September 11, 2008
Review: Oakland’s Camino Restaurant Heats Up Neighborhood
By Chrissa Ventrelle
As we approach the final lap on the 2008 track, Camino seems a sure bet as this year's most buzzed about restaurant in the East Bay.
Owned by former Chez Panisse chef Russell Moore and his wife, Allison Hopelain, Camino was in the spotlight long before they even turned on the building's electricity. Moore's pedigree draws national attention to this new venture, but what makes it so intriguing is the focus on cooking with fire. The concept is deceptively simple: fresh food cooked in a fireplace or in a wood- burning oven.
In the airy dining room, stunningly long communal redwood tables rest on glossy stained concrete floors with church pews for seating. Oakland-made tiered circular chandeliers pull the eye toward the tin ceiling. Exposed brick walls are bare, drawing all energy to the open kitchen. It's an attractively rustic, no-frills vibe.
Ingredients shine under fire
The ingredient-driven menu changes daily (diners can phone in after 2 p.m. to hear the night's offerings). On my first visit, the butter lettuce salad ($9) with creme fraiche dressing was a prime example of primo produce. The accompanying avocado toast was a lesson in simplicity, with nothing more than olive oil, salt and pepper to support creamy slices of perfect avocado.
The fresh garbanzo bean, roasted pepper and California albacore salad ($10) was another gift with a sensational blend of textures and flavors. Most straightforward was the tomato, cucumber and chervil salad ($9.50) with slices of the red and white fruits showered by chervil. The only starter that didn't scream summer was the ling cod brandade ($10). Amidst so many vibrant flavors, its pallid color and saltiness felt like a gray wool coat misplaced in the swimwear department.
The real fun came when Moore played with humble shell beans, which were practically snapped to order. One night's memorable entree was beans and farro with grilled artichokes, stuffed tomato and a sharp arugula salad ($18). Two days later, they appeared with roasted polenta and fried eggplant ($18).
The grilled chicken with potato and tomato gratin and little turnips ($24) was finely prepared and plenty moist, but simply less interesting. A side dish of black-eyed peas and bitter rapini ($6), however, was so satisfying that we felt compelled to share a bite with the adjacent table.
Dessert brought a pluot tart with creme fraiche ($9) and a fig and almond torte ($9), both very fresh and clean.
On my visits, dishes arrived at a leisurely pace, with a noticeably long stretch between starters and entrees. Servers, dressed in street clothes and aprons, were warm and knowledgeable. One server was great; the other good enough.
Sit front and center
Table location is important at Camino. On a Wednesday night, we sat at a two-top that offered an engaging view of the kitchen. We watched as Moore took center stage with the sturdy confidence of an expert craftsman.
Ditching traditional chef's whites for a dark striped button- down and apron, he looked more like a 19th century blacksmith than a slow-food maven. His relaxed spirit was akin to a dad making Sunday brunch for his family. He chatted with staff while adjusting twigs in the fire, stirring cazuelas, and plating dishes.
In contrast, on a Friday night, we sat at a communal table far from the kitchen and near the front door. The long naked table is a beautiful piece of art, but the practicalities of shared space detracted from our meal. Gaps between parties are intended to provide privacy, but on that night, we could have nearly kissed elbows with our neighbors. Plus, I missed the kitchen activity.
Camino sparks healthy debate
Reviews on various Web sites such as Yelp are as passionate and polarized as I have seen, though they are becoming more consistently positive as the restaurant hits its stride. The strong reactions demonstrate that it's best suited for those willing to go with the flow. The compact menu, with roughly five starters and three entrees, may be too limiting for some. This also isn't the spot to down Diet Coke, vodka-based drinks, or a big selection of California wines, which is surprising considering the restaurant's otherwise local focus.
Camino could be classified as a destination restaurant because of its intriguing concept, the owners' experience, and its location just beyond the thick of things on Grand Avenue. On a weeknight visit, however, it had the sincerity and familiarity of a neighborhood spot. One boy even tackled his homework between courses, as his parents waved to diners at another table.
Camino offers another invitation to rethink our relationship with food. The results are delicious. CAMINO
***-- FOOD: ***-- AMBIENCE: ** -- SERVICE: **1/2 -- WHERE: 3917 Grand Ave., Oakland.-- CONTACT: 510-547-5035.-- HOURS: Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, 5:39-10 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays: 5-11 p.m.; Sundays 5-10 p.m.-- CUISINE: California rustic.-- PRICES: $$$.-- VEGETARIAN: Salads and at least one entree.-- BEVERAGES: Full bar. San Francisco Magazine named Camino's Thad Vogler best bar manager for his unnamed drinks. Only a few cocktails are available each night. A good example was one that had agricole rum, ginger, kaffir lime and mint ($10). The non-alcoholic "Freedom" ($6) is made from green tea, ginger and lemon. The wine menu offers 16 selections, only one of which is from California.-- RESERVATIONS: Highly recommended.-- NOISE LEVEL: Loud.-- PARKING: Easy street parking.-- KIDS: Welcome, but there was no official kids' menu. -- PLUSES: Thoughtful, delicious food served in a warm, rustic atmosphere-- MINUSES: A limited menu; communal tables aren't for everyone.-- DATE OPENED: May, 2008.
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$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40
Originally published by Chrissa Ventrelle, Contra Costa Times correspondent.
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