The October 2007 issue of San Francisco magazine was all about Oakland and how cool and hip it is. The whole thing catered right to my crazy Oakland boosterism, but no paragraph excited me so much as this lead in to a review of a restaurant that isn’t open yet.
Grand Avenue is a great place to go if you need a manicure – more than a dozen nail salons dot the eight block commercial strip – but not if you’re looking for a good meal, let alone a prototypical Bay Area dining experience. That’s set to change though, when Camino, the new restaurant from 20-year Chez Panisse veteran Russell Moore and his partner Allison Hopelain, open there early next year.
Putting aside for the moment the fact that there are in fact several places to get a good meal on Grand, the important part is that Camino is about one block from our house! Go to the corner, turn left, follow Boulevard down the hill, and it spits you out right in front of the former Country Home Furniture store, a large warehouse-y looking brick joint that would probably have been turned into a garage if this were New York. It’s been under renovation forever now, and apparently we’re talking serious eatery-style renovation. According to the article, “the focal point of the 80-seat dining room will be a huge stone fireplace being built in Sonoma by a Frenchman who claims his family has been in the stonemasonry business since the time of the Crusades.”
The Crusades! Wow, that’s either really cool or it’s our Oakland-Berkeley down-to-earth hipster narrative going off the rails here a bit. The Crusades were way too long ago, and besides, we don’t use that word anymore. But speaking of the Oakland-Berkeley down-to-earth hipster vibe, the photo of the couple, standing inside the unconstructed space with the Grand Ave scene (including the billboard at our corner which has a habit of carrying unfortunate advertising) backlighting them, tells me this place is going to rule. She’s wearing an Erica Tanov black silk lace-trimmed tank top (I know because I own the same piece) over a short-sleeved black t-shirt, jeans, and Dansko red strappy sandals– very comfortable! (yes, that’s right, I have the same ones in green). He’s wearing an orange, grey and black striped polo shirt, weird vertically striped jeans and what appear to be Fluevogs, and he looks like eerily like a younger, better-fed Christopher Walken who’s done fewer drugs. The menu is going to feature lamb’s leg à la sicelle (hanging by a string in front of the fire) and coils of housemade herb sausages. Except for the name, which sounds like they went to an online Bay Area restaurant name generator and clicked the Give Me Whatever’s Not Already Taken button, I’m in love.
But I am supposed to be writing about the place right next door, La Taza De Café, where Chris and I went for dinner night before last. It was really lovely, and the upshot is that people should go there and try to keep them in business. But unless Camino opens pretty soon I’m predicting yet another sad ending for La Taza, which occupies a space rather cramped with the ghosts of other dead restaurants. When we moved in, it was a generic lunch and dinner place called either Autumn Moon or August Moon or something along those lines. We went there once and didn’t love it. Then it became a Thai place that we never even visited because they used a cheesy wedding-invitation-ish script font that seemed totally unsuited to Asian food; then again it was so short-lived I think we are forgiven for skipping it. There might have even been something else I’m forgetting now, but La Taza has been there at least a year and we finally just made it. It’s Cuban, and there’s dancing on weekends, which is a good thing, because I think you need something extra to make a Cuban restaurant work. Chris and I have been to Cuba, and there’s the thing: food just isn’t one of the better things about the country. It’s an absolutely wonderful place and I recommend everyone go there (carefully, of course, through Canada) and experience the culture and the healthcare system that puts us to shame (I think Michael Moore got that one exactly right). And we certainly didn’t eat badly there, and some of the meals were quite nice. But the mojitos and dancing just kind of outshine the cuisine. Here too, the live Latin jazz band was much better than the sickeningly sweet maduros (plaintains) accompanied by a dipping sauce that tasted exactly like donut glaze (Chris’s observations), and the sauce on the ribs had a serious sweetness problem as well. But the salad with parmesan curls and mango bits was spot on, and the fish (a snapper amandine, I think) was also delicious. The owner came out (I think it was the owner) and gave us shots of dry sherry between courses and he was totally charming in a nerdy sort of way. It was a really nice evening and I think we could make it one of our neighborhood regular spots. But it has to survive.