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The 2006 Diablo Food Awards


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Every year, Diablo asks you food-loving sophisticates to choose your favorite East Bay restaurants. We always get a flood of enthusiastic recommendations. Then we put your picks to the test to determine our absolute best restaurants of the year. We call in the professionals: an elite team of judges including noted food critics, chefs, cookbook authors, and food-savvy radio and television hosts.

The judges eat, drink, and make merry at your 17 top nominees. Each restaurant gets four visits from our judges, who assess the food on their plates, the beauty of their surroundings, and the smoothness of the service. The maximum number of points a restaurant can earn is 120, and this year’s winners brought in between 94 and 106. We usually pick seven winners, but this year, two restaurants tied for seventh place.

While out sleuthing, our judges came across perfect pasta, out-of-this-world wines, patio dining with pastoral views, and servers whose attention was absolute yet unobtrusive. So, without further ado, here are the winners.

Prima

Prima Ristorante was primo in this year’s competition, with 106 points. The simply yet elegantly decorated 29-year-old institution, with a specialty wine shop next door, was purchased by two of its employees last year: chef Peter Chastain and wine director John Rittmaster. The pair seamlessly transitioned into co-owners, and the restrained Italian food not only survived the change, it’s better than ever. Prima pleased our judges to no end.

Wow: House-made, light-as-air tagliatelle with classic Emilian meat sauce made judge Leslie Sbrocco feel as though she were back in Italy.

Nice Touches: Live jazz in the bar Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, and understated but excellent service, such as a waiter quietly splitting an appetizer of melon and prosciutto tableside—with one hand!

Innovations: Two-ounce pours of wine for one-third the price of a full glass; also, resisting food trends—Prima is pure Italian.

Who Goes There: Well-heeled food lovers, businessmen in sharp suits, fashionably dressed women

Pleasant Surprise: Olive oil and aceto vivo (red wine vinegar) on a salad of lettuces that was as distinctive and interesting as a good wine

Trying Too Hard: A waiter pretending to have an Italian accent

Favorites: Delectable pizzetta from the wood-burning oven

Needs Work: Timing. One judge’s entrée arrived barely warm.

1522 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-7780, www.primaristorante.com  

Meet Our Judges

Bruce Aidells, founder, Aidells Sausage Co.; Lynne Char Bennett, wine writer, San Francisco Chronicle; Gene Burns, host, Dining Around, KGO Radio; Dorothy Calimeris, chef and food writer; founder of Bombar’s Catering; Linda Carucci, director of culinary programs, Copia, Napa; cookbook author; Kerry Heffernan, former chef-owner, Autumn Moon Café; former chef de cuisine, Fairmont Hotel; founding member, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs; Michaela Jarvis, executive editor, Diablo magazine; former pantry chef, Lalime’s; Kathryn Jessup, associate editor, Diablo magazine; former intern, Chez Panisse Café; Mollie Katzen, author of the original Moosewood Cookbook; George Morrone, founder of Aqua and chef de cuisine, the Fifth Floor; restaurant consultant; Jan Newberry, food and wine editor, San Francisco magazine; Kim O’Neill, food writer and consultant; former cook, Zuni Café; Leslie Sbrocco, host, Check Please! Bay Area on KQED television; wine writer; Josh Sens, restaurant critic, San Francisco magazine; Patricia Unterman, restaurant critic, San Francisco Examiner; owner, Hayes Street Grill; GraceAnn Walden, Bay Area restaurant columnist, Contra Costa Times; host, gourmet walking tours; founder, www.graceannwalden.net  

Oliveto

This true-to-Italy restaurant has been a Rockridge institution for 20 years. But when longtime chef and partner Paul Bertolli officially departed last year, everyone in the food world wondered in what direction his replacement, Paul Canales, would take the venerable establishment. Well, the results are in, and the direction appears to be straight to the top. Oliveto Cafe and Restaurant raked in 102 points, and everyone is raving about Canales’s skill at upholding culinary tradition while at the same time exploring delicious innovations.

wow: Paine Farm pigeon with buttery, crisp skin and velvety red flesh rich with flavorful juices, and agnolotti (stuffed pasta) of pigeon whose tender filling and delicate crescents, cut from fresh sheets of pasta, were clearly a labor of love.

Innovations: Charcoal grilled green eel; smoked-paprika dressing galvanizing a salad; lobster roe turning super-tender ravioli bright pink; and a basted duck egg on Italian frying peppers—a scrumptious combination.

Quirks: Prices can get high. Judge Bruce Aidells points out that $16 for about 2 ounces of salami works out to approximately $128 a pound.

Who Goes There: The Bay Area’s haute cuisine crowd

Pleasant Surprises: Smart, gentle, efficient, intuitive, and totally professional waitstaff; wonderful olives and fresh sweet butter on every table

Needs Work: The awkward reception downstairs in the café. Our judges were left hanging at the front door.

5655 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-5356, www.oliveto.com  

Bridges

The Danville restaurant with a gracious atmosphere and the delicate East-meets-West menu was a fine-dining favorite in the 925 for years. Then, in 2004, Ryota Sugitani, son of the man who founded the business, sold it to restaurateur Randy Negi, of Walnut Creek’s erstwhile OnoMazé. Since the sale, Bridges Restaurant and Bar has been working to find its new identity. After dropping in our competition last fall, Bridges emerged triumphant this year, as judges awarded it 101 points and gushed about the delicious food, the professional service, and the serene outdoor dining.

Wow: Pizzetta with a sweet, yeasty crust, prosciutto, peaches, micro arugula, truffle oil, and shaved parmesan. It’s a shame to even call it pizza.

Favorite Dish: Filet mignon with morel mushroom demi-glace. The gorgeous piece of tender, flavorful, perfectly cooked meat with a deep, dark, roasty sauce is made all the more decadent with succulent morel mushrooms.

Pleasant Surprise: A dessert of Valrhona-chocolate-mousse cake with a crispy tuile filled with white chocolate mousse served with a delicate Grand Marnier sauce. It was a chocolate gift.

Who Goes There: Businesspeople, couples on dates

Above and Beyond: The Japanese maple–lined patio—food judge and Diablo Executive Editor Michaela Jarvis would like to sit there for an hour each day as meditation.

Nice Touch: Warm, fresh bread

Needs Work: The loud waiter who tells each patron, within earshot of one another, that whatever they’re ordering is his “absolute favorite.”

44 Church St., Danville, (925) 820-7200, www.bridgesdanville.com  


“Bridges is a restaurant on par with the finest in the city.”  —Kerry Heffernan, chef

Wente

Any restaurant in as pretty a setting as Wente’s, with its enormous sycamore trees and rolling vineyards, is a place you hope has great food. This year, the restaurant, which has its own chef’s garden on-site and a full-time pastry chef, fulfilled that hope, earning 99 points. Over the summer, the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards got a new executive chef, Jerry Regester, formerly of the Lodge at Pebble Beach, to fill the role of Elisabeth Schwarz, who left last winter. Regester’s cooking was a hit with our judges, as was the romantic dining room and the selection of Livermore Valley and West Coast wines.

Wow: A brunch entrée of braised beef and potato hash with poached eggs and sun-dried-tomato béarnaise sauce. The melt-in-your-mouth hash, perfectly poached eggs, and flavorful béarnaise are perfect with a big glass of “breakfast” Cabernet.

Nice Touch: Seasonal ingredients, such as squash blossoms, green beans, and heirloom and toybox tomatoes in summer, are all over the menu and the chef handles them thoughtfully.

quirks: The restaurant’s patio is often visited by one particularly cheeky scrub jay that hops onto tables and steals slices of bread.

Who Goes There: Golfers, groups of business people, well-dressed couples, and families on a special night out. You’ll see everything from shorts and Hawaiian shirts to suits.

Innovation: Use of toothsome, flavorful Himalayan red rice with entrées

Above and Beyond: The staff here—from the valet parkers to the host to the ever-present manager to the servers—seems to have trained at a four-star hotel.

Needs Work: On one visit, the kitchen hadn’t checked the fresh chickpeas in an appetizer; they tasted of mold.

5050 Arroyo Rd., Livermore, (925) 456-2450, www.wentevineyards.com  

Bing Crosby's

It hit Diabloland with a dose of Hollywood glamour when it opened in 2004, and this year, Bing Crosby’s Restaurant and Piano Lounge was a star with Diablo’s judges, who loved the dramatic celebrity atmosphere, the at-your-beck-and-call service, and the classy, throwback food. Restaurateur Jeff Dudum dreamed up the shrine to the old crooner, and even while Dudum has been busy launching other theme restaurants, such as Joe DiMaggio’s Italian Chophouse in San Francisco, Bing’s has maintained quality. It earned 97 points from our judges. Cheers, kid.

Wow: Decadent dishes such as oysters Rockefeller, steak tartare, and chocolate hazelnut marquise cake

Pleasant Surprise: The piano player and singer. Nicky DePaola and Danny Daniels cover everyone from Peggy Lee to Sam Cooke.

Innovations: The wild-ride menu of cocktails, although food judge GraceAnn Walden says, “God doesn’t approve of chocolate martinis.”

Who Goes There: The buff, the beautiful, the surgically enhanced

Nice Touches: A valet, a greeter to open the door, a host to escort you to your table, ample waitstaff to shuttle over your cocktail order, unfurl your napkin, take your order, refill your water glass, etc.

Favorite Dish: Bone-in rib eye steak with a great caramelized crust

Above and Beyond: Bing’s may be a big kids’ playground, but the staff is wonderful to little kids. They automatically refill Shirley Temples, and when a judge’s child fell asleep in his chair, the waiter transferred the whole party to a large plush booth where the child could lie down. The waiter even brought a pillow.

Needs Work: The coffee at meals’ end and some desserts, especially the dated, insipid “coffee and doughnuts.”

1342 Broadway Plaza, Walnut Creek, (925) 939-2464, www.bingcrosbysrestaurant.com  

Va de Vi

Here’s a Walnut Creek restaurant in full bloom. Va de Vi Bistro and Wine Bar’s endlessly creative chef, Kelly Degala, turned out a cookbook last year. Wine director Brendan Eliason is a bundle of energy who has just launched his own wine label, Periscope Cellars. And owners Dale Raaen, John Walz, and Stan Raaen are busy opening Va de Vi’s sister restaurant in the San Francisco Presidio. Through it all, this hip, small plates restaurant has kept the bar high and won 95 points this year from our food experts.

Wow: Fresh, silky hamachi sashimi with a light ponzu tamari sauce, a sprinkle of smoked paprika, and radish sprouts

Nice Touches: Wine flights include a broad international selection of three 3-ounce tastes. The full glass pours are generous and the markup reasonable.

Quirks: Not enough restrooms for the stampeding crowds

Who Goes There: Wine geeks, ladies who lunch, and even a restaurateur and chef from a rival restaurant

Pleasant Surprise: The memorably good meat dishes, cooked to order with not one, but two or three skillfully integrated components. The meat is well sourced and often organic, grass fed, or small ranch.

Above and Beyond: At lunch, the bar-tender will send you off with a double iced espresso to fuel your afternoon at work—or better yet, neighborhood
shopping spree.

Favorite Dish: Duck confit with hoisin sauce and steamed buns

Needs Work: Organization. They often run out of dishes; service can be harried.

1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-0100, www.va-de-vi-bistro.com

“I liked the intensity inside the narrow dining room. These guys are working to full potential.”  —Patricia Unterman, restaurant critic

Cafe Esin

Esin and Curtis deCarion, the husband-and-wife team behind this San Ramon suburban mall gem, put their heart and soul (and judging by the improved decor, their money, too) into Café Esin, where Curtis heads up the kitchen at dinner and Esin runs the line at lunch and makes marvelous desserts. This family establishment charmed our judges, and it garnered 94 points, thereby tying with Postino for seventh place.

Wow: Wonderful ripe fruit, with just a hint of ginger, is the focus of the seasonal cobblers, which included pluots and blueberries in late summer.

Pleasant Surprise: Service is top-notch. Waitstaff perfectly coordinates timing with the kitchen, asks thoughtful questions about how diners would like their fish cooked, and knows the menu backward and forward.

Favorite Dish: The meze platter: stuffed grape leaves; baba ghanoush; hummus; creamy tzatziki; and a goat cheese–stuffed green chili served with freshly grilled pita. It’s a universe of tastes on one plate.

Nice Touch: Fantastic feta crumbled in the chicken filo entrée

Who Goes There: Local couples, seniors, and families who take their time dining

Quirks: The dessert display case in the dining room, with its rows of pies and cakes, brings to mind a diner-inspired culinary art exhibit.

Innovations: Combining Middle Eastern and California cuisine on one menu but not as fusion

Needs Work: A number of the menu items had small problems: too much salt in an entrée, desserts made soggy by the microwave, and couscous that didn’t taste entirely fresh.

2416 San Ramon Valley Blvd., San Ramon, (925) 314-0974, www.cafeesin.com  

Postino

Lafayette’s fairy-tale Carr Jones–designed building has long been a popular dining destination for Lamorinda residents, even back when it was Tourelle. In 1998, Michael Chiarello and Cat Cora, who’ve both become Food Network stars, transformed the place into Postino Restaurant, which typified the popular California-Italian style. When Cora left in 2003, everyone was uncertain of Postino’s future, but then sous chef Michael Zeiter stepped up to the stoves, and there he has remained. This year, the restaurant got a new pastry chef, Deborah Pellegrino, who hails from Va de Vi and Blackhawk Grille, as well as a second sous chef, Victor Perez, formerly of Flavors in Santa Rosa. The new team delighted our judges, and the restaurant scored 94 points.

Wow: Perfectly cooked, fall-off-the-bone short ribs served atop aged cheddar polenta

Who Goes There: Couples celebrating an anniversary, casually dressed men, attractive women, and rambunctious kids who turn cartwheels on the lawn

Pleasant Surprise: The fritto misto is not the knee-jerk rendition you find almost everywhere; instead, tender squid, green beans, and thinly sliced red onions, perfectly fried in hot oil, are served with an excellent Calabrian roasted bell pepper aioli.

Nice Touch: Waitstaff offers half orders of the pasta as first courses.

Favorite Dish: Chewy but light red potato gnocchi with a zippy chive crème fraîche

“A” for effort: Valets and busers are super friendly.

Needs Work: Ultra-salty garlic butter and greasy focaccia need to go.

3565 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 299-8700, www.postinorestaurant.com  

“Postino is in an even more beautiful building than I remembered.”  —Bruce Aidells, sausage king

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