We listened to the experts, the word on the street, and, of course, our own palates. And when all was said and eaten, four names in the world of East Bay food stood out among the rest. Come meet the incredible talents who are creating a mouth-watering heaven at a restaurant near you.
Pearl Oyster Bar & Restaurant
5634 College Ave., Oakland
For Mark Lusardi, there are many different fish in the sea.
The executive chef of Pearl Oyster Bar & Restaurant has focused on fish since day one of his culinary career. His seafood-centrism brought him from New York to the Bay Area to help open Aqua and, later, Yabbies Coastal Kitchen in San Francisco.
But apart from an obsession with sea creatures, everything’s a mix when it comes to Lusardi’s influences and passions—Old World and new, high and low—and it’s the interplay of elements that he loves.
His clean, clear, vibrant culinary aesthetic derives from so many sources that it’s hard to keep track. “My strongest culinary foundation has been French and Italian with the California overlay—in my mind it’s the East Bay style. It’s what got me out here from New York. And the Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese use of herbs, spices, and vegetables has always fascinated me, too.”
Lusardi also relishes the diversity of customers Pearl pulls in, at least in part because of its beautiful, sophisticated, somewhat oceanic space. “There is a mix of age, income, and diversity in the East Bay that I love. We get the older, moneyed crowd as well as the young, night-clubby types,” he says. “Our eclectic interior lends itself to that.”
Of course, nirvana is when Lusardi’s love of fish and his diverse influences can work together. “Fish lends itself to a wide variety of preparations, from delicate Asian styles to bolder, more powerful flavors,” he says.
Lusardi’s trio of tartares is a dish that epitomizes his approach: three glistening mounds of raw, cubed salmon, halibut, and tuna are dressed with olive oil and sea salt. Each is flavored, however, with a particular combination of herbs that distinguishes each fish’s particular character and essence.
Best Wine Director
Va de Vi
1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek
Wine director Brendan Eliason will happily list the often-taboo white zin on Va de Vi’s 125-bottle wine menu: “If my customers want it, who am I to say they can’t have it?” he says, hinting at his lack of pretense in an industry that can be full of egos.
Eliason is obviously not the leather-bound-wine-book type. He prefers a less intimidating sort of list, like a single page with informative and witty blurbs.
Take his anytime-anywhere favorite of the moment: the 2001 Cascina Val Del Prete “Carolina” Barbera d’Alba from Piemonte, Italy. This wine is like Sophia Loren. Vibrant, full-bodied, assertive, and very sexy, reads the description. It also keeps getting sexier and smoother as it gets older. “I don’t see the need to make every bottle sound like a fruit salad,” says Eliason, referring to the grapefruit-this and blackberry-that often used to describe wine. “Wine is supposed to be fun.”
Fun—which, he feels, food pairing isn’t. “Pardon the French, but it’s bull#@*!,” he says. “Wine and food are all about personal preference. [It] seems really problematic to me that you could possibly know what wine someone will want before they even walk into your restaurant.”
That amounts to heresy in the wine world, but Va de Vi lucked out when 30-year-old Eliason answered a want ad his girlfriend came across in the San Francisco Chronicle. Less than two years later, the former Cal Poly viticulture student reigns over a wine program he essentially developed from scratch.
Eliason offers his customers 49 wines by the glass or by three-ounce tastes in thoughtfully assembled flights, and tries to minimize markup. His goal, he says, is “to present people with the best wines, with the most diversity, and give them the opportunity to sip as many wines as they can in one sitting.”
Best Pastry Chef
5655 College Ave.,
Oakland (510) 547-5356
It’s hard to picture a pastry chef who doesn’t have a sweet tooth. But Julie Cookenboo (yup, Cookenboo) is just as fond of savory flavors—as the tray of heirloom tomato and summer squash tarts she’s just pulled out of the oven attest.
“Actually, I don’t like things too sweet,” admits the baker, who, in a show of quasi-monogamy rare in the restaurant industry, has spent a decade at Oliveto, after 11 years at San Francisco’s Zuni Café. “There’s a certain level of sweetness I just won’t go above.”
Inspiration for her never-too-sugary, subtly salted creations, she says, comes from local fruit, her colleagues, and the same tattered cookbooks she’s been perusing for years but reads differently every time.
With two kids to care for and three meals a day at Oliveto needing pastries and desserts, you might expect the 51-year-old, self-trained Cookenboo to be relying on old favorites at this point.
Her creations, however, are only getting better. “Back when I was less experienced, I’d have an idea but couldn’t execute it,” she says with a laugh. “Now my ideas actually work!” (Do they ever.) And with the support of three assistants, she is able to change her menu constantly. “Oh, I’d get bored if I didn’t,” she says.
When fresh-picked nectarines arrive at her door, for instance, she might serve them with blackberries and a mascarpone Bavarian cream. Or she might decide to make a flaky tart, flanked by a mound of blackberry ice cream, instead.
While there’s always a tart on the menu, the other spots on her list are up for grabs. One night, she bakes a torte with Gravenstein apples using a recipe former chef Paul Bertolli brought back from a trip to Italy. Sometimes there’s a biscotti, such as pistachio-sultana (sultanas are Turkish golden raisins). Or sorbets and ice creams that often come in eccentric but invigorating flavors, such as Thai basil.
Her only staple is her chocolate cake, a recipe
she honed during her Zuni days. Once at Oliveto, she searched for a new
recipe. “It was a real quandary. I tried to find another. I tried a
flourless, I tried a straightforward ‘rich,’ but nothing even came
close!” says Cookenboo. “It’s the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had.”
She’s only tweaked the recipe slightly: She used to make it with
semisweet chocolate, but now she uses bittersweet, which has even less
sugar. Leave it to Cookenboo to show us how sweet restraint can be.
Rising Star Chef
The Duck Club Restaurant
3287 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette
Just over a year ago, Patrick Fassino, a seven-year veteran of The Duck Club’s kitchen, found himself in an unenviable position. A sous chef at the time, he was left to run a kitchen that had just experienced a mass exodus: Chef, pastry chef, food and beverage manager, and several line cooks had all defected to Bing Crosby’s, the shiny new restaurant just down the road.
Although he had worked several posts in The Duck Club kitchen, being pronounced the top toque more or less out of the blue was quite a shock. He had to rise to the occasion, and rise quickly.
How did he do it? He says, “You just walk into work and say, how are we going to keep it together today?” When the soft-spoken Fassino speaks of grooming inexperienced staff members, he glows with quiet pride. “I’ve done my best to make them better cooks. It’s a great feeling to see someone you’ve been working with start to move as a chef.”
He must have done something right, because when executive chef Evan Crandall came on last year, he made no secret of his admiration for Fassino, promoting him to chef de cuisine. Now, after a short stint, Crandall has moved on, and The Duck Club is searching for a new executive chef.
Meanwhile, Fassino’s journey has allowed him to flex his creative muscles. His dishes show off luxurious ingredients, from the velvety slices of perfectly ripe avocado and mango surrounding chunks of lobster in a decadent first-course salad to the brioche-and-foie-gras stuffing of a porcini-powdered chicken breast.
Each delicious bite is testament to Fassino’s
ability to take every opportunity to raise his game and become a great
chef—even while holding things together day to day.