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But first there was dinner. Which was easy: fried chicken at the Casa Orinda, a favorite of many years. The Casa is also known for the western-themed kitsch of its front room, festooned with wagon wheels and Remington-esque oils and various weapons of individual destruction. Its other dining rooms are rather charmless, and the long menu, half American chophouse, half Italian, is uneven, but I do dearly love the "famous fried chicken," a crisp, dis-jointed half bird that comes with quite decent mashed potatoes and gravy, a more than decent baking-powder biscuit, butter, honey, and whatever fresh vegetable is on hand. Lisa also loved it. It's a perfect meal, made even better that night by the discovery that if the kitchen isn't too busy, the staff will sell you just the chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy to go for a little more than half what the regular meal costs. And you can throw in biscuits for 75 cents each, which we did, because we'd promised to bring fried chicken dinner home to the folks.
They dined well that weekend, too, and not just on the fried chicken or the remnants of Cambodian quail and lamb. They joined us for Sunday supper at Zuni Café, which had been my favorite San Francisco restaurant for years. I was shocked to discover that my father had somehow never been there, and that Lisa had also missed it on her frequent trips to the city. I love everything about the place, from its oddly shaped, seemingly rickety two-story building that widens out from a point like the prow of a ship to its arrestingly short menu -- there were only 17 items the night we visited, including shoestring potatoes, but I'll bet every one was sublime.
Oakland, CA 94606
Region: East Oakland
Fried chicken $15.95
Polenta with mascarpone $5.50
Sweet-and-sour beef tongue $10
Orecchiette with bacon $13
Roasted chicken for two $37
Battambang, 850 Broadway (at Eighth Street), Oakland, (510) 839-8815. Open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: low.
Casa Orinda, 20 Bryant (at Moraga), Orinda, (925) 254-2981. Open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 4 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: high.
Zuni Café, 1658 Market (at Franklin), 552-2522. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Sunday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible on ground floor only. Parking: difficult. Muni: 6, 7, 26, 66, 71, F. Noise level: moderate.
This is because the eight dishes the four of us shared (including those shoestring potatoes) were indeed sublime: a dozen oysters chosen from a separate oyster list that was longer than the main menu; sweet-and-sour beef tongue with polenta; orecchiette with bacon, beluga lentils, and wild nettles; a bowl of polenta with mascarpone; and then the justly famed roasted chicken for two on a bed of warm bread salad; grilled quail; and a bouillabaisse-inspired stew of Manila clams, mussels, and house-made chorizo sausage.
The oysters we chose were Hama Hama, Steamboat, Netarts Bay, and Olympia, and they were so crisp and creamy that I easily could have seen ordering a second round, and then a third, but reason prevailed. (Still, I would like to return and eat nothing but oysters till I had my fill, like the woman in the cafe in Dijon whom M.F.K. Fisher saw eat more than seven dozen, followed by seven dozen escargots: "She turned a purplish red. I have often wondered about her.") The tongue, called "Carlo's lingua in dolce forte," was voluptuously tender. (I realize "voluptuous" is a word that could be used for all the dishes we had, even those seemingly the simplest and sparest, such as the restaurant's signature bowl of corny, creamy polenta, with a bit of rich mascarpone melting on top, because of the intelligence that created them and the rigorousness with which they were prepared. Every dish celebrated hunger and its satisfaction.) The pasta was almost a rhyme of texture and flavors -- toothy homemade pasta; smoky, chewy bacon; smoky, slightly toothy lentils, with the chewy fat of the meat and the slick fat of the olive oil; and the exotic vegetal touch of the nettles -- an inspired combination.
The chicken was plump and moist, and its golden juices drenched the bread salad. The quail tasted like the game birds they are and not like some pale imitation (and came with potato-celery root gratin, braised red cabbage, and Marsala-steeped prunes, robust accompaniments). The seafood stew, cooked with fideus noodles in a punchy sauce of tomatoes, onion, garlic, and the essential saffron, was the only bouillabaisse-influenced dish I've had in a long time that was worthy of its inspiration.
"This is the best meal you've taken us to," my father said. It's no wonder that in the recently announced James Beard Foundation 2003 Awards, Zuni is up for Outstanding Restaurant (along with Chanterelle in NYC, Galatoire's in New Orleans, Valentino in Santa Monica, and Topolobampo in Chicago), and The Zuni Café Cookbook by chef and co-owner Judy Rodgers is also nominated. Zuni is a world-class restaurant.
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