Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dish on Dining: Sidebar

Having a Grand Time Near Grand Lake
542 Grand Ave., Oakland
Grand Lake neighborhood
PH: 510.452.9500
Open Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. (until 10:30 p.m. on Friday) and 4 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

After working out, I get lazy and don’t want to think about making dinner. So when Sidebar opened a few doors down from my gym, I was excited about a new option for a post workout dinner to refuel my aching muscles.

Just barely a month old, Sidebar is from the same people behind the former Zax in San Francisco and Zax Tavern in Berkeley. In Oakland, they’ve created a comfy gastro pub serving up a mix of California and Mediterranean cuisine, just across from Lake Merritt and a couple of blocks from the Grand Theatre.

But really, for me, it’s the close proximity to my gym that makes me happy. So one recent Friday night after a workout, I strolled over to Sidebar to re-energize.

The refurbished space has evolved into four distinct seating areas. When you walk in, you can’t miss the huge bar in the center of the room, where most people gather early in the evening. (Note: The restaurant is serving wine and beer for now while they wait for their full liquor license.)

To the left is a lounge area with a small communal table and comfy chairs against the wall. (The restaurant’s name comes from the idea of having side conversations with friends, which explains why all the seating seems to be pushed against the walls.) This area with its orange-bronze walls and neon-accented photos had the feel of a fancy pool room.

On the right side is the dining area with booths and small tables along the side. The lighter lime-gold wall with black-and-white photos changes the tone of the place to a more sophisticated but still casual environment.

I ended up sitting at a small five-seat counter in the lounge area that faces the open kitchen. I’ve decided that these kitchen counters are the ideal spot for solo diners because you get to watch and sometimes interact with the chefs making your dinner.

I started by ordering a glass of red wine from Spain, the 2007 Masia Bielsa Campo de Borja. (I know, I really shouldn’t be drinking after working out, but it was Friday night.) I have to say here that my waiter was fantastic. I was torn between two Spanish wine, and his detailed description of both helped me decide on the Campo de Borja, which turned out to be exactly the smooth wetness that I wanted in my red that evening. (My waiter was also great about checking in with me and letting me know when my food would be arriving.)

First up was the Grilled Calamari Salad ($9), which was a huge plate of baby spinach dressed in bacon vinaigrette. The photo doesn’t really show much of the calamari pieces, which are hidden by the spinach. Overall, the salad was just OK and the grilled calamari was nice and tender. But it was dominated by the spinach and I didn’t really get as much of the watercress, if any, that was listed on the menu.

As I watched the kitchen deliver up plates (supervised by co-owner and chef Barbara Mulas), I noticed that some of the really popular dishes were the Steamed P.E.I. Mussels ($7.50) and Smoked Paprika Fries ($5) served up in a cone. Another popular dish that night seemed to be what I ordered for my entrée—the Oven Roast Poussin ($18).

The poussin (a very young chicken) was seared in a pan and then roasted in the oven. It was served over what the menu described as German butterball potato hash, but what I saw the kitchen do was basically cook a tray of potatoes and then mash them up a bit with a big spoon. The poussin was drizzled with a little bit of whole-grain mustard jus.

The poussin was perfectly cooked, with a nice golden color and thin crispy skin. The flavor was simply the goodness of the tender chicken meat, with what seemed light a slight essence of Szechuan peppercorns. This was along the lines of Sidebar’s comfort food offerings, and the potato hash was a hearty compliment although I thought they could have cut back on some of the hash and offered a bit of greens. (I was glad I already had a salad.)

After dinner, I checked out the dessert menu by co-owner and pastry chef Mark Drazek (who’s married to Mulas). I was pleased to find that he had some original offerings, even though some of the descriptions bordered on some of the crazy things you’d expect to find at TGIFriday’s.

For example, something that caught my eye was the “Almond Joy” ($6.50), which is a chocolate pavé cake topped with candied almonds, caramel and whipped cream. While this sounds like something that might be served up at TGIFriday’s, it was way more sophisticated and better. The cake was light and airy, and the crunch of the nuts mixed with the cooling cream was sinful. I’m generally not a sweet dessert person, but I would order this “Almond Joy” every time I visit Sidebar.

The restaurant filled up as the evening progressed, and you could tell some of the servers were still trying to work out the “opening restaurant” kinks as they figure out where things went. But through it all, most everyone I interacted with was friendly and ready to please. The food is casual comfort fare in an environment that really plays up the neighborhood restaurant feel. And that’s exactly what the Grand Lake area deserves and needs.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Working out the comfort)

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

Sidebar on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a funny story years ago. My regular group of gal friends and I met for our usual aerobics class. Then, afterwards, what did we do? Walked up the street to a Mexican restaurant for margaritas and nachos! Hopefully, we worked off at least one chip beforehand. ;)

Anonymous said...

hmmm, too bad about that salad, the ingredients sound like they would be delicious... and I want that almond joy now.

James said...

Margaret was a huge fan of Zax Tavern, so she was really excited to hear that Sidebar opened. Excited from all the rave reviews we ate dinner at Sidebar this evening.