Nothing replaces experiencing a place directly, but regional dinners are one way of traveling vicariously. Occasionally, it’s more than a meal, as with a January 23 dinner at Oakland’s Latin American haven, Bocanova, which hosts monthly Rick’s Supper Club highlighting South American cuisine. As we dined on wild shrimp and lobster ceviche in passion fruit sauce or smoky, steamed mussels paired with wines like a balanced Chilean 2011 Cousino Macul “Chard”, dinner sponsor LAN Airlines surprised every dinner attendee with free round trip tickets to fly to any South American destination… a freak out, “Oprah moment”. When we can’t travel, we have restaurateurs and chefs with deep knowledge of a cuisine and country to lead us through territories via food and wine. These two restaurants are committed to uncovering layers of one country, region by region.
OLIVETO, Oakland (5655 College Avenue, 510-547-5356)
Every year I’d anticipate legendary Whole Hog dinners at Oakland’s temple to regional Italian cuisine, Oliveto, recently celebrating its 25th anniversary. I dropped off after chef of 15 years, Paul Canales, departed, returning this year to the upstairs restaurant vs. downstairs cafe. A little over a year ago, young Chef Jonah Rhodehamel took over. With consummate hosts and proprietors Bob and Maggie Klein thankfully still running the restaurant, Oliveto maintains its purpose as culinary community stalwart akin to Chez Panisse (note their community journal, whole-animal history, food activism), with regional Italian focus and themed dinners.
Canales (who just opened buzzed-about restaurant/bar/music venue Duende in Oakland) left significant shoes to fill. Rhodehamel honors Oliveto history while unafraid to experiment. Case in point: pastas, which remain the highlight, might be a traditionally-influenced spaghettini neri ($16) of squid ink pasta, shrimp and chili pepper, but he’ll add chocolate to tomato-braised oxtail corzetti ($17), use red winter wheat in penne alla Bolognese ($15), or infuse Floriani Red Flint corn polenta ($15) under duck giblet ragu with intense lavender vanilla notes.
As in early days, the menu lists “Tonight’s produce comes from…”, while local touches include olive oil tasting flights (recently Chalk Hill, Regina, McEvoy). It’s easy to fall for an Italian torta ($13) of potato duck hash, Hedgehog mushrooms, poached egg and Marsala crema. Their fritto misto ($13) stands out from what is often merely a pile of fried food. Rhodehamel fries up the unusual: scungil (whelk), herring, blood orange, and shirako (cod milt, ahem, I mean, sperm). The only lackluster (in terms of flavor) starter was tiny pan-fried frog’s legs ($14) with parsley sformatino (like savory panna cotta) – and I’m a frog leg fan.
Though costly, entrees are lessons in execution. Charcoal-grilled meats are impeccable: buttery, crispy pork porterhouse ($30) sits amidst Cannellini beans and braised chard, while rare Piedmontese ribeye ($36) is crispy on the exterior, radiant pink inside, next to creamed spinach and Yukon Gold potatoes. Espresso chocolate stracciatella ice cream ($8) is a lush, caffeine finish, though after trying all recent desserts, I’d also take fluffy ricotta cheesecake ($8) with candied kumquats.
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Oliveto remains a restaurant great worth crossing the bridge for.
GITANE, Financial District (6 Claude Lane between Bush & Sutter Streets, 415-788-6686)
Since opening in 2008, Gitane is easily one of our sexiest restaurants. Ducking into an alley, down a couple steps into the lush reds, tapestries, and chandelier glow of a tiny, two level space is seduction from a lover who knows how. Executive Chef Bridget Batson has been here since the beginning. In November, the restaurant shifted directions with the addition her husband, Co-Executive Chef Patrick Kelly (of La Folie and Napa’s Angèle), and Chef de Cuisine David Martinez. The trio also oversees the menu at next door’s more casual, sister restaurant, Claudine.
Staying true to the meaning of gitane – gypsy woman – the new menu wanders gypsy-like through Southern Spain, changing cities (Andalusia, Sevilla, Valencia) every few weeks. In keeping with the celebratory setting, their appropriately deemed “passport” tasting menu is $65 for 5 courses (wine pairings from new Wine Director, Sarah Knoefler, an additional $45), available in the intimate upstairs dining room. The bar and alley/patio seating offers an a la carte menu ($12-36) or bar bites… I’m transported straight back to Spain with boquerones (white anchovies) or black-footed Iberico ham and a glass of herbaceous, strawberry-tinged 2011 Lechuza Garnacha Rosado ($9/26/36; glass, carafe, bottle).
Though combining Spanish and Moroccan influence since day one (I’ll miss what was the best lamb tartare in the city), after Bridget and Patrick’s recent travels to Spain, we can now dig deeper into regional Spanish cuisine. The first regional focus was Valencia. The tasting menu began with a salad of baby beets, fuyu persimmon, Marcona almonds, citrus and nasturtium paired with honeysuckle notes of a Musva Moscatel from Valencia. Moving on, Dungeness crab and cuttlefish were touched with sea urchin vinaigrette and pineapple, served alongside an angular 2009 Conereria d’Scala Dei Garnacha Blanc, that popped with the pineapple. A delight of fatty Iberico pork cheeks, Matsutake mushroom and raw Nantucket bay scallops sat in a brilliant golden raisin/saffron/mushroom coulis. Fourth course was pan-roasted duck breast in Tempranillo chili puree accented by Oloroso sherry-compressed pears (yes!) The finish was winning pumpkin creme caramel paired with musky, butterscotch notes of a sweet 2009 Guitierrez de la Vega Moscatel.
An a la carte meal yielded an over-salted but beautifully seared scallop with crispy sweetbreads ($16) in parsnip cream and lobster oil. I preferred crisped, roasted artichokes piled with sunchokes and Manchego cheese ($13), or an entree of rabbit (conejo) two ways ($32): roasted saddle and a dreamy riletta, accompanied by braised snails and caramelized squash, over nettle coulis. Ramon Garcia remains Bar Manager, still serving refreshing cocktails ($12) like an elegantly smoky Chimenea (mezcal, rye, allspice dram, maple syrup, orange bitters), or lively Los Muertos (tequila, sweet vermouth, grapefruit marmalade, lime).
With the volume I eat, I value proportionate servings. Gitane portions are delicate, and as with upscale dining in general, it’s easy to feel as if one is paying more to eat less, even if elevated technique and creativity is the result. Gitane works the lower end of fine dining: pricey but not outrageous. Upscale yet comfortable. Setting alone makes it a real date night, while the low-key bar and patio are still romantic. Regional Spanish wines and cuisine renew my desire to return to Spain where I spent a few weeks a decade ago. In the meantime, we can play gypsy at home.