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Abandoning Control 

Three excellent East Bay meals result from the suggestions of others

Wednesday, Mar 2 2005
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My eating-out ritual is simple: Several times a week, I dine at a San Francisco restaurant that I've chosen because it's new, or has a new chef, or I've never eaten there before, or I have a craving for a specialty it serves. I make the reservation, invite my guests, and show up on time, which usually makes me the first person there (which I like, because I can choose my seat, preferably one with a view of the room). But in a recent week I had three delightful meals -- among the best in recent memory -- all in the East Bay, and part of the charm was due to the fact that I abandoned (almost) all control: The meals had resulted from invitations from others, who chose the restaurants and made the reservations. I said yes, showed up, and had delicious food and a great time.

Robert e-mailed to invite me and my sister to join him and Roger at Oliveto for its annual Whole Hog event, a special menu almost exclusively devoted to the pig, served for several nights. It may seem cruel to rave over a meal that you can't duplicate in its entirety for almost a year, but I dare to do so because (a) many of its dishes are available on Oliveto's regular menu or will show up there soon, (b) chef Paul Bertolli will shortly begin marketing his genius salumi in retail stores, and (c) I firmly believe that aficionados of pork should mark their calendars now for next year's feeding frenzy. This was my second annual visit, and I can't imagine ever missing one again.

Robert was also responsible for my first Whole Hog meal -- he told me about it, and even surprised my sister and me by showing up briefly at our table to have a glass of wine and tell us what he'd most enjoyed at his own dinner there the previous night. Wendy and I did our best, but were only able to share about seven or eight dishes from the tempting array of pâtés and fresh and dry-cured salumi, offal, soups, pastas, hot specialties, vegetable side dishes, and desserts (which that night were heavily citrus-based). This time we managed to try almost half a dozen dishes from the offal list alone (fried boned pork trotter and brains with blood orange salsa; a thin-sliced, slightly crunchy terrine of pickled pig's ears; a succulent stew of pork tongue with artichokes; braised pork tripe with bianca spagna beans; and a salad of watercress in a mustard vinaigrette with too-polite slivers of pork kidney), as well as an extraordinary platter of potted and formed pork -- a pork liver pâté as suave as any made with foie gras; the rougher pâté capriccioso; and ciccioli, made with pork fat and pork cracklings. For pasta, we had the softest gnocchi, barely holding together from the plate to the mouth, with savory little pork meatballs, and triangoli ravioli filled with long-cooked shredded pork shoulder. We then shared thin slices of firm, bacony pork belly cooked in saba (a further reduction of the same grape juice used to make balsamic vinegar) and a coil of charcoal-grilled pork sausage served with two sauces (green and red) and fried shoestring potatoes, as well as side dishes of rapini ("Something bitter to contrast with all the fat," we decided) and irresistible potato chunks fried in pork renderings.

For dessert, we ate impossibly perfume-y bergamot and tangerine sherbets, a blood orange gelee that Robert thought had been gelled with a pork byproduct, an exquisite Meyer lemon meringue tart whose fragile pastry was made with lard, and a steamed winter pudding with brandied hard sauce that we happily would have eaten by the tubful. This genius meal -- washed down with three wines, two Italians from Oliveto's list, a Villa Raiano Falanghina white and an Argiolas Perdera Monica di Sardegna red, and the third, a delicious dry Austrian muscat, brought by oenophile Roger (corkage $15) -- ran us about $80 a person, tax and tip included, and was one of the gastronomic high points of ... well, I was going to say "the year," but I might as well say "my life." I was jealous that Robert returned for a second dinner a couple of nights later, after which he raved about the cannelloni with pork and green garlic and especially the pork scaloppine with black truffles, black trumpet mushrooms, and a special polenta -- both dishes, I reminded him through only slightly gritted teeth, I had plumped for at our meal.

I wasn't particularly surprised to find the event a topic of conversation (as in, "What did you have there?") at two parties I attended in the food-obsessed East Bay on Sunday, a birthday brunch (lox and bagels and a wonderful pile of green and white asparagus with horseradish sauce) and a birthday potluck supper (corned beef, poached salmon, and an array of astonishing vegetables, including Brussels sprouts hash and butternut squash baked with Smithfield ham and coconut milk). But by that time I'd been soothed by two more superb East Bay meals. One was an impromptu late lunch at a tiny Iranian-run deli at which I'd eaten once before with my father, with whom I have a standing lunch date on Fridays. He and I are eating our way around the East Bay, with occasional forays into San Francisco, and we haven't repeated a place yet. But ever since we'd dined at Zand's, a small corner grocery and deli with a few tables set between immaculate shelves laden with exotic jams, teas, oils, and grains, I'd been eager to return.

Anna and I had gotten a late start and took longer than we'd expected shopping at Target (the Neiman Marcus of our expeditions, since we tend to favor Costco and Goodwill), so we had to drop our planned fancy lunch at Downtown -- which closes at 2 -- and regroup. Anna loves Middle Eastern mezze, so I drove up Solano to Zand's, where we enjoyed the impeccable sampler platter, $8.99 per person for generous servings of hummus, baba ghanouj, wonderful crunchy falafel, cucumber-and-yogurt salad, tabbouleh, chopped vegetable salad, dolmas, spanakopita, toasted pita, and several of the more unusual specialties: a thin fried "kotlet" made from ground beef; olivieh, a creamy potato salad with chicken; and kookoo sabzi, a vegetable soufflé seasoned with parsley and dill. For a couple of extra dollars, we shared a portion of tah-cheen, a baked saffron rice casserole with a layer of shredded chicken.

A day later I share a Saturday-night supper with my sister and her friend Alisa at Zatar, one of their favorite restaurants since Wendy discovered it online while searching for a place near the Shattuck movie theater. Zatar heads its menu "eclectic Mediterranean cuisine," and, under that, lists its precepts ("We Use Only Naturally-Raised Meats, Organic, Free-range Poultry, Organic Milk for our House-made Yogurt & Cheeses, & Organic Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs; Many Harvested Daily from Our Own Organic Garden ... All Vegetarian Food Scraps are Enjoyed by our Happy Laying Hens ... All Raw Organic Waste is Composted for our Garden"). It should come as no surprise that Zatar is a "Certified Green Business," as the menu states.

I find the eatery eccentric and utterly charming. Its narrow storefront is pleasantly steamy on this chilly Valentine's weekend night, and completely full when we arrive for our 7:30 reservation. We have to stand near the door for about 15 minutes, during which I'm mildly cranky, but my mood changes soon after we get a table and some delicious beverages: Zatar's unusual frothy mint lemonade, the best I've ever had or could imagine; its special sexy jalab, flavored with date syrup and rose water; and another that includes tamarind, rose water, and lemon. I've never had any of these dreamy drinks served in quite the same way elsewhere, and now I yearn for them.

I admire the many decorative pottery plates covering the muraled walls as we tuck into a beautiful salad of soft lettuces, blood orange segments, fennel, dates, and almonds in an orange blossom dressing; a tart lentil soup full of chopped leeks and sorrel; and mohamara, a bright orange spread of roasted red peppers puréed with walnuts and dotted with pomegranate seeds. We order a carafe of pomegranate sangria and continue on to chicken kuzi, a fat log of phyllo pastry stuffed with chicken, basmati rice, apricots, toasted almonds, caramelized shallots, and a hint of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon; five chunks of grilled leg of lamb, betraying little of their advertised marinade of cumin, clove, and coriander, but perched on a bed of toothy wheat berry grains called freeka, accompanied by nicely grilled, smoky-flavored vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, peppers) and surrounded by a yogurt sauce full of fresh minced green herbs; and a lovely seafood stew featuring halibut and carefully cooked, beautiful, big, sweet prawns -- tonight's special. We finish with house-made treats: cardamom ice cream with candied walnuts and snippets of dates and a crème fraîche gelato anointed with rose water syrup, both as exquisitely floral as an elusive but haunting perfume, and strong Turkish coffee for me. (Luckily Alisa has lots of cash on her, because I had forgotten that my sister told me the place is cash-only.) I love Zatar's very personal and consistent cooking: Every dish is delicate and fragrant, with gently handled ingredients. It's unique, as is Oliveto's Whole Hog and the tasty Persian specialties at Zand's. All three places are worth a trek across the bay.

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Meredith Brody

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