Food Awards 2012
Dig in to this year's top food!
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The East Bay food scene is red-hot. Whether it’s beloved favorites like Danville’s Esin and Oakland’s Oliveto continuing to dish out stunning food with impeccable service, or hip newcomers like Walnut Creek’s Corners Tavern and Berkeley’s Comal shaking things up, you just can’t get a bad meal these days.
That’s why for this year’s Food Awards, we’re honoring Diablo’s perennial winners, as well as the best new restaurants, the most delicious signature dishes, our favorite top chefs, and the East Bay’s hottest dining districts—in no particular order. Because from Haven in Jack London Square to Wente in Livermore Valley wine country, from small and refined Hopscotch to big and bold Sauced, there’s just so much to celebrate this year.
We hope you’ve got an appetite. Dig in!
Esin Restaurant & Bar
Your neighborhood bistro, and then some...
By Narsai David
I like the definition of the French word restaurateur. It means a restorer. One goes to a restaurant to be restored, to be made to feel well, to be taken care of. Esin Restaurant certainly understands the importance of service and ambience. The first time I walked in, I felt welcome.
Setting the mood, Curtis and Esin deCarion, the owners, make a perfect pair in the kitchen. Curtis is the savory chef and Esin the pastry chef.
At a recent dinner, we started with the meze platter. All the usual touches were on the platter, but the pita bread
was downright flaky: I’d never had anything like it. It was toasted on the grill, and I wanted to know where I could buy some. I should have known: It was produced at the restaurant and was the best pita ever.
The fish of the day was California bass, perfectly cooked to show delicate flakiness, served over creamy risotto. The dish’s sauce had a subtle richness that balanced everything else so smoothly.
Our three-course Neighborhood Bistro Menu was capped by a delicious bread pudding. Be sure to stop by the pastry case; the desserts are truly special.
Food, service, price—Esin is just an easy restaurant to sit down in, feel welcome, and have a fine meal and great service. And feel restored.
750 Camino Ramon, Danville, (925) 314-0974, esinrestaurant.com.
Narsai David is the food and wine editor for KCBS radio.
A venerable restaurant that’s young at heart.
By Josh Sens
Restaurants can grow old without getting tired. Witness Oliveto, which is to Oakland what Chez Panisse is to Berkeley: a trailblazer turned icon of the local dining scene. When Bob and Maggie Klein opened their Rockridge redoubt 26 years ago, the restaurant culture was very different. Seasonal menus were far from standard-issue. Few kitchens subjected ingredients to FBI–style background checks. Oliveto celebrated what we now take for granted: pristine products, enhanced by the hands of a talented chef.
Today, under chef Jonah Rhodehamel, Oliveto’s cooking is both rustic and refined, much as it was under Chez Panisse alumnus Paul Bertolli, who wore the toque when the restaurant was young. A tomato, avocado, and fresh mozzarella salad, bathed in golden balsamic vinaigrette, sings a sweet farewell to summer. Charcoal-grilled squid, with the contrapuntal pairing of cool cucumbers and Calabrian chiles, is a balanced meeting of land and sea.
Oliveto is not a hip restaurant. No mustachioed mixologists or pounding music here. Its ambience is adult but unpretentious, and overseen by servers who know their sopressata from their saltimbocca, and can guide you toward a wine that goes with each.
An ever-changing menu rarely misses, from spit-roasted hen with potato gratinata to line-caught albacore with vinegar-marinated shelling beans. For dessert, roasted Black Mission figs, arranged around a frozen orange-honey mousse, pop with the flavors of the fruit at its peak.
Seasons come and go. So do culinary fashions. What Oliveto offers never wears thin.
5655 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-5356, oliveto.com.
Josh Sens is a food critic for San Francisco magazine.
Three decades of authentic, unpretentious Italian.
By Linda Carucci
What’s the name of that place where we ate in Verona?” For a restaurant to satisfy on so many levels that it makes my husband bring up an all-time favorite meal in Italy, it must be doing something right. Prima’s been at it for 35 years, and it has hit the trifecta of food, service, and ambience. From the spacious, twilight-filled loggia to the earnest, unpretentious greetings from everyone approaching the table, it’s clear that details matter at Prima. Then, there’s the food.
It’s been said that Italian food is simple and transparent. Peter Chastain’s panzanella defines the classic: Basic ingredients—bread, Early Girl tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, EVOO, and wine vinegar—are assembled with such finesse and restraint that it’s become my new benchmark by which bread-and-tomato salads are measured.
Monterey cal-amari filled with Caggiano sausage and fennel served with corona beans, tomato, and garlic further showcases the kitchen’s deft skill. Organic game hen, masterfully roasted with grapes in the wood oven, is arranged on the plate with lemon and potatoes— those unforgettable grapes and the rustic presentation elevating the dish to the status of our beloved Bottega del Vino in Verona.
The only thing better than Prima’s ricotta cheesecake with blueberry compote is thinking about the next time we can return. Any kitchen that can make blueberries taste like they were just picked off the bush in Maine is clearly firing on all cylinders—and is primo, uh Prima, in my book.
1522 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-7780, primawine.com.
Linda Carucci is the author of Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks.
The Restaurant at Wente
The culinary jewel of Livermore valley wine country.
By Nicholas Boer
For more than a quarter-century, the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards has been the heart of Livermore Valley wine country, nourishing an atmosphere of the good life. Now, the valley has arrived—garnering the attention (and tourists) it deserves—and Wente is Livermore’s crown jewel.
Some of its many facets: A 36-page California-focused wine list with more than 600 wines; an expansive patio with a view of the hills and vineyards; an elegant, spacious dining room; and chef Matt Greco—who is as skilled in butchering whole animals as he is plucking produce from the restaurant’s half-acre vegetable and herb garden. Try Greco’s lamb pastrami on rye crisps, the only new item in decades to be added to Wente’s signature dishes. (The Caesar and the smoked pork chop are exceptional, as well.)
Come for the sublime seafood. Come for a blissful brunch. Or bring your out of towners for a day of wine tasting—who needs Napa?—followed by dinner here as the sun sets, turning the hills a luminous gold.
5050 Arroyo Rd., Livermore, (925) 456-2450, wentevineyards.com/restaurant.
Nicholas Boer is a food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Va de Vi Bistro & Wine Bar
Small plates, big flavor, and good times.
By Ethan Fletcher
I always find small plates to be tricky. How many dishes should I order? What wine will pair with both a summer heirloom salad and a spicy chicken tagine? And wait a minute: Just how much money am I spending here?
Well, Va de Vi, which manages to maintain an unwavering commitment to quality without taking itself too seriously, has found the answer for my OCD–induced dining stress: Just relax, man. After all, eating out should be fun, and if a restaurant puts out top-notch food and wine, something good is going to happen.
So go ahead and order the melon salad and the ricotta-filled fried squash blossoms, and the chanterelle-dappled herb gnudi (cousin to gnocchi). And what the heck, throw in that tagine, too. Because chef Shane McAnelly can mix flavors with the best of ’em.
And as long as the pickled watermelon rind blends gorgeously with the sweet melon and creamy, salty Feta in the salad (check), and the Meyer lemon–saturated chanterelles deftly balance the pasta and earthy truffle butter in the gnudi (double check), then I’m happy.
For pairing, just try a flight: Odds are, you’ll find something in the Designer Italian Whites or Big Bad Cabs that complements the gnudi and the tagine.
And hey, prices aren’t bad, either …
1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-0100, vadevi.com.
Ethan Fletcher is Diablo magazine's food editor.