2005 Diablo Food Awards
You, our obviously food-crazed readers, kicked off our annual Diablo Food Awards when you flooded us with answers to our July issue’s query about which restaurants you love. We took your top 14 choices and sent our esteemed panel of chefs, food writers, and other accomplished food snobs to check them out. This year, each of the 14 restaurants received four visits from our judges, who awarded scores between 1 and 30, rating not only the food, but also the restaurant’s ambience and service. The maximum possible score was 120, for perfect 30s from each of the restaurant’s four judges. As it turned out, our winners posted scores between 83 and 104, ratings we’ve published in the next 11 pages with quick rundowns of the restaurants. So here they are, in all their delicious glory, the seven absolute best of the best.
Va de Vi
After more than a year and a half in business, Va de Vi is still the hottest place around. And while that title can often imply more style than substance, in this case, there’s quality to back it up. The many small plates are lusciously fresh and interesting, the wines are picked for maximum aficionado amusement, and the setting is handsome. No wonder there’s a mob at the door.
WOW: Kurobuta pork belly: crusty and salty-sweet on the outside, pure butter on the inside. The flavor is so sustained, each bite lingers for ages.
OTHER FAVORITE DISHES: Hanger steak with creamed sweet corn, wild mushroom ragout, and fried shallots; ahi tempura roll with wasabi-orange cream and ponzu sauce.
NICE TOUCHES: The oak tree on the back terrace is gorgeously lit at night. The glasses used to serve wine flights are labeled with numbers from the menu so you know what you’re drinking.
SURPRISES: The small plates are big enough to share, even among three people.
WHO GOES THERE: Who doesn’t? The place is like an upscale version of a Saturday
QUIRKS: Love the dinner checks presented in hardcover books. But a book on menopause? Which customer gets that one? Yikes.
WORST NAME FOR A DISH: Shouper, which is soup served in a shot glass.
NEEDS WORK: The restroom should be made unisex so the line for the women’s room won’t one night snake down Mt. Diablo Boulevard.
The food at Eccolo is creative and genuine, similar in spirit to Chez Panisse but without the nonstop references to each ingredient’s origins. Even without the designer labels, the ingredients are clearly top-notch and expertly prepared. Servers are charming and knowledgeable.
WOW: Oxtail cakes. The oxtail is braised, mixed with diced celery and carrots, and formed into cakes, then breaded and pan-fried. Salsa verde provides an acidic counterpoint to the rich cakes, and a salad of frisée and arugula throws in a note of bitterness.
Other FAVORITE DISHES: Orecchiette (little ear-shaped discs of pasta) with clams, fennel sausage, and pepperoncino; moist and tender chicken mattone (cooked under a brick).
NICE TOUCHES: Salted bread from Della Fattoria Bakery, referred to by judge Josh Sens as “so good you’re still enjoying yourself when you realize you’re now too full to eat a meal.” Also, when a server saw she had made a mistake with a wine order, she urged the people at the table to keep the wine that had been brought mistakenly, then promptly brought the right one.
BOTTOM’S UP: Great drinks at the bar: One judge said her mom is still talking about her limoncello lemon drop.
WHO GOES THERE: Berkeley’s version of country-clubbers, business lunchers in nice suits, and tourists on a culinary bender.
NEEDS WORK: Our judges made rumblings about the restaurant’s ambience, which feels a little cool—not quite the right backdrop for the soulful food.
In a cozy little stucco building in a residential neighborhood, Lalime’s is small but mighty—and completely unpretentious. The menu changes daily to make use of fresh, seasonal ingredients. The creative kitchen staff gets hold of Northern California’s phenomenal bounty and works miracles. And the servers are some of the best, most personable you’ll find anywhere. Each Diablo Food Awards judge who went to Lalime’s thought, at some point during the evening, “Ah, I’m home.”
WOW: A North African mechouia salad, which is made with roasted vegetables and grilled preserved lemons, served with grilled flatbread; sweet corn chowder with chive oil; a trio of artisan cheeses with membrillo, or quince jelly, and homemade crackers. The list of interesting seasonal appetizers goes on and on.
ANOTHER FAVORITE DISH: Grilled duck breast on a cranberry bean and sweet corn sautée.
NICE TOUCH: Near the end of a meal, when one of our judges said she preferred a wine she’d tasted earlier to the one she ordered, the server immediately came back with a half-glass of the one she preferred, gratis.
WHO GOES THERE: As one judge put it, “people who think Chez Panisse is too snotty.”
QUIRKS: What’s with the stealth profile? When people from New York food publications can’t get into the always-booked Chez Panisse, they go to Lalime’s. Yet there are plenty of food lovers on the east side of the Caldecott Tunnel who have never heard of the place.
NEEDS WORK: A few dishes needed salt at the table, in some cases because the olive oil in them tasted bland.
The window-encased front room at Prima is the best place to spend an afternoon this side of Florence. Adding to the loveliness are genuinely and meticulously prepared dishes drawing on local meats, fish, and produce, and a wine list that’s everything you ever wanted to know about Italian wine (but didn’t know to ask). 1522 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-7780
WOW: The pan-roasted Rhode Island black bass with braised artichokes, tomato, and aged balsamico was crisp on the outside,
melting on the inside.
ANOTHER FAVORITE DISH: Eggplant-filled tortelli with tomato and ricotta salata (a dry, salty form of ricotta cheese).
NICE TOUCHES: The Chef’s Tasting Menu is reasonably priced at $45–$58; a recent one featured roasted sardines, goat cheese and roasted pepper ravioli, quail stuffed with wild mushrooms, and fig crostata with vin santo syrup and lavender cream.
SURPRISES: One of our judges said her server intervened as she and her dining partner were choosing their wines and asked if they’d like to be surprised. They loved the pairings.
ABOVE AND BEYOND: One diner had an aching back, and the server very quietly brought over some extra chair cushions.
WHO GOES THERE: The early crowd is middle-aged. Later in the evening, it’s younger and hipper.
NEEDS WORK: The menu can have an awful lot of seafood and not many vegetables.
“Every now and then you dine in a restaurant where everything comes together
and results in a truly memorable and outstanding dining experience.”
—Marlene Sorosky Gray
The Duck Club
Quality abounds at The Duck Club, starting with the beautifully varied basket of fresh ciabatta and walnut bread. Appetizers and entrées continue the elegant parade, brought by professional, if somewhat formal, servers. The kitchen follows the seasons when choosing ingredients, and shows no lack of innovation when cooking them.
WOW: Indecently rich and earthy porcini mushroom risotto, the earthiness heightened with truffle oil, and its accompanying grilled veal chop with port-braised shallots.
OTHER FAVORITE DISHES: Al dente black-pepper pappardelle with roasted chicken and artichokes; the signature duck with its crisp skin and tender flesh, spinach, and a potato cake; tomato- and fennel-crusted fillet of salmon with ratatouille.
NICE TOUCHES: The dessert menu offers a plate of homemade cookies. Coffee is made to order in French press pots and is accompanied by fun sides such as whipped cream and chocolate shavings.
SURPRISE: The mascarpone polenta cake is a delicate, moist slice of subtle richness, not merely a foil for the lamb chops with which it is served.
WHO GOES THERE: Families, business types, a somewhat older crowd.
QUIRKS: Some dishes seem to have too many ingredients; it seems like overkill. When some flavors cancel out others, why not go simpler?
NEEDS WORK: The décor, no matter how many new flourishes and lighting fixtures get thrown at it, still looks dated.
Once again, the Wente Vineyards Restaurant has proven itself to be the go-to eatery in the Livermore Valley. A restaurant with a philosophy, even a mission, Wente capitalizes on local products, and tries to nurture local producers. Like many of the Wente family ventures, Wente Vineyards Restaurant shows a commitment to the region and to the community. In this case, it’s diners who benefit.
WOW: The setting at Wente is right out of a wine country coffee-table book.
FAVORITE DISHES: A simple appetizer of toast points with smoked salmon, shaved red onion, and crème fraîche; pasta with salmon, lemon cream, and toasted bread crumbs; applewood-smoked double-cut pork chop with a sweet plum compote and buttery polenta.
NICE TOUCHES: Produce from the restaurant’s garden, and other produce and meat from local producers; chocolate sampler dessert; homemade ice creams and sorbets.
SURPRISE: The servers offer half-glasses of wine.
WHO GOES THERE: Locals celebrating special occasions, corporate types looking very buttoned up in the bucolic setting, golfers right off the course.
QUIRKS: Cigar menu and separate cigar patio—welcome, Ah-nold.
ANOTHER QUIRK: The delicious heirloom tomato salad was big enough to feed the table.
NEEDS WORK: Judges thought the prices were high for what was offered: $23.50 for store-bought pasta, $38 for a filet of beef that wasn’t organic.
Stepping into Pearl is like changing out of the tweedy blazer that is Rockridge into a Day-Glo Speedo. The food and the atmosphere are all about going off the high dive. Flavors are bright, clear, clean, and vivid—an aesthetic that’s reflected in the restaurant’s deep-sea décor. Oysters are exceedingly fresh.
WOW: The balance of flavors at Pearl is a beautiful thing: ceviche with Thai herbs and lemon-pressed olive oil; calamari with Thai slaw; cod with ponzu dressing—every combination seems to work.
OTHER FAVORITE DISHES: Buttery misoyaki-marinated black cod with scallion rice cake, tempura portabello, and tart ponzu; crab cakes with sweet Maine Peekytoe crabmeat and a spicy accent of sriracha hot sauce.
SURPRISE: Maybe it’s the oysters, but our judges kept calling this place “sexy.” One even said Pearl looks like a place to, ahem, “get laid.” Another said, “That flirtatious busboy certainly gets an ‘A.’ ” We don’t like that kind of talk, but we are wondering if we could get a reservation for tonight.…
ANOTHER SURPRISE: The cheesecake (a throwback gut-buster that is usually best avoided) is light, creamy, and not to be missed.
WHO GOES THERE: Rockridge types splurging on $12-an-hour babysitters; singles; food lovers who want a little urban glam with their heirloom whatevers.
QUIRKS: Pearl’s website says no baby strollers allowed.
ANOTHER QUIRK: “Our waitress had the irritating habit of offering unsolicited personal information about herself,” says judge Josh Sens. “If we wanted that, we’d have stayed home and watched Dr. Phil.”
NEEDS WORK: The spicy, smoky fries, which our judges thought would be better as plain fries.
Meet Our Expert Judges: Dorothy Calimeris,chef and freelance food writer; Linda Carucci, curator of food arts at Copia; Nancy G. Freeman, freelance food writer, columnist, and editor; Marlene Sorosky Gray, award-winning cookbook author; Kathryn Jessup, associate editor for Diablo magazine; Mollie Katzen, best-selling cookbook author; Jan Newberry, food and wine editor for San Francisco magazine; Josh Sens, restaurant critic for San Francisco magazine; Bill Staggs, freelance food writer; Melissa Swanson, freelance food writer; Laura Werlin, award-winning cookbook author.