By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
By Max A. Cherney
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Anna Roth
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.
Albany, CA 94706
Terrine of pickled pig's ears $8.50
Salumi tasting $16 for two, $32 for four
Grilled sausage $24
Olivieh chicken salad $7.99/pound
Kookoo sabzi vegetable soufflé $2.99
Tah-cheen rice and chicken $4.99
Lentil soup $5.50/cup, $6.95/bowl
Chicken kuzi $17.75
Oliveto, 5655 College (at Shafter), Oakland, (510) 547-5356. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and for dinner Tuesday and Wednesday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., and Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: fairly easy. Noise level: moderate to high.
Zand's, 1401 Solano (at Carmel), Albany, (510) 528-8600. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: fairly easy. Noise level: low to moderate.
Zatar, 1981 Shattuck (at University), Berkeley, (510) 841-1981. Open for lunch Wednesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: fairly easy. Noise level: moderate.
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.
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