Being a Bay Area resident, one learns quickly that more than any other cultural obsession be it music, fashion, politics, San Francisco is a food town first and foremost. And while San Francisco certainly can claim the title of one of the leading culinary towns in the country, nearby Oakland across the bay has recently come on the scene with exciting restaurants popping up like porcini after a fall rain. Ever since my New York days when I'd take a subway two hours out of Manhattan for killer Moroccan food, or my college days in Washington DC when I got to know all four quadrants of the city in my culinary quests, I've always been eager to venture afar in the name of gastronomy. Recently, I met up with my friend super star (literally) chef Rick Corbo who is laying out plans for his restaurant Pizzeria Zanna Bianca in Jack London Square, opening next year, and decided that it was time to see for myself what all the fuss is about. Like movie reviews, if enough friends tell me to see a certain flick, then it's a go. In the case of Oaktown, which is its local nickname, there were far too many signs telling me to head east young woman.
One Friday recently I rounded up the food-obsessed team at Charles Communications and after taking polls with my foodie friends, we drew up a short list. Ably guided by Oakland resident expert and green guru Anna Hartman, we set off for a culinary treasure hunt. First on the list was Bocanova, a pan Latin restaurant right on Jack London Square that serves a menu inspired by the heritage of the kitchen crew featuring dishes from Mexico to Argentina, infused with California accents. Although the interior beckoned with its warm colors and rustically elegant decor, we opted to sit outside on a cloudless day, and enjoyed halibut ceviche, roasted sunchokes, plantains stuffed with queso fresco, and Huarache with pumpkin, bacon and sage. Huaraches have become one of my favorite Mexican dishes since I moved to San Francisco, it's a fried masa base with a variety of toppings and is so called as it resembles the shape of a sandal aka huarache in Mexico. The fairly priced wine list with mainly Spanish and South American offerings gave us tempting choices to pair.
Flora was our next stop, formerly the Oakland Floral Depot building, an Art Deco landmark located on Broadway across the street from the newly renovated Fox Theater, another great Deco building in its own right, another of my favorite features about this town. There's an old world glamour about Oakland which has a more human scale with its architecture, and the spirit of creativity is alive and vibrant. It reminds me of the way New York was in the mid 80s when the restaurants were packed with creative people of diverse backgrounds all sharing great food in a convivial way. Flora in particular reminds me of New York's Odeon back in the day, both design and vibe wise. We tried the Yellow Tailed sashimi with hot chili oil, seabeans, sesame seeds, scallions and radishes, the arugula, dried Calimyrna figs, fennel, and toasted almond salad, a killer sandwich of seasonal grilled persimmon, Explorateur brie, swiss cheese on a French baguette and a glass of Bandol rose, pretty heavenly.
The next stop given the gorgeous weather, and our need for a break from sampling so much good eats, was a stop at the newly renovated Lake Chalet, right on Lake Merritt which is a unique given that it is the largest lake within an urban area in the U.S., 3.4 miles around, covering 155 acres in downtown Oakland. It's ringed with lights giving it a holiday and European atmosphere year round. The same folks who renovated the Park and Beach Chalets in San Francisco are behind this project housed in the old municipal boathouse and there are a number of choices from casual to fine dining within the complex. Much like the other Chalets in the group, they brew their own beers on premise and have a solid but unadventurous menu. I wasn't overly impressed with our service which was less than attentive, as the outside bar area was geared to those who wanted to see and be seen, but it's probably a fun place for big groups.
Our last stop was Zza's Trattoria also on Lake Merritt, right on Bellevue Avenue. Zza's is a nickname for Morezza's and to my surprise, it's been around for 20 years: ¦it looks like it's new and hip to me. We knew we'd love it right away when the waiter brought over a margherita pizza, put it on the table and said, it was a mistaken order at another table and it was on the house, nice! I was duly impressed by the wines by the glass list which was truly global, Hungarian, Slovenian, Italian, you name it, very well chosen and fascinating wines. I enjoyed a dry Furmint from Hungary and couldn't have been happier. We tried the Sputini Tre olives/almonds/pickled vegetables, the salumi plate and several pizzas that truly satisfied. Hard to believe we still had room after all day dining but as they say, we have only one stomach to give!
So many other places are on the short list for Oakland, Commis, Pican, Dona Tomas, Cafe Van Cleef, Mua and one place that intrigued which was truly an old Oakland landmark would be a stop by Heinold's First and Last Chance bar at Jack London Square built there in 1883 from the timbers of a whaling ship. Appetite whetted!