Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dish on Dining: Adesso

Everyone Loves Free Food and (Not Free) Salumi
4395 Piedmont Ave. (at Pleasant Valley), Oakland
Piedmont Avenue neighborhood
PH: 510.601.0305
Open nightly from 5 p.m.
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

I’m starting to feel like I don’t have to travel more than a mile for good food these days. With all the new restaurants opening in my neighborhood, I don’t have to spend BART money to go into San Francisco that often (and if there’s a BART strike, I can still walk to some great restaurants).

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the wonderful Commis that opened on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. Today I’m featuring a restaurant that’s totally opposite from Commis—both in geography and price point. Both restaurants, however, are contributing to the area’s reputation as a food destination for very different reasons.

On the north end of Piedmont Avenue, Adesso is a wine bar as authentic as any you’d fine in Italy. Opened for a few months, it’s created all the elements of an Italian wine bar: house-made salumi and pate, Italian wine and drinks, lots of munchies with cheese and, of course, a neighborhood feel.

From the people behind Dopo just down the street, Adesso was designed as a place for people to drop by for some salumi and wine before heading to Dopo for a meal. That’s why when you look over the menu at Adesso, you won’t get anything larger than maybe a panini.

One of the big attractions of Adesso is its happy hour. From when the doors open at 5 p.m. till 7 p.m., Adesso puts out a spread of free food for anyone coming in for drinks. And I’m not talking about fancy pretzels and nuts. Envision marinated olives, marinated baby carrots, cece beans with rapini, tonnato with farm egg, lettuce gem salads, roasted beets, chunks of aged parmesan reggiano, croquettes and mini slices of ham and cheese sandwiches. These were some of the things I saw when I visited.

Because the word has gotten out about the great free food, Adesso is consistently packed, as you can imagine, during happy hour. (There’s a later happy hour from 11 p.m. to closing.) That’s why in my last two visits, I went around 5:30 p.m.

During my first visit, I found that many of the happy hour items, which are laid out against a mirrored wall in the back, were also featured in the antipasti section of the regular menu. Typically they cost $8-$10 a plate, but come during happy hour and you’ll get to taste a bite of each. (The only regular antipasti that’s never laid out for free is the oysters on half shells.)

I noticed on my second visit, which was on a Thursday night closer to the weekend, the flow of free food didn’t come out as quickly as my first visit. While there were some great items like the marinated roasted beets and green beans in olive oil, the selection seemed sparse.

One of the popular items, though, came out later and it was these really cute fried rice balls called arancini (I initially thought they were mini croquettes). Everyone zoomed to the back wall when the tray of these golden brown balls was paraded through the room. Since I don’t eat deep fried foods, I didn’t grab a big plate and instead just picked up two just to try. Like all the antipasti at Adesso, they were cooked perfectly.

The large bar is split into two halves. Near the front are about four seats that face the salumi refrigerated section, where you watch the sous chefs slicing the house-made cured meat. The rest of the bar is where you can sit at the counter and talk to the bartenders about the list of Italian wine offered. The bar also serves a variety of beer and can also mix some tasty cocktails.

I found that the bartenders aren’t as friendly as the servers at the tables. The guys behind the bar seem a bit shy about striking up conversations, or they talked mostly with people they knew and sometimes just ignored others. The girls serving the tables were all friendly and helpful, and would strike up a conversation more often.

The wine, as mentioned, are all Italian and appear similar to the wine list at Dopo. I’m going to say that I’m not a big fan of Italian wine found in California restaurants, mostly because the more affordable wine from Italy aren’t often the most ready to drink. They often are more tannic and require more airing to make them smooth to the taste. I found this to be true of the wine I tried at Adesso.

In my two visits, I tried four different varieties of red (two from the northern regions of Italy and two from the south) and none were incredible, IMHO. I found that the ones I did like tended to cost $14 a glass, compared to $9. So getting two glasses of the more drinkable wine can really add up, and I guess makes up for the free food.

Of course, Adesso is also more about the salumi, which is front and center as you walk in. During my second visit, I sat by the salumi counter and watched as they sliced various salumi for guests. The menu lists more than 30 different types of salumi and pate.

I decided to try a plate of what was called Mache ($9), which was described as being made with honey blossoms and saffron. How beautiful is that? The thinly sliced mache had a golden color because of the saffron, I’m sure. And the taste was very subtle. Not spicy, but tangy. I enjoyed it.

If you don’t plan on eating a lot of salumi or pate (cholesterol check), and you get tired of the free food (can that ever happen?), then you can also choose from a list of panini and what’s known as piadina.

Keep in mind, many of the sandwiches or rolls are stuffed with more salumi and cheese. So maybe it’s not the best alternative if you’re concerned about your cholesterol. Thus, the red wine. ;-)

On one visit, I tried the Roasted Niman Ranch Beef and Watercress Panini ($12). The panini didn’t look that large when it arrived on the plate, but it was expertly grilled and crispy on the edges but light inside. The Niman Ranch beef was shredded to make it delightfully light when eating, and the flavors blended so nicely with the cheese and bits of watercress.

The piadina was described to me by my server as a flatbread with cheese made into a roll. By far, the most popular is the prosciutto and mozzarella di bufala, but are you with me that sometimes mozzarella is a bit too much when eating cheesy foods? So instead I tried the Calabrian Salame with Stracchino cheese ($11).

The piadina looked more like crepes rolled up into a wrap. But when I took my first bite, I was immediately transported to Italy. Not necessarily because it tasted fantastic. Don’t get me wrong, it tasted good. It’s just that the texture and taste of the piadina is sooooo like the kind of food you would find in Italy. It’s that Italian pastry taste that some people like and others might think seems foreign. I’m in the middle of the two camps. It tasted distinctly different but I can’t decide if it’s a flavor I would enjoy day in and day out.

Since Adesso is primarily a wine bar, you can’t expect the menu to be a full dinner with entrees or, for that matter, an extensive dessert listing. But they do offer three desserts: an affogato, housemade gelato or a flourless chocolate cake. None sounded especially exciting, so I ended up trying the affogato ($8.50).

I’ve had mix experiences with affogato, mostly because a lot depends on the espresso served with the ice cream. At Adesso, the ice cream is homemade vanilla gelato. I poured the coffee over the ice cream and then fell in love with the flavor. The vanilla is a bit sweet and sticky, but I think that was the perfect counter to the coffee. After awhile, it does feel like you’re eating coffee ice cream, but that’s still good to me.

Adesso, which is at the bottom corner of a new condominium building, has a fun feel with a flat-screen TV and a Foosball table that rarely is in use during happy hour. But you have to come knowing what it is: a wine bar. So the small bites on the menu, even when they’re free, won’t really fill you, I think, to the point where you’ll feel satisfied. But the food and salumi are so tasty that they become a wonderful vehicle to enjoy some drinks, a bit of conversation and some neighborly love.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Sophisticated bites pre- and post-dinner)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Adesso on Urbanspoon

Related reviews:
Commis: “Innovative Tasting Arrives in Oakland Neighborhood”
Flour + Water: “The Personal Touch in Your Pasta”
Dopo: “Cozy Neighborhood Restaurant is Cozy No More”


foodhoe said...

I'm starving right now, waiting for my bread to toast and am thinking the spread looks pretty fabulous! I must get Mr. K stop here first before we go to Commis 2nite!

Anonymous said...

Love this place...I went with a couple of friends for a drink and was taken totally by surprise by the free nibbly bits...we actually went at 8 on a Tuesday night and found that there were still treats to be had.

Side note: I saw the Top Chef contestant from last season at the bar....the girl from SF...can't remember her name....she was affectionately known by Fabio as the "top scallop" chef.

Ann--of Ann, David and Ella..;)

Carolyn Jung said...

My gawd, I can't believe they give you all that for free during Happy Hour. What a bargain! It's nice that the majority of the offerings aren't fried, too, which they seem to be at so many other Happy Hours.

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, did you end up going tonight?

Hey Ann, you must have saw Jamie Lauren of Absinthe. I'm not surprised because Adesso seems like a food industry hangout because one night the guy sitting next to me was a line cook from a restaurant in San Francisco. His chef told him to check out the restaurant.

Carolyn, yes, I liked how there were lots of non-fried options because you know how I feel about deep fried stuff! :)