borja in our glasses.
Contact: 4039 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 883-0222, http://www.barcesar.com
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Price: Tapas $4–$11; larger plates $17–$22
Alcohol: Full bar