Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dish on Dining: César in Oakland

Spanish flavors wake up Piedmont Avenue

4039 Piedmont Ave., Oakland
(Piedmont Avenue neighborhood)
Daily, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. (opened later to 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays); bar open till midnight
PH: (510) 883-0222
(No reservations/major credit cards accepted)

Piedmont Avenue is one of Oakland’s older neighborhoods. And while it lacks the diversity of offerings of nearby Rockridge, it recently has emerged as a destination spot for restaurateurs. Several new restaurants have opened in the area, including a second location for the popular Berkeley bar César.

The raucous César on Shattuck Avenue gained a reputation for its fresh and innovative play on tapas, the small plates served throughout the bars in Spain. Freshness is a given because its founders are three alums from the venerable Chez Panisse. But under the tutelage of Chef Maggie Pond, César has created a name for itself for good food and fun times. Its rustic wood communal table and loud atmosphere would pack in a diverse crowd every night, often starting in the early evenings with couples with small children to the bar crawlers and hip UC- Berkeleyites experimenting with César’s mixed drinks.

That Spanish flair for fun has been transported to larger quarters on the often too-sedate Piedmont Avenue. The somewhat larger space has allowed Chef Pond to expand the menu to include charcuterie delights and several platos grandes (large plates). The festive dining area, featuring a large bar that’s front and center, also includes outdoor seating and a small “round room” for private group dinners (although only one group can fit in at a time in this cozy – translation: elbow-to-elbow – round room).

While the menu is a bit more extensive, it still follows the same theme of Spanish, Spanish, Spanish. I repeat that because that’s one of my frustrations when eating at César. The menu includes items listed entirely in Spanish with no translations for the non-Spanish speakers. So be friendly with your waiter/waitress because you’ll have to rely heavily on him/her to explain to you what’s a cecina or what kind of sauce is mojo pieon.

I visited on a Tuesday night when the restaurant was so crowded I couldn’t hear any music playing. Although there were several people waiting, it didn’t take that long for my friend and me to be seated. We started with a couple of glasses of sangria (tasty but no obvious fruits floating in our drinks) and ordered fried cauliflower with mojo pieon and mojo verde, croquetas de queso and jamon (cheese croquettes with Spanish ham) and pollo asado ala costa brava with grilled scallions (one of the large plate entrees, which was a chicken dish from the Northern coastal region of Spain).

The fried cauliflowers were little pillows of delight, tender and fresh. The croquettes lacked a punch of flavor and the cheese wasn’t oozing out like I typically expect them to be. The chicken was perfectly moist but didn’t wow me with any innovative ingredients or technique. It was basically a roasted chicken breast with a grilled scallion on top.

We ended the evening with the orange pound cake and orange-saffron ice cream. This was a subtle dessert that wasn’t too sweet (which is perfect for me) and was a nice riff on the citrus season.

I left the evening wanting more. So I returned on a Sunday afternoon. (Another benefit to having César in Oakland is I can now just walk to this spot from my home.) The bar crowd was no where to be seen, so I felt I could breathe and relax, listening to the lively Latin sounds pumped into the room.

This time I got myself a glass of cava, the Spanish sparkling wine. I noticed that a few seasonal items were changed on the menu, but the bulk of it was the same. I ordered two tapas: the ostiones rostisades (roasted oysters with bacon and smoked paprika) and tres pinchos (a trio of finger food).

First up was the tres pinchos. It was smaller than I imagined, with pieces on toothpicks in a martini glass. It was fun, though, and so tasty. My favorite was the quinces and cecina (if you didn’t find out earlier, it’s a thinly sliced cured beef) and the fig cake and miti crema wrapped in jamon (the ubiquitous Spanish ham). The two played on the sweet and savory combinations that were little explosions of flavor in my mouth. The third pinchos was less than successful. It was chorizo with a slice of hard-boiled egg. While I love hard-boiled eggs, the chorizo was a bit dry and didn’t hold much flavor, so the overall combination was a bit eh.

Then I had my roasted oysters, which came out beautifully in a bed of sea salt. The oysters were huge and plump, but I didn’t quite get all the bits of bacon and smoked paprika on top. It didn’t seem to add much to the natural beauty of the oysters, which I could have enjoyed on their own.

César gets high marks for freshness and seasonal ingredients. The kitchen staff is also expert in food preparation, cooking each dish to highlight the natural flavors of the ingredients. But not every dish is as innovative as the tres pinchos, nor as satisfying.

Tapas are traditionally bar foods that are given out for free or for a nominal price at Barcelona bars so that you’ll drink more. At César, you end up feeling like you’re paying for a main course but getting only an appetizer. Tapas range from $4.75 to $9.75 and the portions are inconsistent when they arrive at your tables. After traveling to Barcelona, I still believe no California restaurant has been able to duplicate the theory of tapas. Instead, the English translation has always been small dishes at entree prices.

Despite the heavy costs, César wins for atmosphere and freshness. For dishes that do satisfy, you’ll end up leaving happy. But if you were really at a bar in Barcelona, you’d be getting ready for your real dinner later that night.

Side note: César understands the power of its brand, and in this second location on Piedmont Avenue the restaurant has set aside a small area against the wall to sell Spanish ingredients and take out meals. This little mercado is only available during the day. At night, the restaurant is too crowded to be selling wares.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (perfect for foodies with an expense account)

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

Cesar in Oakland


Anonymous said...

Funny that you reviewed this since we literally just got back from dinner at Cesar. I agree with you that the menu is a bit frustrating to decipher, but I have to say all in all the food is pretty darn good -- and much cheaper than the popular A Cote in Oakland's Rockridge district. We loved the smoked trout appetizer on grilled mini baguette slices (topped with caviar). The butter lettuce salad was also good, as was the cheese plate. A large plate of swordfish was just OK -- the fish was a little overcooked. A great addition to Oakland. Still, if you're in San Francisco and you're craving Spanish food, you can't beat Bocadillos near North Beach. My two (or three) cents. -- David

Single Guy Ben said...

That's one thing Cesar has going for them, they can attract a crowd, including yourself! You should read my archived review of A Cote. I think I actually gave Cesar a higher rating than A Cote, but I have to say portion wise, A Cote's pricing and portions seem a better match. I still feel some of Cesar's portions and prices don't equate. But yeah, nice addition to the 'hood.