The 2007 Food Awards
Sophisticated restaurants keep opening, and some existing restaurants have upped their ante. The result? A shake-up in Diablo’s annual Food Award winners.
Photography by Sara Remington
For the past year, diabloland has been a wonderland for food lovers. Sophisticated restaurants keep opening, and some existing restaurants have upped their ante. The result? A shake-up in Diablo’s annual Food Award winners. When we asked you in our July issue to tell us your favorite restaurants, your responses were fast and furious, and the names on the ballots included a number of new players: Metro Lafayette, Pizzaiolo in Oakland, Uncle Yu’s at the Vineyard in Livermore, and Incontro Ristorante and Izzy’s Steaks and Chops in San Ramon.To determine which new contenders would join the past champs and which reigning winners could retain their crowns, we unleashed a team of professional food judges drawn from the Bay Area’s prodigious community of chefs, cookbook authors, and critics.Your top restaurant picks got three visits each, with our judges rating the food, the service, and the atmosphere. Restaurants could earn up to 30 points in each category, for a possible total of 90.As it turned out, the scores were painfully close. One restaurant missed winning by just half a point. That’s why this year we’re including the scores each restaurant earned along.
oliveto once again charmed our judges, who loved its simple, exquisite food, the upstairs dining room with its bountiful fresh flowers and bird’s-eye view of Rockridge, and the knowledgeable waitstaff. Paul Canales, an inspired chef (pictured at right), has done something rare in the restaurant world. He has worked hard to take the spotlight off himself and put it on his talented kitchen staff, acknowledging them with promotions and titles, in two instances equal to his own. The result is a kitchen full of chefs, every one completely dedicated, whose abilities shine from your first bite of lacy house-made salami to your last bite of chocolate-caramel tart.
Wow: Crisp fried soft-shell crab and torpedo onions; delicate handmade ravioli with tender, juicy clams and fresh herbs; moist ginger cake with caramelized pears.
Nice Touches: Ecstatically fresh, crusty bread served with tender herbed green olives.
Funniest Moment: A waiter wrapping up one bite of the chocolate-caramel tart. The delicate, fresh dessert is known among the staff as the “Rolo” tart.
Innovations: Tomato “jam” with roast pigeon; the Wine in Time program, designed to showcase aged wines.
Who Goes There: Anyone with a love of food and a moderately hefty bankroll.
Favorite Dish: Charcoal-grilled Niman Ranch beef hanger steak with braised artichokes and bianca di Spagna beans.
Quirks: The food can sometimes look a little crude—a pigeon, head intact, slapped on a white plate, or a steak plopped on top of a mix of beans and artichokes.
Above and Beyond: A really big menu, over 30 items, and the kitchen manages to keep quality high throughout.
Needs Work: A too sweet nectarine sorbet.
Contact: 5655 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-5356, www.oliveto.com.
“I love the upstairs dining room at Oliveto with its tree house view of the street below. You feel like you’re in the city but not really of it.” —Jan Newberry, food and wine editor, San Francisco magazine
the pleasant hill location of left bank, a local group of bistros founded by French master chef Roland Passot, was a boon for Contra Costa food lovers when it opened seven years ago. It offered a charming brasserie atmosphere and a classic French menu. Unfortunately, the kitchen had ups and downs. The restaurant never before made it into Diablo’s Food Awards competition. As we reported last spring, however, the establishment recently got a new culinary director, executive chef, and sous chef, who together have practically made a new restaurant of the place. Suddenly, Left Bank is serving some of the best food in town. Our judges raved about French cuisine on par with the restaurant’s handsome Belle Époque brasserie interior, delightful live jazz in the bar, and servers well versed on the wine list.
Wow: Bourride des pêcheurs—white fish soup with aioli; grilled whole branzini fish with fennel; Démon du Midi, a soft ripened cow’s milk cheese with a powerful, tangy finish.
Nice Touches: Roasting garlic before using it to season sautéed spinach. Innovations: The Tour of France menu, which draws dishes from a different region of France each month.
Who Goes There: “Desperate Housewives” out on the town, couples, large groups.
Pleasant Surprise: Finding a slice of Paris in a suburban shopping center.
Trying Too Hard: Waiters uttering French phrases, such as “bon appétit” constantly; billing the burger as “Ze Hamburger”— too cute.
Favorite Dish: Stuffed calamari in a sauce so delightful judge Lynne Char Bennett wanted to mop it up with her bread.
Quirks: Italian foods such as salumi and lasagna on the otherwise French menu. Sacré bleu!
Needs Work: Dry bread; dirty glasses; gummy steak tartare; and desserts, some of which tasted old.
Contact: 60 Crescent Dr., Pleasant Hill, (925) 288-1222, www.leftbank.com.
“Left Bank is a nice surprise. Everything from the onion soup, to perfectly crisp frites,to bouillabaisse is first-rate.” —Lynne Char Bennett, San Francisco Chronicle wine writer
prima ristorante has been the italian standard-bearer in Contra Costa for 30 years. This year was no exception. Readers voted for Prima in droves, and our judges loved its pure, restrained Italian dishes made with top-notch ingredients. Chef and co-owner Peter Chastain continues to manage the kitchen with a deft hand, while fellow owner and wine director John Rittmaster had even our globe-trotting wine-expert judges duly impressed with offerings—from an outstanding, well-priced Aglianico to a showstopping aged Marsala at dessert. Cheers once again to Prima: Happy 30th birthday and many more.
Wow: A risotto with oxtails braised Roman style in white wine. Judge Linda Carucci uses it as an example for her cooking school students. “Perfectly cooked rice and great flavor not boosted by cream,” said Carucci. Nice Touches: An amuse-bouche of a little fig, warmed, filled with just the right dab of blue cheese, wrapped in prosciutto, and drizzled with excellent balsamico.
Innovations: One of the Bay Area’s best selections of Italian wine.
Who goes there: Diabloland sophisticates.
Pleasant Surprise: Ethereally light, balanced tiramisu.
Trying Too Hard: The well-intentioned and profusely informed waiters giving a five-minute dissertation on each wine pairing. We know that Prima has a big wine service component, but when did the wine show-and-tell torture begin?
Favorite Dish: We can’t pick just one. The risotto, but also the crisp pizzas, outstanding gnocchi, and a simple, plump, sweet lobster tail.
Needs Work: The menu has typos; stale fig crostata; and the kitchen running out of local sardines at 7:15 on a Saturday night.
Contact: 1522 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-7780, www.primaristorante.com.
“At Prima, Peter Chastain has gone upscale. It was heaven to sit in the airy loggia, sip a glass of fine, fresh Tocai Friulano, and eat buttery lobster.” —Patricia Unterman, restaurant critic
va de vi
in 2004, when va de vi brought its eclectic global menu of small plates and wine pairings to Walnut Creek, it was an instant hit. The restaurant has been packed ever since, but last year its wonderfully creative executive chef, Kelly Degala, turned his attention to Va de Vi’s sister restaurant in the San Francisco Presidio, Pres a Vi. We wondered if quality at the restaurant’s original location would stay high. According to this year’s judges, Va de Vi is keeping up the good work, with a menu of creative, well-executed fare, tireless service in an always bustling dining room, and a wine list that matches the excitement and energy of the restaurant.
Wow: Scrumptious lamb sausage; sweat-inducing spicy red chili–tomato broth over Serrano ham–wrapped prawns; standout crispy chile relleno.
Nice Touches: Waiters refold napkins when guests momentarily leave the table.
Funniest Moment: Hearing the staff gossip about coworkers. The tight quarters don’t allow a lot of privacy.
Who Goes There: The hip crowd on Friday nights; Walnut Creek shoppers in white shorts, sweaters, and sneakers with no socks.
trying too hard: Some of the wine notes are distractingly silly.
Favorite Dish: Chef Degala’s succulent lechon, crispy pork belly with rice cake.
Quirks: Dishes emerge from the kitchen in no particular order, but everything seems to come together well.
Above and Beyond: Buttery day-boat scallops in a divine red Thai curry sauce and an irresistible mini crème brûlée on the dessert sampler.
Needs Work: Fish and beef crudos need to be served on chilled plates, and the kitchen should taste the food, as a couple of dishes needed a bit more salt.
Contact: 1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-0100, www.vadevi.com.
“Va de Vi has an appealing concept with great energy. The wine flights are exceptional and a great bargain.” —George Morrone, chef
when incontro ristorante opened in summer 2006, the Tri-Valley didn’t know what it was in for. This was not just another casual Italian joint but a bold assertion of the understated, fresh food that you would find in Italy itself. Diablo gave the restaurant, which is owned by two Italian immigrants, Gianni Bartoletti and Luigi Troccoli, an excellent review, and in its first year in the Food Awards competition, Incontro has won over our expert judges. All three judges who visited loved the food, and one judge’s rave about the place was among the highest praise we saw in this year’s competition.
Wow: Gnocchi alla Piemontese (with Fontina cheese and truffle sauce) so delicious that one judge almost lost her companion to the kitchen: “After our first bites of gnocchi, my partner put her fork down and said, ‘I’m really sorry, Honey, but I have to go make out with the chef.’ This was some sexy food.”
Nice Touches: The charming owners host each table by checking in throughout the evening.
Innovations: A riff on eggplant involtini with smoked salmon, goat cheese, and arugula.
Who Goes There: Couples, raucous groups of wine drinkers.
Pleasant Surprise: Bread and pasta made daily on the premises.
Favorite Dish: Fettine di vitello—veal medallions with prosciutto and provolone served in a vin santo sauce. “It’s the best veal dish I’ve had in California in 27 years,” said judge Linda Carucci.
Quirks: You park next to the Harley-Davidson dealership, look at a KFC, but eat dead-on Italian.
Above and Beyond: Fregola (toasted couscous) with clams in a saffron-tomato broth.
Needs Work: Timing.
Contact: 2065 San Ramon Valley Blvd., San Ramon, (925) 820-6969, www.incontrosanramon.com.
“Incontro tastes just like Italy. Every bite of every single dish we ordered had the wow factor you experience in the most memorable meals of your life.” —Kerry Heffernan, chef
pizzaiolo, a restaurant that serves thin-crusted Neapolitan-style pizzas and rustic California cuisine, made a splash when it opened two years ago. Its chef-owner, Charlie Hallowell—a Chez Panisse alum—is a 30-something with a sharp mind and a great respect for food. The restaurant, which has the feel of a hipster hangout, was touted as evidence of the Temescal neighborhood’s ongoing revitalization. This year, Diablo’s readers told us with their many votes just how much they like Pizzaiolo. We decided to send in our old-guard food judges to see just how high this young, exuberant new restaurant would rank. Pizzaiolo made the cut, and we’d like another slice.
Wow: Perfect pizza. Judge Bruce Aidells said it’s the best in the Bay Area. Brightly flavored salads such as one with tuna confit and white beans; seasonal appetizers such as fried squash blossoms filled with sheep’s milk ricotta and garnished with cherry tomatoes and cucumbers; and entrées such as braised pork shoulder and light, well-flavored gnocchi.
Nice Touches: Wine bottles filled with water for each table and totally attentive service.
Innovations: Bocce in the backyard. It’s a great, low-key way to wait for your food.
Who Goes There: A young Berkeley crowd, serious foodies, families with kids.
Pleasant Surprise: An icy, beautifully made daiquiri on a hot night.
Favorite Dish: Pizza Margherita.
Quirks: Tattoos abound among the staff.
Above and Beyond: A pluot sorbet at dessert that puts other sorbets to shame.
Needs Work: The dining room can get hot, and the windows don’t open. Also, the timing of dishes can be problematic.
Contact: 5008 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 652-4888, www.pizzaiolo.us.
“The food at Pizzaiolo is simple and rustic. The space is restored industrial, but it just plain works. It is always fun to eat there.” —Bruce Aidells, sausage king
when metro lafayette, a restaurant with a cool, modern interior and a menu full of fresh seafood, opened last June, it was like a breath of fresh air. Chef Mark Lusardi, formerly of the Rockridge district Pearl Oyster Bar, brings a keen instinct for restrained, lively cooking. And Metro’s owner, Jack Moore, has managed restaurants for such culinary greats as Thomas Keller and Wolfgang Puck. He’s working hard to build a seamlessly professional waitstaff and also seems to live at the restaurant, where he tends to each and every customer. Moore and Lusardi have pulled off quite a feat in converting a large space in a shopping center, the former Aladdini’s, into a sleek new restaurant that can hold its own against the trendiest new spot in San Francisco.
Wow: Shimmering fresh tuna poke with a kick of heat from fresh ginger; penne with house-made Italian sausage, creamy cannelini beans, and the perfect blend of herbs and Reggiano cheese.
Nice Touches: Expertly shucked oysters; a friendly staff that says hello, good-bye, and thank you; a fireplace in the dining room.
Funniest Moment: When a waiter said the cooks got the French fries smoky by sprinkling them with mesquite. (In fact, the cooks sprinkle the fries with smoky and sweet paprika, not chunks of wood.)
Who Goes There: A noticeably diverse crowd.
Pleasant Surprise: Truffled Italian anchovies in the Caesar salad.
Favorite Dish: Delicate misoyaki black cod in a nourishing, balanced broth.
Quirks: The sign for the restaurant, located in a sprawling shopping center, is about six inches tall.
Above and Beyond: Crab cakes equal to those of Nancy Oakes at Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco.
Needs Work: Some dishes weren’t warm enough.
Contact: 3524 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 284-4422, www.metrolafayette.com.