2013 Food Awards
This year’s Food Awards smorgasbord comes in three flavors: hottest trends, reader favorites, and the best new restaurants.
Pull up a chair. This year’s Food Awards smorgasbord comes in three flavors: hottest trends, reader favorites, and the best new restaurants. You can dig in to the tasty trends in an essay that weaves through the next 12 pages, or snack on our reader favorites sprinkled throughout. But don’t miss our awards for the best new restaurants because it’s time to make some reservations. Our job is done. It’s time to eat.
Best New Restaurants
When I began reviewing restaurants in the Tri-Valley and Contra Costa County 15 years ago, dining was more chore than pleasure. Soggy salads. Flabby pasta. Factory farm everything. The emphasis on ingredients—picking purveyors before writing menus—was still a foreign concept.
Spanish tapas and Pacific Rim cuisine—urban trends at the time—came across as undersized, overpriced plates from regions unknown. It was food without borders, and it wasn’t pretty. Yet, it was almost a relief from the monotony of Italian restaurants.
Following the 9/11 tragedy, local chefs reinvented American classics, drawing families out from their nests and back into dining rooms. This was the dawn of modern comfort food, and it worked—for the most part. Many chefs tried to dazzle up meat loaf and potpies with drizzles of wasabi crème fraîche and the like. But it was a step in the right direction, creating a well-worn path that links us to the style and trends of today. The eating has gotten much, much better over the past 12 years. We’ve kept the strengths of California cuisine—fresh, seasonal, local—and woven them into familiar American classics. »
For this year’s food issue, we looked at the personality of the plates: the products and dishes commonly found—or coming into fashion—at our favorite restaurants. We discovered that the definition of American is broadening, as chefs find ways to co-opt various cuisines. And there’s a dynamic tension between fat and fresh, ways in which chefs package decadence with a side of healthy. Thus, we looked for the virtuous, the sinful, and the just plain good.
What we found is that Diabloland’s restaurants are doing it all. To prove our point, we’re diving in to just a few of the strongest trends, and illuminating some of our best restaurants along the way.
Steak Frites / From Esin
Side o’ Frites
Who woulda thought steak and potatoes, that Mad Man luxury and proletarian classic, would become the sexiest dish of 2013? We’ve killed the baked potato but revived the fries. One local restaurant after another this year has added steak frites to its menu—a mainstay at Parisian cafés and bistros since the Revolution.
To get at the heart of this hardy, heart-stopping trend, I head to a French restaurant: La Sen, the romantic new bistro in Concord. I order an entrecôte frite and a glass of Côtes du Rhône. As I take the last bite of rare rib eye and practically lick the garlic from my fingers, I understand the dish’s cachet: It’s primal satisfaction with a side of hedonism. So how does a trend like this take hold and spread? Well, there were a lot of (nosy) nearby neighbors catching a whiff of my steak frites. It’s like a sizzling platter or towering dessert: When one passes by, it can start a stampede. In the same manner, a dish like steak frites spreads from restaurant to restaurant the moment a high-profile chef endorses it. And then the wild rumpus begins.
In sum, steak frites has become de rigueur in America, with no apologies for the appropriation. Witness Walnut Creek’s Corners Tavern (grilled rib eye with spicy butter and fries), Lafayette’s Park Bistro and Bar (steak frites with a sweet onion jus), and Danville’s Blackhawk Grille (tavern steak with garlic butter and fries) and Esin (the steak napped with red wine butter; the fries tossed in gremolata—lemon zest, parsley, and garlic).
Eggs / From Forge
On the Sunny Side
The surge in farm-fresh eggs is eye-popping. They’re cracked on pizzas ($2 at the Forge in Danville and Oakland), fried for burgers ($1.50 at Blackhawk Grille), and served lightly poached atop ratatouille or succotash—as with the delicate vegetarian offering at Homestead, a new ingredient-driven restaurant in Piedmont.
There’s something about the sophisticated creaminess and country satisfaction of a just-cooked, just-laid egg that breaks through the breakfast barrier. Perhaps James Syhabout of Commis is to blame, for reframing the egg as a premium topping. The East Bay’s only Michelin-star chef gained fame at least partly because of his signature amuse-bouche: creamy onion soup pooled to mimic an egg white, with a precisely poached farm-fresh yolk in the center.
The Koreans cracked it way before Commis, of course. Check out the egg, sunny-side up, atop the classic dolsot bibimbap, a lightning-hot rice bowl at Ohgane in Dublin, and Mixed Grain, the modern Korean restaurant new to Walnut Creek. Stir the soft egg into the rice, veggies, and meat, and see how it binds and harmonizes.
Crudo / From Prima
The Raw Truth
Salumi, an Italian classic, was the darling of tavern-style restaurants in 2012. This year, crudo—raw fish—is its sweetheart. The word crudo is Italian, but uncooked fish preparations come from across the globe, first and foremost from Japan. You can also find examples by travelling to Peru (ceviche), Hawaii (poke), and France (tartare).
The American palate has adapted particularly well to tartare of salmon and ahi. You’ll find tartares at Lark Creek Walnut Creek, Va de Vi, and even the steak house of steak houses: Hap’s Original in Pleasanton. But the most pristine preparations are Italian inspired. Peter Chastain, the genius behind Prima in Walnut Creek, serves seasonal, thin-sliced fish splashed with lime, mint, hot pepper, and olive oil. Or his carpaccio of hamachi or tai snapper might make a menu appearance dressed with just a pinch of salt, lemon, virgin olive oil, and capers. “You can go to the moon on that,” Chastain says.
At A16, the stunning new Italian restaurant in Rockridge, chef Rocky Maselli offers six versions of crudo, including anchovies, sea urchin, and geoduck clams. “If seafood is really fresh,” Maselli says, “the worst thing you can do is cook it.”
Ceviche is somewhere between cooked and raw, with a citrus marinade that softens its texture. Bocanova, a restaurant in Oakland, has two stellar examples: plump lobster and shrimp ceviche laced with passion fruit and habanero; and a layered tuna crudo, or causa, creamy with avocado.
If this all sounds too exotic, go back to the most basic and most American crudo of them all: fresh shucked oysters. (Have you checked out the raw bar at the Walnut Creek Yacht Club lately?)
Mary’s Chicken / From Va de Vi
The Skinny on Chicken
We’ve already praised the farm-fresh egg, but that doesn’t mean chicken shouldn’t come in first. Mary’s Chicken, to be precise. It’s knocked Fulton Valley Farms and Rocky chickens (remember those?) off the menu.
In part, this is a tribute to chefs’ growing commitment to humanely raised animals (just as Niman Ranch was a game changer with pork). But it’s also the air-chilling technique that sets these birds apart. Farm-factory chickens are typically dumped in ice water laced with bleach and injected with saline solution to keep them plump.
For whatever reason, Mary’s has made good ol’ chicken a restaurant specialty. These chickens don’t need to be sauced or stuffed; a simple preparation is best. The skin on Mary’s Chickens crisps up beautifully, with none of the cottony textured meat you’ll find in supermarket birds.
Head to one of the flock of top restaurants east of the Caldecott that has Mary’s on its menu marquee. Here are just a few: Amber Bistro, Esin, and Piatti in Danville; Metro Lafayette, Park Bistro and Bar, and Rustic Tavern in Lafayette; Beaver Creek Smokehouse in Martinez; Barbacoa in Orinda; and Va de Vi and Lark Creek in Walnut Creek.
Kale / From Élevé
All Hail Kale
If there was ever a dark horse ingredient, it’s gotta be kale. Seeing shredded green-blue leaves of the dino variety on a salad plate in years past might have elicited shudders. But now, kale is leaving roasted beets—the salad star of the 21st century—in the dust.
Brussels sprouts, a dish once relegated to Thanksgiving dinner, could be described as a gateway veggie to kale. Those cute little cabbages look so harmless, right? Brussels sprouts gained acceptance shortly after Yankee Pier’s sprout salad caused a buzz. (It’s now one of the signature dishes in winter.)
I became a believer in kale when I tried a bite of kale salad at Rustic Tavern. Soon, I was buying perky bundles of red, green, and dino kale for salads and morning juicing. It’s one of the most nutritious plants on Earth, and it’s selling like mad at farmers markets. So even when following it up with, say, steak frites, you’ll feel virtuous.
As a salad, kale is typically served simply with something tart and something nutty. At Élevé in Walnut Creek, it’s sprinkled with crispy shallots, caramelized fennel, and crumbled egg yolk. The Rustic Tavern salad is simply tossed with olive oil, and enlivened with Feta cheese and tangerines. At Serendipity, a new Sri Lankan restaurant in Dublin, the kale salad is fiery: vibrant with fresh coconut, chiles, and a peppery citrus dressing.
Sri Lankan aside, kale has a true American ring. As I talked to Jason Bergeron, the chef at Blackhawk Grille, he was conceiving a pork chop plate—with grits, cider vinegar, and sautéed kale. And Matt Greco, the executive chef at the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, is agog at the endless varieties of kale available in California. (I chatted with him shortly after he arrived here from New York.) As we get deeper into winter, we’ll see more and more of this previously maligned veggie.
Soft Serve / From Hawker Fare
A Fashionable Finish
Do you have fond memories of sultry days and Dairy Queen’s swirled ice-cream cones? Then, look for Straus Family Creamery soft serve, from an organic dairy out of Tomales Bay. Straus’ ice cream first appeared at edgy Italian restaurants, but it’s ideal for American menus. The Park Bistro and Bar offers 15 toppings, including grown-up add-ins such as bacon brittle, espresso, and vanilla pineapple chutney.
Upscale pizza destination Forge offers a decidedly adult selection, including olive oil and sea salt, salted caramel, and berries in grape must syrup. You can even float your boat with soft serve at Forge, subbing Ninkasi Oatis Stout for the root beer.
For those who are purists—averse even to DQ’s frozen chocolate shell—the exceedingly hip Hawker Fare in Oakland serves it straight: in an old-fashioned sugar cone.
If you don’t see Straus on the dessert menu, look for butterscotch, a classic American flavor aligned with current tastes. The trendsetters? Lark Creek’s signature dessert has been butterscotch pudding for years. Yankee Pier calls its butterscotch pudding “famous.” And Forge’s version is just downright dangerous: butterscotch pudding with sea salt and toffee.
The Next Course . . .
So where is all this going? Get ready for more tavern-style restaurants with refined honest food and a kicked-back vibe. Take the painstakingly simple food that will be served at Cooperage American Grille set to open by December. It’ll debut with big city pros Andrew McCormick and executive chef Erik Hopfinger, who met at McCormick’s City Tavern in 1995, and have been earning their chops in San Francisco ever since. Housed in the Lafayette spot where Petar’s operated for 50 years, Cooperage will boast a 25-foot rotisserie, 15-foot communal tables, a dozen beers on draft, and a no-nonsense menu.
“We’ve got tons of steaks and chops on the menu,” says Hopfinger. “And one of the best damn burgers around.” That burger is a blend of three cuts of beef ground twice—once right before grilling. The draft menu includes many of our hot trends: crudo of ahi tuna with avocado and chile oil, sautéed kale and rainbow chard, and steak and fries (just one option from an extensive DIY grill menu).
The dessert menu is not set, but we’re thinking butterscotch pudding and Straus soft-serve ice cream are definitely in order.
Really, the story arc of the restaurant scene over the past 15 years is best told by Curtis and Esin deCarion, the owners of Esin, who will open Revel Kitchen and Bar in Danville next year. Revel will capture the homey/tavern/farmstead spirit that has ruled in 2013. And Revel’s dishes, which include steak frites—“the perfect kind of food,” says Curtis—will be an exemplar of how “American casual” can be sophisticated.
First opened in 1998, the same year I left kitchens and became a food writer, Café Esin kept me optimistic about our local dining scene at a time when pickins were slim. It even won the rare nod of approval for a 680-corridor eatery from Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s executive food and wine editor.
With grit, love, and determination, their café kept growing—moving three times, improving each time—and stayed in step with food trends. Luckily, much of our dining scene has grown up right along with them.
Bull Valley Roadhouse / Port Costa
An old-fashioned take on cutting edge.
This renovated old-time restaurant off (way off) Highway 4 came out of nowhere, earning a rave review in Diablo and a rare three-star designation from the San Francisco Chronicle. So what’s the fuss?
Well, it’s as compelling as the Wild West: a saloon with swanky cocktails (pre-prohibition classics) and a pedigreed chef (David Williams, from the Slanted Door).
An appetizer here is a stack of fat maple-glazed ribs. The crackling fried chicken comes with a super-sized biscuit. The pound cake is laced with honey made by co-owner Earl Flewellen—a soft-spoken man with determination. (He’s restoring the Burlington Hotel next door.) He’s slowly turning Port Costa into a destination.
So have a whiskey, and spend the night. I hear there’s cornbread and bacon for breakfast.
14 Canyon Lake Dr., Port Costa, (510) 787-1135, bullvalleyroadhouse.com.
The question: Where to go for lunch with the girls?
Favorite spot: Esin in Danville.
What to order: Grilled chicken salad.
Adam Carpenter Park Bistro / Lafayette
Humble, with a splash of flash.
Simply put, Adam Carpenter is a craftsman who cooks from the heart, shows a creative mind, and has the ambition to get even better. He made a splash as the executive chef at Blackhawk Grille. Now, eight years later, he’s put a final coat of polish on a rustic style.
With its farmhouse ethic, Carpenter’s menu stresses steaks (check out the lamb porterhouse) and charcuterie served on a butcher block. His mac ‘n’ cheese features house-made cavatelli; the onion soup gratiné owes its soul to long-cooked veal stock; and the big burger showcases local beef. It was no small matter to transform the Duck Club, with its slightly stuffy image, into a contemporary restaurant. But Carpenter has done it. What’s more, he’s smart enough to have hired the best pastry chef in the county: Alex Segura.
3287 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 283-7108, parkbistroandbar.com.
The question: Where to celebrate your anniversary?
Favorite spot: Artisan Bistro in Lafayette.
What to order: Farro risotto, with beet salad.
Rustic Tavern / Lafayette
We’ve got spirit. Yes we do.
Rustic Tavern was slammed from the word go—an instant hit. Perhaps it was the owners—a trio of Lark Creek alums. Or perhaps it was timing: The Tavern is part of a tide of restaurants riding high on refined American comfort food. Then, there’s the drinks, with signature cocktails designed by local mixologist Manny Hinojosa.
Lafayette already had a wealth of restaurants—romantic, affordable, and sophisticated—but the tavern fills a niche with its classy, comfortable, and palpable community spirit. After several months, the restaurant’s buzz has settled into a happy hum, but rustic and tavern are hot concepts, and Rustic Tavern continues to show us why.
3576 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 385-0559, rustictavernlafayette.com.
The question: Where to go for cocktails?
Favorite spot: Walnut Creek Yacht Club.
What to order: Mai tai 1944 style.
Come for the food; stay for the wine.
There is so much to love about A16—the food, the service, the atmosphere—that you needn’t even like wine to have a great meal here.
And for those who have only a casual interest in Italian wines, prepare to be surprised. You’ll likely develop a deep appreciation for little-known wines from every corner of Italy.
An unpretentious sommelier will navigate the list for you—a list that includes 40 wines by the half-glass, glass, or carafe. This calls for a multicourse meal, and A16 has a menu designed just for that. On our visit, we lingered over crudo, antipasti, pasta, pizza, and a main course.
So become an oenology expert for the night, breathe deep, and explore as much of Italy as your palate and pocketbook will allow.
5356 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 768-8003, a16rockridge.com.
The question: Where to go for atmosphere?
Favorite spot: Postino in Lafayette.
What to order: Lamb shanks with polenta.
Blackhawk Grille / Danville
Get smart: Updating a classic.
Blackhawk Grille is exhibit number one on why and how Diablo diners have made the transition from fine to fun dining.
The venerable restaurant underwent a serious face-lift last year, creating a host of dining options, including a chef’s counter, playful booths, a patio with fire pits, and—for those who still want a little formality—a dining platform. It’s fairly remarkable how well the restaurant has tied together so many disparate elements.
This high-spirited remodel matches a menu that is more upbeat than upscale (from chicken potpie to filet mignon). It’s affordable and approachable American comfort food, with just enough panache to justify a drive. In doing so, the “Hawk” has become a gathering spot and a soaring tribute to Contra Costa’s casual, comfortable dining scene.
3540 Blackhawk Plaza Cir., Danville, (925) 736-4295, blackhawkgrille.com.
The question: Who has the best service?
Favorite spot: Gianni’s in San Ramon.
Favorite Server: Gianni Bartoletti.
La Sen Bistro / Concord
Table for two? Right this way.
La Sen mesmerizes—candlelight and antique chandeliers illuminate the room with a sultry crimson glow—especially when the wine is flowing and the jazz is playing. How to seduce? For her: succulent scallops with parsnip puree. For him: filet mignon with a splash of rich veal jus. You can debate about the two best salads: the salade niçoise, or the delicate greens with Roquefort and apple.
The lamb sandwich at lunch is heavenly, but the time to come and linger is at dinner, during the rush—for it’s in a crowd of strangers that you and your lover will feel most intimate. The French fare and aromas, of course, play into the alluring ambience. Best yet—wink—it’s eminently affordable.
2002 Salvio St., Concord, (925) 363-7870, lasenbistro.com.
The question: Who has the best wine list?
Favorite spot: Prima Ristorante in Walnut Creek.
What to order: Merry Edwards Pinot Noir.
Photographer: Norma Cordova; Stylist: Alicia Harrell; Clothes provided by: Lesley Evers; Make-up/Hair: Joshua Conover; Photo Assistant: Claudia Solis; Model: Kaitlin M from scouttm.com