Food Awards 2012
Dig in to this year's top food!
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.
As told to Sara Hare. Photography by Jennifer Martiné
Pan-seared Wild John Dory
“Depending on the season, I change up the vegetable accompaniments in this dish. John Dory is a fairly light, flaky fish—this one wild from New Zealand—that matches the flavor of the saffron broth and works well with a wide variety of lightly poached vegetables. With saffron and fish and mussels, this dish has French roots, and that’s what I was going for.” —John Marquez, chef-owner
1005 Brown Ave., Lafayette, (925) 962-0882, artisanlafayette.com
Vol au Vent de Ris de Veau Braisé au Madère et aux Morilles
“At Chevalier, I create the classic dishes of France, not the new trends. Time-tested plates like boeuf bourguignon. The sweetbreads in puff pastry with morels is one of those, although more unusual: Its origins go way back in French cooking. I source the sweetbreads from veal and braise gently with Madeira sauce and veal stock for at least an hour until it’s very tender.” —Philippe Chevalier, chef-owner
960 Moraga Rd., Lafayette, (925) 385-0793, chevalierrestaurant.com.
Market Fish Curry Xào Lan
“This dish says a lot about what I am trying to do at Élevé: create Vietnamese dishes with complex flavors and ingredients, with an overlay of European traditions. The xào lăn uses my signature sauce—a lemongrass base with Thai basil, curry, coconut, and some heat. Traditionally, it’s prepared with frog’s legs, but I use fresh fish, and add the coconut milk to balance the sharpness of the curry. I think it shows off how sophisticated traditional Vietnamese food can be.” —Michele Nguyen, chef-owner
1677 North Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-1677, eleverestaurant.com.
Gnocchi di Ricotta con Sugo di Anatra Affumicata
“I take the leg of the duck, smoke it, roast it, and then braise it until it’s tender and falls into little bites that melt on your tongue. The food at Ottavio is based on the cuisine of the Venice region, with a modern interpretation. I make the gnocchi lighter by using ricotta, for example. The gnocchi dish was inspired by an old recipe with penne and duck prosciutto that is very Venetian. And that is what Ottavio is about.” —Valentino Luchin, chef-owner
1606 North Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 930-8008, ottavio-osteria.com
Sara Hare is a long-time restaurant reviewer and food and wine writer, as well as Editor-in-Chief of InGest Magazine.
Sonoma Lamb Shank Slow Braised in Chianti
The Peasant & the Pear
“The restaurant name comes from the food I wanted to cook: peasant food. Slow-cooked dishes made with lesser-known cuts of meat that we sear, simmer, and braise with fresh ingredients to create flavor. The Italian lamb shank is a perfect example. This is country, peasant food. No matter what time of year, it is by far our most popular dish.” —Rodney Worth, chef-owner
267 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 820-6611, thepeasantandthepear.com.
Hello! My Name is: Comal
When John Paluska opened Comal, he didn’t just want a kick-ass Mexican spot. He wanted a “community gathering place.” Call it a success. Chef Matt Gandin is drawing rave reviews, while the gorgeous back patio has become the go-to hang in downtown Berkeley.
A heat lamp—equipped cover makes the back patio accessible year-round. And the interior’s sound system is literally state-of-the-art: Berkeley-based Meyer Sound’s audio system is the first of its kind for a restaurant.
The chips and guac are as good as it gets, the chile relleno screams Mexican comfort food, and the tripe stew rewards the daring with layers of richly deep flavor.
It’s all about tequila here. Margaritas are top-notch, and the Palomaesque is a lip-smacking combo of smoky mezcal, tart grapefruit, and sweet honey. Try the tequila and mezcal flights.
2020 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 926-6300, comalberkeley.com.
Hello! My Name is: Corners Tavern
Expectations were sky-high when the teams behind lauded restaurants Town Hall and Piatti took over Bing Crosby’s. With a beautiful new interior and chef Esteban Escobar’s elegant take on American comfort food, Corners has not disappointed.
You can eat outdoors, in the airy dining room, or at the big lively bar, or just relax in one of the comfy antique chairs in the funky-hip lounge filled with quirky dioramas.
Escobar’s laid-back Texas roots (he was born and raised in El Paso) mix with a foodie’s touch in such dishes as the house-made pretzels, spicy fried chicken wings with lime and cilantro, and the BBQ pork chop with chanterelle mushrooms and nectarines.
Cocktails show bold, clean flavors; the wine list carries an all-star cast of California wineries (plus, a few International options); and suds lovers will enjoy the all–craft beer list.
1342 Broadway Plaza, Walnut Creek, (925) 948-8711, cornerstavern.com.
Hello! My Name is: Hopscotch
Pickled sardine and bean salad. Beer-steamed clams with yuzu aioli. Hopscotch’s Kyle Itani loves to spike his Americana dishes with a “traditional Japanese punctuation mark.” So far, that’s been generating some loud buzz for this intimate Uptown eatery.
Easy-listening Motown tunes groove from the speakers, the small interior has a retro-diner feel, and even some dish names are fun (the burger topped with griddled beef tongue is called the First Base burger).
The beer-steamed clams are awesome with meltingly tender braised lamb. The broiled fish with miso is balanced by sautéed greens and fried squash blossoms with house-salted char. If tongue scares you, get the Uptown burger, also made with house-ground chuck.
We loved the maple old fashioned made with real maple syrup. True to its name, Hopscotch has a $10 special pairing “hops” (beer) with “scotch” (one-ounce pour of whiskey or scotch).
1915 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, (510) 788-6217, hopscotchoakland.com.
Hello! My Name is: Lokanta
Boasting an airy sunroom and banquette of brightly colored pillows, this Pleasanton newbie has wowed Tri-Valley diners with its sophisticated vibe. But it’s the daring and delicious take on Mediterranean cuisine—call it Cali-tinged Turkish fare—that’s kept them coming back for more.
The beautiful back sunroom is a wonderful spot for a sunny lunch or early-evening dinner.
The chicken talas is a perfect example of chef Muhammet Culha’s approach to Lokanta’s fusion fare. The traditionally Turkish pastry-wrapped mixture of chicken and savory vegetables is spiked with a decidedly nontraditional coconut curry that adds a sweet layer to what is essentially a Mediterranean potpie. Don’t miss the lamb shish kebabs, either.
Check out one of the unique Turkish options sprinkled throughout the wine list.
443 Main St, Pleasanton, (925) 223-8074, eatlokanta.com.
Hello! My Name is: Sauced
With all the wine-centered foodie spots opening in downtown Livermore, the time was right for a place that didn’t take itself so seriously. Sauced BBQ, with its irreverent sensibility, down-home fare, and hipster-cool vibe, fits the bill quite nicely, thank you.
Sauced keeps the good times rolling with dueling pianos and live country music Thursday through Saturday nights.
Don’t wait to order the burnt ends—small, crisped-up pieces of brisket—because they sell out fast. The smoky baked beans pack a wallop of flavor, and a few drops of “pig candy” sauce add a perfectly sweet note to the tender, long-smoked ribs.
Beer ranges from PBR to Racer 5, and there are 100 whiskeys, bourbons, and scotches. But we love the Southern-themed cocktails like watermelon moonshine and Louisiana heat.
2300 First St., Livermore, (925) 961-1300, saucedbbqandspirits.com.
What Inspires You?
For Sunhui Chang, kimchee isn’t just fermented veggies. It’s the heart of his new restaurant, FuseBox.
“If I didn’t make my own kimchee, I wouldn’t be able to say I have a Korean restaurant,” he says. “It becomes a part of your culture, then your history, and then a part of your identity.”
Chang learned to cook from his chef mother, growing up in South Korea and Guam. The food-obsessed youngster also loved to watch cooking shows on PBS. That cultural mix shows on the small bites menu—where you’ll find house-made tofu next to Korean barbecue next to fried chicken wings. And plenty of kimchee.
“Making kimchee is one of the few times where I lose myself in thought—and sometimes, inspiration will hit.”
2311A Magnolia St., Oakland, (510) 444-3100, fuseboxoakland.com
What Inspires You?
Yes, all chefs say their food is inspired by the local produce, but Kim Alter is serious. She shops farmers markets every workday, sometimes twice. It’s a passion she developed at famed Manresa, which sources all produce from its own farm.
“Working on a farm, planting stuff myself, I realized how much effort goes into every radish put on a plate. I want to respect that, make sure that radish shines.”
It’s a product-driven approach, combined with Alter’s accessible style, that produces dishes such as a hearty bavette steak accented with fresh heirloom tomatoes in the summer or a comforting shepherd’s pie filled with seasonal root vegetables in winter.
“I like to say that our food is delicate yet rustic.”
44 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 663-4440, havenoakland.com.
What Inspires You?
Steve Jaramillo never wanted to be a chef growing up.
“I wanted to be a writer, originally.”
But with few job prospects—and limited success after publishing three novels in the late ’90s—he found refuge in Berkeley kitchens. Jaramillo soon discovered that he had a knack for cooking, landing a gig as top chef at Lalime’s. He also found he enjoyed it.
“Being a chef is similarly dynamic and creative [to writing]. I have like 200 cookbooks that I love to leaf through and conceptualize different dishes.”
Now at Metro, he emphasizes, in true Berkeley fashion, dishes using just a few high-quality ingredients.
So, are his writing days over? Well, Jaramillo is actually halfway through a new novel—this one set in a restaurant.
3524 Mount Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 284-4422, metrolafayette.com.
The East Bay restaurant scene is heating up. Here’s our guide to four of the hottest neighborhoods for dining.
This beautifully renovated pocket of downtown Oakland is buzzing with foodie-casual delights.
Sip an obscure wine at the gorgeous District. With another location in San Francisco, the wine bar and lounge brings in a hip city vibe and carefully curated selection of small-batch wines, whiskeys, and small plates. districtoak.com.
Snack on a tasty taco at Chez Panisse alum Dominica Rice’s gourmet-street eatery, Cosecha (try the shrimp or pork belly), modeled after indoor Mexican farmers markets. cosechacafe.com.
Guzzle a serious brew at beer-geek oasis the Trappist, which has 25 Belgian and craft beers available on tap, and more than 100 in bottles. thetrappist.com.
Sup on wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas and house-made pasta at Borgo Italia, co-owned by A.G. Ferrari’s Paul Ferrari. borgoitaliaoakland.com.
Look for ex-Hibiscus chef Sarah Kirnon’s new Afro Caribbean–inspired Miss Ollie’s, plus the first East Bay outpost for popular Rosamunde Sausage Grill, both set to open by year’s end.
With four new spots, Blackhawk Plaza is drawing crowds with its suddenly lively dining scene.
Share a thin-crust flat bread at Rodney Worth’s new casual Italian joint, Ferrari’s—or grab a carnitas taco at the Prickly Pear, or chicken salad sandwich at the Little Pear, his other two Blackhawk eateries. ferrariscucinaitaliana.com.
Splurge on a cocktail and bar bite at Blackhawk Grille’s all-day happy hour (2 p.m.–close). The hot new bar is part of the restaurant’s recent wall-to-wall makeover. blackhawkgrille.com.
Snack on ocean-fresh sushi on the hopping back patio at the new Blue Gingko, Sasa owner Philip Yang’s latest restaurant. bluegingkosushi.com.
Indulge in artisanal chocolates for your sweetheart (or yourself) at Chocolatier Blue. The PB&J is our fave. chocolatierblue.com.
A cow town no longer, Livermore is hopping with cool new eateries that seem to pop up every week along First Street.
Pair your food with your wine—not the other way around—at Winemaker’s Pour House. This Livermore wine-centric spot focuses on the vino first, crafting the menu around the featured wine of the moment. winemakerspourhouse.com.
Eat authentic Mexican mole or one of a half-dozen steak preparations at El Sacromonte. The 22 or so different margaritas aren’t bad, either. elsacromonte-usa.com.
Pick your saucy poison at Sauced BBQ & Spirits, and douse your brisket at this smokin’ hot new hangout. Or just grab a beer (or build your own cocktail at the DIY Bloody Mary bar). saucedbbqandspirits.com.
Listen to live music on Double Barrel Wine Bar’s popular back patio while sampling the international wine list and streamlined menu of small plates. Check ’em out for Sunday jazz brunch. doublebarrelwinebar.com.
Look for deep-dish heaven when Patxi’s Chicago Pizza opens next to the Bankhead Theater early next year. And keep an eye out for production brewery Altamont Beer Works (on tap at First Street Alehouse).
Long a no-man’s-land catering to cash-strapped Cal kids, downtown Berkeley is in a culinary boom, giving the Gourmet Ghetto a run for its money.
Slurp soba for weekend brunch at Ippuku, which makes the silken noodles fresh from soba flour imported from Japan. ippukuberkeley.com.
Share a bone-in 22-ounce wood-fired rib eye or souped-up tacos at foodie–Mexican restaurant Comal. Or just grab some chips and guac and a tequila cocktail at the bar in the spectacular covered and heated back patio. comalberkeley.com.
Visit the Big Easy at Angeline’s Louisiana Kitchen, which expanded to accommodate the hoards of die-hard NOLA cuisine lovers seeking spot-on renditions of hush puppies, gumbo, jambalaya, and voodoo shrimp. angelineskitchen.com.
Knock back a Moscow Mule, Sazerac, or any of the just-right classic cocktails at Revival Bar & Kitchen’s retro-fabulous bar. Or sample chef-owner Amy Murray’s seriously local, sustainable, farm-to-table cuisine for dinner. revivalbarandkitchen.com.
Look for the new kids on the block, Pathos Restaurant (organic, full-service Greek) and Belli Osteria (made-from-scratch Italian, with an emphasis on house-made ravioli), due to open on Shattuck by the end of the year. Editorial note: Belli is now open!