Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dish on Dining: Camino

A Place Alice Waters Would Love
3917 Grand Ave., Oakland
Grand Lake neighborhood
PH: 510.547.5035
Dinner, Fri.–Sat., 5:30–10:30 p.m., Sun., 5–10 p.m., Mon., Wed., Thu., 5:30–10 p.m.; weekend brunch, 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

As everyone’s gathering for the holidays, there’s no better stage than the warm, expansive Camino restaurant on the edge of Oakland’s Grand Lake neighborhood.

Opened for more than a year, the natural wood-furnished restaurant with two long communal tables and fiery wood-ovens in the back looks like the perfect space for friends and family to feel at home when gathering for a simple California meal.

Unless you’re The Single Guy.

During a recent visit, I found it’s tough being a solo diner in this huge space, surrounded by large parties enjoying the seasonal, rustic fare of Chef Russell Moore, who is among the California chefs tracing their lineage to Chez Panisse and Alice Waters.

When I arrived last Friday early for dinner (that’s my trick to sneak in at a restaurant before it gets busy), Camino was maybe 20 percent full when I asked for a table for one. I, of course, was offered the bar area, which I declined because it was totally dark and had only small café tables (not the best place to read my book or to order more than a small plate and drink).

After waiting a few minutes for the hostess to adjust her reservations to accommodate me, I was taken to the center of one of the two large communal tables made of reclaimed redwood trees that flank both ends of the restaurant. That’s where I ended up sitting for more than five minutes alone, not being acknowledged or greeted by anyone. In the meantime, a large group of diners were seated to my left and they were promptly brought water bottles and had their drink orders taken.

Eventually, my waiter showed up and looked surprised, actually, to see me sitting there. Since I’d been studying the menu, I went ahead and ordered. At Camino, it’s not that difficult to make a decision because it’s menu is limited since the chef focuses on local and seasonal ingredients he can find. The menu had about six starters and three entrees to choose from. (Dungeness crab is all over the menu right now, but I found out the crab salad Camino offers is a half crab still in the shell; a bit of work for a salad. Camino is offering a special Dungeness crab feed this coming Monday.)

All of the restaurant’s food is cooked in the wood-fired oven or open-flame grills in the back, which actually provides a nice theater as you watch your meal come together.

I started with the Belgian Endive Salad with Egg ($10). The endive was grilled until it was tender, letting you enjoy the meatiness of its core. It was surrounded by puntarelle, which I’d never had before but they’re a kind of chicory. They were thin and pretty on the dish, which also had three meaty slices of new potatoes.

The overall plate had a simple but elegant taste that I enjoyed because of the nice balance of lemon, oil and salt used to dress everything. The salad also came with a perfectly cooked egg, and it really represented all that’s good about Camino—clean, fresh, natural, balanced, quality.

For my main course, I ordered the Grilled Swordfish with Artichokes ($25). Now, I had heard early when Camino opened that the dishes weren’t very big so I was worried that I should have ordered another starter. But my worries went away when my fish arrived. The plate was filled with lots of cooked artichokes with a nice size filet topped with steaming broccoli romanesco.

As I ate the swordfish—simply seasoned with salt, pepper and capers—I thought about how this is typically what I eat at home: grilled fish with vegetables, often broccoli. While Camino celebrates the simple preparations, it makes me think that maybe it’s not the best value meal around town. When I decide to spend $20-plus for an entrée, I expect to be dazzled and not get something I could easily make at home. Sure, everything was fresh and of high quality, but it didn’t seem as complex in flavors as my starter. Maybe because the ingredients were all known factors to me. Maybe because there weren’t any added sauce or relish to accentuate the dish.

Whatever the reason, I was getting bored of dinner. So when the dessert menu arrived with choices like ginger cake. chocolate pudding and home-made ice cream, I was ready to go home and make my own dessert.

Side note: Even though I was ignored at the start of my meal, I did want to say that my waiter was very courteous and efficient for the rest of my meal.

Now wait, there’s more!

Camino also serves weekend brunch and I actually visited it earlier with my friend, Joe. I just felt my dinner was more of a defining meal experience so I started with that. But brunch also taught me a lot about dining at Camino.

Again, when the space is filled with sunlight on a Sunday morning, there seems to be no more handsome space on the East Bay for dining. The cozy, warm glow of the evening turns into a cheery, homey feel during the days. (The only thing that bugs me about the décor is the rickety chairs that I had on both occasions. I don’t know if all their chairs are rickety, but they feel pretty unstable to sit in. All I can say is NEVER LEAN BACK.)

For brunch, Camino offers limited choices again, so Joe and I noticed that crowds around us pretty much ordered everything on the menu to share. The menu also didn’t seem to have plates that I would classify as brunch entrées. There were no omelettes, for example. Instead, there were lots of breakfast components like sausages and eggs and one or two salads and sandwiches.

Joe ended up getting the Polenta with Grilled Chanterelles ($9), perfect for the season and looking very comforting (but not very filling IMHO).

For my brunch, I pieced together a few items from the menu to create my own brunch experience. This included the Grilled Pork and Herb Sausages ($5, but now $6), Potatoes Roasted in Duck Fat ($5) and Wood oven-baked egg with herbs and cream ($3.50 for one).

The potatoes are actually the naked potatoes that prompted me to write my “Ketchup Manifesto.” While they were perfectly crispy from cooking in the duck fat (cholesterol, please forgive me), Camino didn’t have any ketchup in the house for me to lather the potatoes in. In fact, I almost felt a chill when I asked for the ketchup and was told, no, they don’t serve ketchup. It was like I was breaking some kind of sustainability rule.

Despite the lack of ketchup, I still ate my potatoes and enjoyed their crispy edges and tender, soft interior. The sausages were delicious, but nothing spectacular. The wood oven-baked egg (made just like how I saw Alice Waters do it on a “60 Minutes” interview in her own wood oven at home) was perfectly cooked with a soft yolk and somewhat crispy thin whites.

While I really enjoy the rustic and natural space of Camino (which Michael Bauer of the Chronicle likens to a gastronomic temple), I left both brunch and dinner wondering what all the hype was about? Camino has been a star even before it opened (garnering a mention in Food and Wine magazine as a place to go even though it hadn’t opened yet) and seems to attract people on a regular basis.

There’s no doubt that the food is fresh and seasonal, and I applaud Camino for staying true to its core beliefs of sustainable organic ingredients. But for the price, I expect more. Dining out at places like Camino should be a revelation of how simply made food can rise to a new level because of the expert techniques in the kitchen. While some dishes achieve that, others simply feel like they’ve run out of ideas.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (It's all about the ingredients)

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

Camino Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Other similar restaurants:
Starbelly: “Beretta Clones Itself in the Castro”
Nopa: “Clean Flavors in the Spotlight”
Calafia Café: “Eat Like Google Employees”


Carolyn Jung said...

That's disappointing to hear. I have not yet tried Camino, but have heard all the raves about it, and so, have been very curious about the place. Well, I'll still keep it on my list of new places to try, but maybe I should move it further down the list, huh?

Single Guy Ben said...

Carolyn, I think you should go to Commis before Camino ;-)

Keep in mind the menu changes daily, so you might luck out and get the day when they have some really interesting items on the menu.

Hungry Dog said...

Hm,I will skip this place. In the Bay Area, there are too many choices to get lots of chances to dazzle, and I trust The Single Guy :)

Merry Christmas, Ben!

Hungry Dog

A said...

Thanks for the review. I'm going to try Commis & skip Camino.

Unknown said...

Asian men do not get much attention when they go out to eat. I eat out a lot and being an asian man I have to tell myself that I am at the restaurant for the food. However, this could change quickly as soon as the server realise that I have ordered more food and wine than most guests at the restaurant. I also agree with you that when I go out and spend an average of $60 to $70 per person, I would very much like to eat something that requires the kitchen chef spending the time to cook/plate the food that we would not usually do at home. I do not go for minimal cooking. This reminds me of the diasppoinment I have had of Chez Panisse both times that I were there.