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Back in his stand-up days, Dick Cavett told a joke about a trendy new Chinese-German restaurant where "the only problem is that an hour later, you're hungry for power." Ninna, a snug little eatery in Oakland's Piedmont District, sounds like the setup to a joke about the trendiest restaurant in the Bay Area: Its advertised cuisine is -- get this -- Thai-Mediterranean fusion. The punch line, though, is that as it turns out the lemongrassy valleys of Thailand and the olive-laden hillsides of the Mediterranean Basin, far-flung and trendy though they are, are on occasion more easily conversant than might be imagined.
The long socio-culinary trek to Ninna's doorstep began a few decades back with the local arrival of Thai food, a cuisine then more or less unknown to an American populace far more familiar with the delicacies of Canton and its suburbs. Thai food was an ideal Asian alternative: fresh to the tongue and crisp in texture, veggie-centric enough to appeal to a new generation of health addicts, yet spicy enough to challenge the edgiest of culinary thrill-seekers, and with an exotic cachet (lime leaves? cool!) ideally suited to pinot gris-powered foodie chatter.
Next came Mediterranean food, the Western version of Thai. It featured Italian influences, but none familiar enough to approach the passé: no spaghetti and meatballs, for instance, but plenty of polenta and Parma prosciutto. There were also French elements afoot in the garlic and fennel of Marseilles, plus a few earthy hints of Spain (at the time a largely untapped culinary resource) as well as Greek (hip), North Africa (hipper), and Lebanon (hippest). The result: a matchlessly multicultural Disneyland-on-a-platter fragrant with blood oranges, couscous, kalamata olives, and other denizens of the Andronico's gourmet-goods aisle.
Piedmont, CA 94611
(510) 601-6441. Open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: possible. AC Transit: 12, 59. Noise level: pleasant.
Steamed mussels $8
Tomato-seafood soup $12
Chicken breast $13
Seared sea scallops $16
Bananas Foster $6
Alexander Valley cab $7
Singha beer $3.50
Roughly simultaneous to its arrival was a wholesale explosion of fusion cookery, a culinary concept especially popular here in California, one of the meltingest (in the Webster's sense) regions of the American melting pot.
I'm perfectly happy with any fresh new edible configurations the restaurateurs want to throw at me; recently it's gotten to the point where every other time someone asks me what I'm having for dinner I say, "Oh, you know, the same old California-cuisine crapola." Ninna's Thai-Mediterranean cookery would seem to be just the palate-distracting ticket: pesto here, lamb shank there, coconut, coconut everywhere. And, as previously indicated, these disparate ingredients can be surprisingly and deliciously complementary. But at other times, to paraphrase Mr. Kipling, the culinary twain just don't want to meet.
The restaurant is a narrow, high-ceilinged, casually elegant establishment with nine napery-swathed tables sporting small pots of ivy and tract lights illuminating geometric wall hangings in rose and lime, with random wine bottles and dried-flower wreaths offering distinct decorative accents. The inevitable aperitif posters share wall space with shimmering abstract art, a visual metaphor for the menu's contrasting elements. The mood is warm and cozy, the welcome genuinely felt. We supplemented it with several bottles of Singha, the light-bodied Thai beer, and a sweet, creamy Thai iced tea.
Our first appetizer, steamed mussels, is a sublime example of the good that comes from cross-cultural communication. The plump, tender star of paella, bouillabaisse, and other Euro classics is here presented clay-pot style in and over a broth scented with basil and lemongrass and -- the crowning touch -- chardonnay. Another transglobal success is the ravioli, two feathery, fork-tender packets of spinach and molten cheese served with a subtle curry that cushions and balances out the pungency of the greens. The tomato-seafood soup, a sort of silky cioppino, is as briny and as vivifying as a stroll along the Riviera, with sweet-hot accents of chile and coconut lending exotic yet appropriate oomph notes and a split, grilled prawn as big as a lobster offering up its sweet and succulent meat atop.
On the downside are the two salads: a pseudo-Caesar with a mayonnaise-y dressing and no anchovies or any particular character, and a good-on-paper endive-arugula-bay shrimp salad burdened with even more mayonnaise.
The whole fusion ethos starts breaking down at entree time. The angel hair pasta, dense and ponderous as it is, overwhelms the meek nature of its sage-spinach-bean sprout sauce. The overcooked, oversalted lamb shank tastes as though it was left in a crockpot for several hours, and not even its accompanying kaffir lime leaf can revive it. The pork loin is a perfectly moist and respectable hunk of meat, but it's thick and tasteless and barely redeemed by its minimal demi-glace of apple cider and pancetta. The chicken breast fares somewhat better; it's overcooked and borderline tough, but there are potatoes available on the platter to sop up the very nice yellow curry sauce cushioning the fowl. And when we returned to the ocean depths in the form of the seared sea scallops, all was right with the world: Sweet, smoky, and succulent, these beautiful bivalves get unexpected and delicious backup in the form of basil-scented roasted eggplant.
Dessert's a mixed bag: a creamy, passable tiramisu; a bananas Foster deemed "excellent" by our panel's fried-banana-and-ice-cream connoisseur; a soft, inoffensive caramel custard; and two overly sweet sorbets (mango and raspberry) both decidedly light on the fruit essence. Best of all is the glass of port, a sweet and simmering meal-closer.