2011 Food Awards

Here are Diablo’s seven best restaurants, judged by Northern California’s top foodies.


Published:

It’s been a decade since Diablo started handing out annual food awards. By now, we’ve got the process of naming the East Bay’s best restaurants down to a science: You, the readers, nominate your favorite places; we, the editors, narrow them down to the top 14; and they, the most knowledgeable judges this side of Top Chef, pick the seven best. Trust us, we never get tired of the job, but this year, we decided to mix it up, go a little deeper. So in addition to our usual feast of insider tips, we’re giving you the kitchen confidential from the men and women who keep us coming back for seconds… and thirds. So flip the page, and dig in! (click here to see our list of judges)

 

Oliveto
Score » 95    


Pristine, unique ingredients that are flawlessly prepared and served in a timeless dining room.


Photo by Jennifer MartineThe founder: Bob Klein

Sitting in Oliveto’s upstairs dining room overlooking College Avenue, Bob Klein has a twinkle in his eye.

The longtime co-owner is explaining the new whole cow program, in which chefs butcher and incorporate nearly the entire animal into the menu. It’s one of several programs he’s excited about; Oliveto also makes fresh pasta, cures meats in-house, and sources local whole grain for flour and polenta.

For 25 years, the endlessly curious Klein and his wife, Maggie, have been leaders in the East Bay’s gourmet revolution, helping turn Oliveto into a dining institution. As nice as that sounds, that’s not what Klein wants.

“That really freaks me out because institutions are dusty and rigid,” he says.

Which is why he’s so excited about new chef Jonah Rhodehamel, who is taking Klein’s passions and turning them into creative, cutting-edge food. It’s also why this “institution” got our judges’ top scores.

Try the fresh-off-the-boat grilled squid, pappardelle with a melt-in-your-mouth braised rabbit ragu, or the flavor-packed 27-month-old aged Angus rib eye steak, and you’ll see why.

“We’ve been innovators over the years, and with Jonah, our cooks are doing new stuff every day,” Klein says. “People can come in seven days a week and get great food, and that’s hard to do.”
 

“Oliveto takes the most stunning ingredients available and prepares them with style and creativity.”  —Michaela Jarvis

 

Photo by Jennifer Martine

The Perfect Meal

» Frisée salad, with Riesling wine and toasted coriander dressing.
» Agnolotti dal plin house-made pasta stuffed with meats and seasonal vegetables.     
» Charcoal-grilled angus sirloin, with potato gratinata.
» Bittersweet chocolate cake

Judges’ Notes

Secret tip
Go on Sundays for meat specials such as prime rib, osso buco, and New York Strip. Also, don’t miss Oliveto’s famous annual truffle dinners, November 16–19.  
To drink
The Sangiovese-Cab blend (Villa Artimino, Carmignano, Tuscany, 2003) is a big-boy wine but not a bully.
Go here for
A romantic meal… and the beautifully conceived pastas.
Fantastic flavor
We could eat the agnolotti dal plin, an amazingly tender pasta stuffed with rapini, several times a week.  
Contact
5655 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-5356, oliveto.com.
 

Prima Ristorante
Score » 94


Deceptively simple rustic Italian fare served with heart and soul in downtown Walnut Creek.

 

Photo by Cody PickensThe visionary: Peter Chastain

Prima co-owner Peter Chastain spent decades steeping himself in the foodie culture of Berkeley and San Francisco, working among such renowned chefs as Michael Mina, Bruce Hill, and Jeremiah Tower.  

It was with some trepidation in 1999 that Chastain tackled his latest executive chef assignment: turning Prima Ristorante, across the hills in Walnut Creek, into a high-end destination for authentic Italian fare. 

“We literally threw the entire menu out, started sourcing our products as local as possible, raised the prices—and pissed a lot of people off,” he says. “It was a hard sell at first. I couldn’t sell a piece of calamari or a fresh sardine to save my life.”

But Chastain persisted in pushing his deceptively simple rustic fare, in which less is often more.

“A lot of times, a dish is just three ingredients, but we’re really careful about choosing which ones we use, and in what proportion we use them,” he says.

Chastain keeps things fresh by traveling to, and often cooking in, Italy every year. And he’s won over local diners along the way.  

“Those same people who were loath to touch a sardine are now advocates of same. It’s a clientele that comes in more educated, more willing to experiment, more eager for quality. I’m delighted.”
 

“I can’t forget the rich unctuousness of the oxtail filling in the tears of the steer pasta (oxtail-filled raviolis).”  —Ken Berry

Photo by Cody Pickens

The Perfect Meal

» Panzanella heirloom tomato salad, with cucumber, onion, and basil.  
» Lobster cannelloni, with béchamel sauce.     
» Grilled painted hills rib eye steak, with fennel butter.   
» Cheesecake, with seasonal fruit.

Judges’ Notes

Secret tip
Ask for wine-pairing tips: Prima has an excellent selection of wines by the glass and didn’t steer us wrong once.  
To drink
Lost amid that extraordinary wine list is the top-notch cocktail program. Try the beautifully balanced Helios, with gin, fresh grapefruit, and elderflower.
Go here for
A special occasion. Prima’s crew is perhaps uniquely capable of delivering the complete dining package.
Fantastic flavor
The tagliata of lamb sirloin from the wood oven: truly upscale comfort food.
Contact
1522 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-7780, primawine.com.


Plum
Score » 92


Intricately prepared dishes with interesting, intense flavors combined in surprising ways.

 

Photo by Ed AndersonThe Live Wire: Daniel Patterson

When word got out that one of the Bay Area’s most exciting chefs, Daniel Patterson, was opening a restaurant in Oakland, the buzz was more like a boom. This is the Daniel Patterson of numerous well-regarded restaurants, most notably San Francisco’s Coi, a two-Michelin-starred dining destination.

This is also the Daniel Patterson who is as well-known for his writing as his skill in the kitchen. His 2005 New York Times article, “To the Moon, Alice,” stirred things up because he skewered Bay Area restaurateurs and diners for being boring, and sticking too closely to the simple food ethos of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse.

What would this live-wire do in Oaktown?

Right from the get-go, Patterson said the Oakland restaurant would be a more casual (and less pricey) affair than Coi. What he crafted is a restaurant that fits perfectly into its urban hip locale in the Uptown nightlife district. Plum, which opened in 2010, is a lively spot for hipsters to go out on the town.

Don’t let that put you off. It’s sophisticated, too, and the food is surprising and delicious. Here’s where you’ll find an acidic tomatillo sauce, sweet corn bread stuffing, and bitter turnips, all within a braised oxtail dish.

Diablo’s judges loved the vibe and the food, and are quite glad this rock star restaurateur came to town.
 

“Plum is a very cool setting that makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into a fashionable venue in New York City.”  —Josh Sens

 

Photo by Cody PickensThe Perfect Meal

» New onion soup, with brioche croutons, sorrel, and date puree.  
» Eggplant, with farro, tomatoes, summer beans, and pine nut pudding.       
» Fogline farm chicken, with tomatoes, Crescenza cheese, and zucchini bread croutons.    
» Rocky road, with Teeccino ice cream, chocolate sorbet, and toasted marshmallow.

 

Judges’ Notes

Secret tip
Sit at the counter overlooking the kitchen, and enjoy the whisper-quiet, intricate dance performed by the tattooed hipster cooks.
To drink
The Cantina di Gallura Vermentino Canayli, a full, floral Sardinian white that managed to hold up to our pig trotter appetizer.
Go here for
Conceptual, cerebral, challenging food that can be a lot of fun if you’re up for the ride.
Fantastic flavor
The chilled melon soup poured tableside over a frosty little mound of cucumber-aloe granita, lime, and mint. It’s a pure Plum moment: unusual ingredients and combinations, subjected to interesting technique.
Contact
2214 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 444-7586, plumoakland.com.
 

Artisan Bistro
Score » 91


Dishing out a touch of sophisticated big-city cuisine inside a cozy Lafayette locale.

 

Photo by Jennifer MartineThe Striver: John Marquez

John Marquez, Artisan Bistro’s executive chef, recently drove 10 hours for a 16-course meal at Las Vegas’ lauded Robuchon—and drove back the next morning.

“It was worth it,” he says. “It was really beautiful.”

It’s that kind of food obsession that led Marquez to seek out cooking gigs at such lauded restaurants as the French Laundry and Coi before convincing his parents, Bill and Elizabeth, to help him open Artisan.

“He’s very persistent—very persistent,” says Elizabeth. “I know that if he wants something, he’ll get it.”

Support from his parents, who help out with everything from administrative tasks to expediting food, has given Marquez the freedom to refine his menu. He shops at farmers markets twice a week, employs cutting-edge techniques such as sous vide cooking, and sources many ingredients from the same high-end suppliers that his mentor, Daniel Patterson, uses at Coi.

Marquez’s cuisine has become even more ambitious, with his phasing out of some casual bistro dishes in favor of the more intricate, fine-dining fare that he loves. He’s talked about offering only a tasting menu at Artisan—but his parents have managed to deflect that idea.

“We still get to boss him around sometimes,” Bill says, with a laugh.
 

“Artisan Bistro is a total gem—one that East Bay fans of seasonal California, French-influenced cuisine shouldn’t miss.”  —Lynne Char Bennett


Photo by Jennifer MartineThe Perfect Meal

» Heirloom tomato gazpacho, with celery, Dungeness crab, and avocado sorbet.  
» Duo of sonoma foie gras torchon and mousse.      
» Duck sous vide, with seasonal vegetables and Bhutanese red rice.    
» Roasted brioche and banana bread pudding, with banana anglaise, whipped cream, and candied pecans.

 

Judges’ Notes

Secret tip
Call at least a day ahead for Marquez’s special six-course tasting menu for $89.
To drink
2010 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Vin Gris Pinot Noir.
Go here for
An intense but fun meal. Chef Marquez holds nothing back, so expect to leave happy, full—and slightly exhausted.
Fantastic flavor
The rich, velvety, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth foie gras mousse is sinfully good.
Contact
1005 Brown Ave., Lafayette, (925) 962-0882, artisanlafayette.com.


Va De Vi
Score » 91


Ambience, food, and wine befitting a summer dinner in Spain, if the hosts have traveled to Asia.

 

The Expediter: Bob Cascardo

Va de Vi General Manager Bob Cascardo doesn’t like to go out to dinner for a “big dinosaur steak.”

“I get ADD; I get bored,” he says. “I like the idea that we throw all the rules out. You can eat however you want to. It’s fun. When I go to other restaurants and see people not smiling, it bugs me.”

The native Long Islander was the first employee hired when Va de Vi opened in 2004, and from the international small-plates menu to the popular wine flights to the hip staff, the restaurant has his fingerprints all over it.

This year, Cascardo decided it was time to shake things up, and he brought in new executive chef Shane McAnelly, who is winning raves with his hyper-seasonal and local approach to everything from Korean-style barbecue beef to heirloom tomato panzanella salad. Cascardo also initiated a policy to cover the cost of a level-one sommelier certificate for each server—encouraging the staff to learn more about wine, a key part of the Va de Vi experience.

“I couldn’t have done something better for myself if I’d tried,” he says. “It’s like they built [Va de Vi] for me—everything that I would have done. It’s just a perfect fit.”
 

“A warm, friendly, yet sophisticated restaurant that makes you want to eat, drink, and talk.”   —John Scharffenberger


Photo by Joe BuddThe Perfect Meal

» Sautéed broccoli de cicco, with toasted garlic, red pepper flakes, lemon, and bread crumbs.  
» Yakitori-style chicken meatballs, with soy-sake glaze, scallions, and shredded kohlrabi.    
» Roasted alaskan black cod, with soy glaze, wasabi butter, orange oil, potato cake, and ocean salad.    
» Dessert tasting for two, with chocolate soufflé, profiteroles, fruit crisp, and pear white chocolate bread pudding.
 

Judges’ Notes

Secret tip
Va de Vi has a great cocktail program: Check out the Cilantroversy: gin, cilantro, simple syrup, and lime juice in a sugar-rimmed glass.
To drink  
The flights are a fun way to explore the nu-
ances among multiple wines. The Bailout is an excellent value at $10.
Go here for  
A fun, relaxed night out sampling cuisines from around the world. The outdoor dining can’t be beat on a warm evening.
Fantastic flavor
The black cod over potato pancakes—crispy skin, slightly sweet soy glaze, wonderful flaky fish—is an unforgettable dish.
Contact
1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-0100, vadevi.com.
 

Esin
Score » 90


Comfortable food with a Mediterranean twist that’s always a cut above the norm.

 

Photo by Cody PickensThe insider: Curtis Decarion

Dressed in his white chef’s coat, Curtis deCarion laughs about how his cooking has changed over the years. He was trained in the classic heavy French style, where “basically, you’d take a protein and you’d sauce the hell out of it.” Now, deCarion has a lighter touch, sprinkling in notes of lemon, Feta, or olives throughout the menu.

The Mediterranean twist comes from his wife, Esin, who’s from Turkey. The melding of influences in their cuisine is one reason their restaurant has grown from the tiny 40-seat Café Esin that opened in San Ramon 14 years ago to its current elegant Danville dining room.

The restaurant, with its focus on family, casualness, and customer service, has evolved to reflect the values of the community. As it turns out, working the kitchen is a perfect gig for Curtis and Esin, parents of two boys: Esin goes in early to make the restaurant’s famous desserts, then Curtis takes the afternoon/evening shift.

Of course, it doesn’t matter how community-oriented the chefs are if they don’t get the job done in the kitchen. And every year, Curtis’ Mediterranean comfort food, which often emphasizes a seasonal vegetable or grain accompaniment as much as meat, keeps the dining room packed.

“I think we’ve always had an insight into what people here want,” Curtis says.
 

“The coconut cream tart was incredible. Nice buttery crust, good coconut flavor, dense texture, not overly sweet or overly rich.”  —Dorothy Calimeris

 

The Perfect Meal

» Zucchini fritters, with diced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and yogurt sauce.  
» Flatbread, with mushrooms, leeks, pancetta, and goat cheese.     
» Roasted beeler’s pork tenderloin, with squash gratin and sweet corn vinaigrette.    
» Coconut cream tart, with chocolate sauce.

Judges’ Notes

Secret tip
Check out the neighborhood bistro menu: $28 for three courses.  
To drink  
The 2009 La Follette Sonoma Pinot Noir. Part of a generous $15 Pinot Noir wine flight.
Go here for  
Rock-solid food prepared exactly like you want it, with friendly, expert service and reasonable prices.
Fantastic flavor
The achingly tender, just-this-side-of-rare pork tenderloin, with a comfortingly cheesy, savory squash gratin.
Contact
750 Camino Ramon, Danville, (925) 314-0974, esinrestaurant.com.
 

Wente
Score » 89


Sourcing local ingredients and serving lovely food in the heart of the Livermore Valley.

 

The matriarch: Carolyn Wente

Don’t get her wrong: Carolyn Wente loves the signature smoked pork chop. She just doesn’t order it a lot at the restaurant she helped found 25 years ago.

“If I got the pork chop every time, I’d look like a pork chop,” she says, laughing.

Instead, Wente opts for the seasonal dishes (melon soup, heirloom tomato salad, fava beans), with ingredients that best show off what’s fresh and available at local farms, and in the restaurant’s on-site garden.

“I’m not about foam. I think food and wine have to be true to themselves.”

Along with the restaurant’s impeccable service and picturesque setting, it’s that commitment to simple, ingredient-driven wine country cuisine that has helped preserve Wente’s status as a top dining destination in the East Bay—even as it has been through several executive chefs in recent years.

Most recently, in October, hotshot NYC chef Matt Greco took over. Wente is excited to see what he'll bring to the kitchen, and she’ll keep eating at the restaurant once a week, as she has for years, to make sure it continues to deliver the goods.

“It’s a passion, so I’m very vocal about things and can effect change,” she says. “I think that having that consistency through these last 25 years has been a good thing—that the mother hen’s watching out.”
 

“With its out-of-the-way location, lush grounds, and castlelike atmosphere, Wente has an almost dreamlike quality.”  
Nicholas Boer

Photo by Cody PickensThe Perfect Meal

» Cauliflower soup, with almonds, brown butter, and apricots.  
» Grilled calamari, with seasonal produce.     
» Smoked pork chop, with polenta, frisée, and fig-grape chutney.    
» Buttermilk panna cotta, with Frog Hollow Farm plums and a brandy snap.
 

Judges’ Notes

Secret tip
Wente makes a great brunch stop on a weekend tour of Livermore Valley wine country.
To drink  
Cresta cucumber cocktail mixed with Hendrick’s gin, lime, mint, and cucumber.
Go here for
A lovely meal in an even lovelier setting.
Fantastic flavor
The smoke in the pork chop and the charred tomato soup. The combination of smoky flavors and the great outdoors is enchanting.  
Contact
5050 Arroyo Rd., Livermore, (925) 456-2450, wentevineyards.com/restaurant.
 


2012 Diablo Food Award judges:

Lynne Char Bennett is the tasting coordinator and a food and wine staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. Ken Berry is the cohost of KSFO (560 AM) radio’s food, wine, and travel program, Edible Escapes, on Sundays at 11 a.m. Nicholas Boer, the former Contra Costa Times food editor, reviews East Bay restaurants for the San Francisco Chronicle. Dorothy Calimeris is a food writer and chef who spends her time musing over what to eat and where to eat it. Linda Carucci is the chef director at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of California–San Francisco and the author of Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks. Narsai David is the food and wine editor for KCBS radio. Dominique Farrar is a grassroots gourmand and the East Bay community manager for Yelp. Sara Settegast Hare has written about food and wine for publications from Bon Appétit to Wine Spectator. Michaela Jarvis is a freelance writer and editor, as well as editor at large for Diablo and the editor of Napa Sonoma. Mollie Katzen is a best-selling cookbook author. Anthony Licciardi is the cohost of KSFO radio’s food and wine program, Edible Escapes. John Scharffenberger is the former owner of Scharffen Berger chocolate and a food producer with varied interests in sustainably made, simple, delicious products. Josh Sens is a restaurant critic for San Francisco Magazine.


Photo by Joe Budd
Seven to Watch

As much as we love celebrating our Food Awards winners, we agonize over the fantastic places that miss winning by just a few points. So this year, we’re listing the rest of the best, in alphabetical order. These are our readers’ other favorites, as judged by the East Bay’s top foodies. Check ’em out: They could crack into the top seven next year.


Chevalier

From the classic French menu to the charming, tented outdoor patio to chef-owner Philippe Chevalier’s, well, French-ness, Chevalier is as close as you’ll come to French bistro dining in the East Bay. (Overheard: “This is so Ratatouille!”) The food is classic, consistent, and expertly prepared—and the atmosphere is très magnifique.   
don’t miss: Moules frites; sweetbreads; the cheese sampler (just feels right at Chevalier); the great value $39 prix fixe menu.
go here for: A classic French meal in a lovely, relaxed atmosphere.
needs work: The entrée prices, especially those chalkboard specials, can give you sticker shock.
contact: 960 Moraga Rd., Lafayette, (925) 385-0793, chevalierrestaurant.com.
 

Élevé

Chef-owner Michele Nguyen does indeed “elevate” her Vietnamese food to wonderfully delicious heights. We love the complex dishes that somehow still seem homey. We also love the hip vibe that could fly in San Francisco as easily as Walnut Creek. Élevé offers a sophisticated night out for food lovers.
don’t miss: Vegetarian spring rolls; stuffed calamari; pork firepot; any of the cocktails.  
go here for: A unique take on Vietnamese that doesn’t pull any punches.
needs work: Dishes tend to swing toward the sweet side.  
contact: 1677 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-1677, eleverestaurant.com.
 

54 Mint

Ignore 54 Mint’s strange location, next door to a Trader Joe’s in a Concord shopping center. Owner Claudio Ricciolini’s Italian eatery dishes out some seriously delicious fare. And don’t be afraid to bring the kids: Ricciolini’s warm, generous manner permeates this small, family-friendly restaurant.
don’t miss: Seafood pasta; eggplant timballo; all-you-can-eat Italian brunch on Sundays.
go here for: Authentic Italian fare in a Roman trattoria setting.
needs work: Depending on the night, service can be a little spotty.
contact: 785 Oak Grove Rd., Concord, (925) 969-9828, 54mint.com.
 

Ottavio

Tiny Ottavio has found its niche
after a year of dishing out soulful Italiano fare in the shadow of mighty Prima. Owner–executive chef
Valentino Luchin has a gift for
bringing out stunning flavors in his Venice-based dishes while finding the time to make fresh pasta and cure charcuterie in-house.  
don’t miss: Grilled octopus and calamari; pappardelle with wild boar sugo; house-smoked swordfish with caper dressing.
go here for: Deeply satisfying Italian in a cozy setting.  
needs work: The small service staff can get overwhelmed.  
contact: 1606 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 930-8008, ottavio-osteria.com.

The Peasant and the Pear

The Peasant and the Pear never fails to dazzle with top-notch service and accessible California-Mediterranean
fare served up by executive chef–owner Rodney Worth. Meanwhile, the relaxed but dressed-up atmosphere in a locale slightly set back from the bustle of Hartz Avenue makes for a special night out.
don’t miss: Spiced Pear-tini cocktail; house-made Burrata; lamb shank; warm pear tart.
go here for: Classic new American cuisine, flawlessly executed.
needs work: Could be more creative with food offerings.
contact: 267 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 820-6611, thepeasantandthepear.com.

Picán

For upscale comfort food with a California twist, you simply can’t beat Picán. From the fried chicken to the meat loaf to the ribs, the deeply satisfying Southern-inspired menu delivers oohs and aahs in a hip, stylish Uptown Oakland setting.
don’t miss: Smoked brisket-braised collards; shrimp and grits; fried chicken (with truffled honey).
go here for: The ultimate comfort food fix.
needs work: A few lighter menu options wouldn’t hurt.
contact: 2295 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 834-1000, picanrestaurant.com.

Sasa

With its gorgeously renovated interior, great cocktails, and fun small plates, Sasa has become a go-to downtown hang. But it’s the oft-daring Japanese menu and ocean-fresh sushi that push this Walnut Creek eatery to another delicious level.
don’t miss: Any sushi; miso-marinated black cod; sake flights.
go here for: Inventive Japanese fare in a fun environment.
needs work: Too many competing sharp flavors can muddle some dishes.
contact: 1432 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 210-0188, sasawc.com.
 

 

 

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