2015 Diablo Food Awards
In a year of standout chefs, dishes, and restaurants, these are the 19 winners that made the biggest impact.
The Most Authentic
The Hottest Scene
Artist in the Kitchen
The Prettiest Plates
The Smoothest Service
The Best Bang for your Buck
Man on a Mission
Saffron-Honey Braised Lamb
Parada: Chef Carlos Altamirano has found a serene way to excellence.
It’s a Thursday morning at Parada in Walnut Creek, and chef Carlos Altamirano and his crew are calmly but efficiently preparing for lunch. The aroma of toasted quinoa, cinnamon, and cloves—the base for Parada’s popular Andean-style iced tea—fills the kitchen. A pan sizzles with aderezo—onions, garlic, cumin, turmeric, and Peruvian peppers—the beginnings of aji de gallina, a comforting chicken stew.
Altamirano, who calls himself a “very simple guy,” has a kind face and speaks with a soft Peruvian accent, but his impressive track record lends gravitas. Altamirano’s third restaurant, La Costanera, earned a Michelin star from 2011 to 2013.
While Altamirano has no Michelin ambitions for Parada, its new Peruvian cuisine is unlike anything else in Contra Costa, with a sophisticated style and eye-popping presentations. The menu includes hits from La Costanera; his two San Francisco restaurants, Mochica (traditional Peruvian) and Piqueo’s (modern tapas); and especially at lunch, his three Peruvian sandwich food trucks.
With the June opening of Parada, you might think life would be crazier than ever for Altamirano. But it’s not. He’s mellowed after years of obsessing over minutia and is learning to appreciate the beauty of simpler cooking.
“Every day was a battle,” says Alta-mirano about maintaining a menu of uncompromising quality at La Costanera. Located just north of Half Moon Bay, La Costanera has a menu offering roughly 50 dishes—from Peruvian ceviches to fusion dishes. “I worked seven days a week for almost a year,” he says. “I got dizzy. I couldn’t function.”
Altamirano is still full of plans, but they’re of the casual variety. He’s considering opening a sandwich spot, or perhaps a taco stand, inspired by a recent getaway to Mexico with his wife, Shu Dai (who owns two restaurants in Peru), and their eight-year-old son, Sebastian (who’s already expressing culinary ambitions).
He’s also scouting locations for a casual eatery called La Granja—meaning “the farm”—where his chicken brasa may be the only entrée on the menu.
Back at Parada, lunch hour looms, and 18 chickens—glistening from a long marinade in spices, dried chiles, and Cusqueña (a Peruvian beer)—are just coming off the spit. Altamirano will need another 40 for dinner.
For this Michelin-starred chef, rotisserie chicken is pretty simple food. But while his menu at Parada offers many more stylish dishes, the pollo a la brasa—served with fries and a minty chimichurri sauce—shows just how delightful simple can be. 7001 Sunne Ln., Walnut Creek, (925) 448-8118, paradakitchen.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
A Taste of Tradition: These restaurants honor their cuisines while offering a spin on the tried and true.
When just one element of many in a dish must be grilled, braised, marinated, sliced, and finished with a blowtorch, you might think you’re eating in the fanciest of restaurants. But the one element is chashu, tender pork belly, and it’s available at Ramen Hiroshi.
A bowl of ramen here will cost you little more than $10, for a dish that will fill you for most of the day—a bargain that calls to mind the ramen offered by Japanese street vendors. Hiroshi serves five variations, including its signature tonkotsu, which combines soft-cooked eggs, black kikurage mushrooms, red ginger, and slices of lotus root.
The dinner menu also includes appetizers such as burdock root, fried cuttlefish, and octopus balls. As ramen restaurants become one of the Bay Area’s hottest trends, it’s encouraging to know that one of the most adventurous calls Contra Costa home. 1633 Bonanza St., Walnut Creek, (925) 942-0664, ramenhiroshi.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Kacha Thai Bistro
“When I go back home [to Thailand],” Kacha owner Ing Laongsuwan says, “I miss the food I have at my restaurant. The ingredients are so much better.” Rice grown in Thailand is superior here, she says, as the best is saved for export. But the biggest difference at Kacha is the intensity: Flavorings such as chiles and shrimp paste are used more judiciously than in Thailand. And having a restaurant in California allows Laongsuwan’s husband, Jicko, to use local fruits such as pomegranate and avocado. 1665 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 988-9877, kachathai.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
“When I have friends visiting from Hong Kong who know good food and good value, this is one of our frequent choices.” —Marie Lichauco, Walnut Creek
Chef Jonah Rhodehamel butchers whole animals. He produces his own salumi and pasta. He’s transforming Oliveto’s downstairs café, with the addition of a rotisserie. But Rhodehamel also uses California’s bounty to deliver playful specials—such as crudo kampachi, an Italian riff on sashimi—and a delicious burger. So while you will find a classic Bolognese sauce, the true authenticity lies in his innovative menus, which express as much locality as Italy. 5655 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-5356, oliveto.com. Cafe: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Restaurant: Lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner daily.
Worth the buzz: A night out at one of these spots is an occasion, with eager diners packing the tables and drinks and dishes flying.
Word of mouth can make or break a restaurant, so when Chris Pastena overheard a couple at a bar chatting up Calavera—Pastena’s latest project—he knew he was on the right track.
Oakland’s Calavera is a contemporary Mexican restaurant where the bar showcases a selection of mezcals and a few cheerful skeletons. “The bar displays much of what we’re trying to express,” says Pastena, who is also behind Oakland’s Chop Bar and Lungomare. “You can’t miss it anywhere in the restaurant.”
That’s not to downplay the food. At Calavera, regional specialties get a creative boost. You can dine on goat, octopus, and mole chicken tacos. And the wood-grilled whole snapper, with its crisp skin, is flavorful and juicy.
So sip some mezcal or a margarita, and then dive into a great meal. And then be sure to tell your friends about it. 2337 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 338-3273, calaveraoakland.com. Lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner daily, brunch Sat.–Sun.
The Cooperage American Grille
Securing a table at The Cooperage can be a challenge on Saturdays, when up to 1,000 guests might stop by. “From the beginning,” says executive chef and partner Erik Hopfinger, “we tried to bring a sense of the city to the suburbs.” Recent changes include fried whole chicken dinners on Wednesdays and a new floor management team. “You’ve got to let a restaurant evolve,” says Hopfinger, “rather than forcing it into what you want it to be.” 32 Lafayette Cir., Lafayette, (925) 298-5915, thecooperagelafayette.com. Lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner daily, brunch Sat.–Sun.
“It's a great place to meet for a first date. I met my boyfriend there for a drink the first time we met. I really like the atmosphere, and the Spanish gin and tonic is the best—my favorite thing about this place.” —Melissa Cordova, Walnut Creek.
Va de Vi
With controlled chaos still holding strong at Va de Vi after 11 years, wine director and floor manager Brian Candelario says global small plates and dozens (and dozens) of wine choices are still what make dining here fun. “It totally changes the way you eat,” says Candelario, who says upward of 1,500 small plates and even more glasses of wine are typically served on a busy Saturday. The restaurant seats 170, with the patio offering prime real estate on beautiful days. 1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-0100, vadevi.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Sabio on Main: Chef Francis Hogan started his creative culinary journey at an early age.
Thirteen-year-old Francis Hogan scorched the first muffins he ever made, smoking the house up at two in the morning. Later that year, his dad came home to find noodles hanging from the ceiling fan—Hogan’s first shot at homemade pasta.
So at 14, wearing a Metallica T-shirt and sporting a ponytail, Hogan walked to a neighborhood Italian restaurant and asked for work.
He got the job.
Fast-forward 20 years, and you’ll find the artistic and exceedingly ambitious Hogan running the kitchen at Pleasanton’s Sabio on Main, the coolest restaurant to open in the Tri-Valley since long before that batch of burnt muffins.
Hogan partnered with entrepreneur Jim McDonnell and general manager Matt Clasen—a wine and spirits lover who just moved here from Wine Country—to open the bar-centric restaurant.
Hogan serves a menu with few borders. Spain, the rest of Europe, and even Asia come into play. But his dishes—primarily small plates—are inspired by what’s at hand: the Bay Area’s bounty.
Hogan is bit of a conductor, harmonizing diverse ingredients and often talking like a musician about his dishes. Take his lettuce wrap with pork belly.
“I can taste each note,” says Hogan, referring to the pork belly (“richness”), kimchi (“earthy spice”), pickled mushrooms (“acidity”), and salmon caviar (a little “pop”). “But anything more and it would be muddy.”
A truly synergistic dish is his summer salad of tomatoes from Sunol, plums from the local farmers market, buffalo mozzarella, and a sherry gel. It’s a supple and mellow combination, but there’s a surprise element: smoked hazelnuts.
Hogan’s techniques are modern and his testing precise, but his aim is for you to enjoy a few plates in a lively atmosphere, with a glass of wine or cocktail.
“I try to present dishes that are approachable, smell wonderful, evoke a sense of place, and are visually appealing, but it’s not in my interest to be preachy or pretentious,” he says.
Originally an East Coaster, Hogan became grounded in the Bay Area’s ingredient-driven restaurant culture at San Francisco’s Hawthorne Lane (now closed) and Farallon, before making a name for himself at Bluestem Brasserie.
The 100-seat Sabio is just the right size for Hogan—big enough for a spirited dining scene but manageable with his creative menu. With its outdoor patios, Sabio livens up downtown Pleasanton, where quaint Main Street reminded Hogan of Sonoma Plaza.
For Hogan’s saffron-honey–braised lamb recipe, click here.
“It seemed ripe for a restaurant of this caliber,” he says. 501 Main St., Pleasanton, (925) 800-3090, sabiopleasanton.com. Dinner daily, brunch Sat.–Sun.
Visually Tempting: With pristine ingredients and stunning presentations, these restaurants capture more than our taste buds.
This year, Philip Yang opened Blue Gingko, his fourth restaurant, in Dublin, serving sushi and Japanese small plates—a style that calls for presentations with pop and a clear focal point. An amateur photographer, Yang takes a Zen approach, aiming for what he calls “clean and calm” presentations on pure black or white plates, with classic Japanese garnishes such as threads of shaved scallions.
“My main focus is color balance and contrast,” he says.
With nigiri and sashimi, Yang relies mostly on the subtle variations in the fishes’ flesh tones to dazzle. Accordingly, he wants his chefs to KISS, or “keep it simple, sucker,” as he says.
That’s not to say Blue Gingko’s dishes can’t be intricate; it’s just that the plates aren’t busy, and garnishes don’t clamor for attention. A cylinder of tuna parfait brings striking layers of avocado, rice, and ruby tuna garnished with just a dot of caviar and a pinch of microgreens.
“A lot of people get too romantic,” says Yang about creative cooks who end up with cluttered presentations. Not so at Blue Gingko. Your eyes know just where to go. 3762 Fallon Rd., Dublin, (925) 248-2298, bluegingkosushi.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Artisan Bistro chef John Marquez allows the ingredients to set the tone for his presentations. Cilantro blossoms that come fresh from the farmers market garnish a darkly seared octopus tentacle set on olive oil–crushed potatoes, contrasted with colorful chiles and roasted jalapeños. It’s a presentation, Marquez says, that also conveys texture. “You eat with your eyes first,” says Marquez. “But that doesn’t relate just to colors and placement.” 1005 Brown Ave., Lafayette, (925) 962-0882, artisanlafayette.com. Lunch Tues.–Fri., dinner Tues.–Sun., brunch Sat.–Sun.
“We went for the birthday dinner for a dear friend. With each course, there were ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’. … The prettiest dish I had was the foie gras terrine. It was so good.” —Martin Mazzanti, Danville.
The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards
Mike Ward, the new executive chef at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, calls himself a “meat geek,” but some of his presentations are as delicate as they come. Ward’s scallops with coconut rice come with a flourish of the estate garden’s flower blossoms and a swirl of julienned leeks, summer squash, and carrots. The final flair is a vivid green curry sauce poured table side. “It’s important to have at least four colors on the plate,” says Ward, who also uses a mix of odds and evens (for example, four scallops with three garnishes). “It helps your eye rotate around the plate.” 5050 Arroyo Rd., Livermore, (925) 456-2450, wentevineyards.com/restaurant. Lunch Mon.–Sat., dinner daily, brunch Sun.
Rancho Cantina: Chef Jorge Hernandez breaks new ground by mixing past with present.
You could spend a long time attempting to describe the cuisine at Rancho Cantina in Lafayette, but “California French–inspired Mexican” is a good starting point.
“Nobody else does this in the area,” says chef Jorge Hernandez. “It’s a new style. I can do whatever I want, create whatever I want. It’s really, really fun.”
This freedom, handed to him by owners Julie Mitchell and Erik Peterson, is welcome after spending 12 years grinding it out at Left Bank Brasserie (formerly in Pleasant Hill), putting out upwards of 700 plates of boeuf bourguignon, frogs legs, rabbit, and the like each night.
At Rancho, those braising skills go into dishes such as Hernandez’s signature guisado, a slow-simmered pork stew rich with guajillo, chipotle, and poblano peppers—and spiked with toasted cumino and smoked paprika. It’s a sophisticated take on a dish you might find on the ranchos that dotted Contra Costa in the early 1800s.
“We put a lot of passion into that dish,” says Hernandez.
The restaurant’s focus, however, is on the wood-fired, ranch house–style grill, where skirt steak and adobe chicken are served with plenty of smoke and a side of tortillas.
Hernandez’s experience has pretty much left no technique or cuisine unconquered. He oversaw three restaurants simultaneously at Blackhawk Plaza in Danville after training at restaurants in Las Vegas. For two years, he was in constant motion as the executive sous chef for three of Rodney Worth’s six restaurants, until settling in to Worth’s The Pear Southern Bistro in Napa for another two years.
That New Orleans–style bistro, with its French influences, might be where Hernandez first came up with his garlicky Rancho mussels modeled after the ones at Left Bank Brasserie, but with a slug of Negra Modelo beer subbing in for the white wine and fish fumet.
While this dish may not fall neatly into one category, one thing’s clear: Hernandez has style. 3616 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 282-3811, ranchocantina.com. Lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner Mon.–Sat., brunch Sat.–Sun.
Easy charm: The experience at these restaurants extends beyond the food, thanks to superb service and a welcoming atmosphere.
Walk by Locanda Ravello’s inviting European-style courtyard, where the aroma of baking bread often fills the air, and you are likely to stroll right in.
Dip that warm bread into olive oil thick with roasted garlic and sun-dried tomatoes, and you may be charmed once again: Menafro Domenico—the baker and pizza chef—has been known to serenade diners in the courtyard in lilting Italian.
At the same time, Locanda Ravello manager and partner Antonio Cerbone also makes every guest feel special. Cerbone and Filippo Silvestri, one of his two partners, are hands-on managers and will give you a tour of the house, with its dining room and pizza oven, if gently prodded.
And of course, they’ll leave you with a grazie and an unspoken promise that more bread is rising for the morning bake. 172 E. Prospect Ave., Danville, (925) 984-2101, ravello-danville.com. Lunch and dinner Tues.–Sun., brunch Sat.–Sun.
Gianni’s Italian Bistro
After this many years in the business, you’d think Gianni Bartoletti would relax. Nope. “I’m a perfectionist to the point that I’m paranoid from the time you come in until you leave,” he says. “I tell my servers, ‘If you have a problem, do not come to work.’ People are coming here to be pampered.” So what does it take to be a great waiter? “More important then even experience is passion and love for what you do,” says Bartoletti. 2065 San Ramon Valley Blvd., San Ramon, (925) 820-6969, giannissanramon.com. Dinner Tues.–Sun.
“The first time we went to Gianni’s was after a Rotary event. We went to the restaurant several weeks later and the staff remembered us from the event. That was the start of a beautiful friendship!” —William Doerlich, San Ramon
Ask Prima Ristorante general manager Jordana Arey what makes for great service, and she’ll let you know it’s being “warm and welcoming right from the get go”—apathy is an unpardonable sin. She also recommends putting the guest first to make them feel important. Servers must also be able to read the table to see whether the guests want to be engaged or left alone. But even when the guests wish for more privacy, warmth is still required. “Food and wine knowledge and technical proficiency are required, but if delivered in a perfunctory way, they fall flat,” she says. 1522 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-7780, primawine.com. Lunch Mon.–Sat., dinner daily.
Top Value: Splurges have their place, but nothing beats inspired meals and rich flavors without a hefty price tag.
McKay’s Taphouse and Beer Garden
In McKay’s European beer garden, the picnic tables encourage meandering conversations over pints and burgers: What else do you want?
How about “pub food with a chef’s flair,” as Barbara McKay, who owns McKay’s with her husband, Josh, says. If you’re not in the mood for a burger, try the pressed Cubano sandwich or one of the simple salads, alongside fresh-baked pretzels with beer-cheese fondue.
Or just stick with beer: With an atmosphere like this, you can’t get better value. There are 16 local craft beers and four wines on tap that can be enjoyed at the tables, at the stand-up bar, or in the quaint dining room installed in a historical Main Street home. 252 Main St., Pleasanton, (925) 425-0217. Lunch Tues.–Sun., dinner daily.
It’s been a decade since casual Pizza Antica in Lafayette shook up Contra Costa with artisanal food at prices that turned weeknight dining into something special. Pappardelle pastas, blistered thin-crust pizzas, and warm brussels sprouts salad became part of our suburban vocabulary. And while the county’s culinary scene has caught up with Antica’s cooking, the restaurant has only grown more popular, with a high-energy crowd that’s fun for families, and pizzas and pastas to please every palate. And the popularity should only continue to grow: A second East Bay location is planned for the Danville Hotel. 3600 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 299-0500, pizzaantica.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
“We go when we want to get some good food and catch up with some friends without spending too much money. A favorite is the Brussels sprout salad. If Brussels sprouts are in season and on the menu, we always order them.” —Grace Inouye, Lafayette
Esin Restaurant and Bar
We thought Esin Restaurant and Bar was a pricey dinner prospect until we discovered the menu’s small plates—dishes surprisingly big enough for a light meal. A memorable fig flatbread costs less than a gourmet vegetarian pizza at Round Table Pizza (whose atmosphere doesn’t quite match Esin’s). Maybe the all-time best value is Esin’s famous meze platter—a trove of house-made delights. But what would owner Esin deCarion opt for? “For me, a light, satisfying meal is a glass of Italian white and a bowl of mussels,” she says. 750 Camino Ramon, Danville, (925) 314-0974, esinrestaurant.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Dana’s: Chef Preston Morris II is fully committed—both to flavors with depth and never settling.
Preston Morris II is a rough-and-tumble executive chef.
“I’m getting my butt kicked,” he says of his new position at Dana’s, which opened in Danville last spring. If Morris wasn’t working so hard to make such good food, he could relax, but that’s not his thing. When he was 14, he received a work permit and spent his nights in a bakery, learning “the nature of the beast.” A day hasn’t gone by since then that Morris hasn’t been consumed by food.
The cuisine at Dana’s is a blend of classic French and modern Californian, a credit to Morris’ working in every kitchen at the magnificent Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, and as executive sous chef at Danville’s Esin Restaurant and Bar for three years. Connecting those two positions were roles at Napa Valley Grille in Los Angeles, Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in Berkeley, and Blackhawk Grille in Danville.
“As long as there’s a learning curve, I’m good,” he says. As for his cooking style, “I call it California cuisine because it leaves me open to do whatever I want to do,” Morris says. “Wide open.”
You’ll be won over by his dipping sauce for bread, combining olive oil with parsley, garlic, and parmesan. And if you really want to order a mindblower, try Morris’ hefty rib eye, rubbed with 10 spices, slathered in an herb marinade, and left alone to pray for 12 hours. Then, it’s grilled and served up with crisp pommes frites and a peppercorn sauce made from long-simmered, caramelized veal stock. We nearly died.
Morris recommends his rosemary- and lemon-brined pork tenderloin, with polenta cake and pancetta-cherry vinaigrette. (He eats it three nights a week.)
“If you absolutely don’t insanely love to cook, you have no business in this business,” he says. 416 Sycamore Valley Road W., Danville, (925) 838-7611, danasdining.com. Lunch Mon.–Sat., dinner daily, brunch Sun.
This cool-weather dish by Francis Hogan, executive chef at Sabio on Main in Pleasanton, is best when started the day before. He recommends serving it with mashed potatoes or your favorite dried beans, cooked tender.
6 lamb shanks or 3 pounds lamb shoulder cut into 2-inch chunks
Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper
Olive oil as needed
1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 leek, washed and diced
1 fennel bulb, diced
1 bottle port wine
About 6-8 cups chicken stock, hot
¼ cup honey
1 pinch saffron
3 small rosemary sprigs
1) Season the meat with salt and pepper. In a large, thick bottomed braising pan, brown the meat in the olive oil on all sides. Remove the meat from the pan as well as most of the fat and add the vegetables. Cook until lightly browned
2) Deglaze the pan with port wine and reduce liquid by half. Turn off heat and add honey, saffron, and rosemary sprigs.
3) Return the lamb back to the braising pan with the vegetables (or transfer all to an appropriately sized baking dish). Add enough hot chicken stock to almost cover the meat.
4) Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Braise meat in the oven at 325 degrees until tender, at least 3 hours. Discard the rosemary and allow the stew to cool at room temperature, or if serving the next day, refrigerate overnight.
5) Remove any hardened fat (if cooled overnight) and warm through on the stovetop. Transfer the meat to a side plate and reduce the liquid by half with the vegetables.
6) Carefully puree the vegetables with the liquid in a blender or food processor (just use as much liquid as you need to get a smooth puree), then strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding any pulp that won’t easily strain. Combine the lamb with the sauce and reserved liquid, gently simmer until the meat is heated through, and serve.