Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Enoteca Molinari in Oakland

A Touch of Modern Italian on College Avenue
5474 College Ave., Oakland
PH: 510.428.4078
Open 5:30-–10 p.m., Tues.–Sat. (till 11 p.m. Fri., Sat.)
Major credit cards accepted; no reservations

I don’t know why wine bars haven’t taken off in this country. In Italy, they’re bustling with lively conversations surrounded by some nice vino and small snacks, usually incredible cheeses and charcuterie. To me, the wine bar environment always seems like a sophisticated take on America’s happy hour.

The month-old Enoteca Molinari, hopefully, will contribute to the appreciation of wine bars here. Living up to the neighborhood aspect of a wine bar, Enoteca Molinari is nestled in the southern end of Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood, which by the way is where I live.

The tiny wine bar/restaurant is next door to A Côté, so it’s primed to pick up any overflow from that longtime, popular tapas restaurant. Molinari also has the same small plate concept, but a more limited menu because of its size.

The sophisticated space includes cozy wooden tables along one side, all with a clear view of the brightly lit bar, where you’ll typically find the young owner, Joe Madison. (I guess Enoteca Madison wouldn’t sound too Italian.) Madison does a great job with welcoming guests and then recommending wine from his list, consisting of wine from around the world, not just Italy.

The menu, which I mentioned earlier is pretty limited, offers up some cheese selection and salumi. None are house-made but imported. Then there are a few small plates, including pasta, created by Chef Stephen Jaramillo (formerly of Lalime).

I first visited on a Sunday night, and Madison introduced me to a nice red wine from an Italian wine region I’d never heard of called Veneto. I ordered a plate of speck from Alto Adige ($7), which were sliced paper thin and delicious. (Other cured meats include prosciutto from Iowa and Salame Nostrano from California’s Fra’Mani.)

The only salad on the menu is the Insalata di finocchio, arancia e olive, or fennel salad with orange and olives ($6). This simple salad highlighted the citrus of the season, with the sweetness of the oranges classically paired with the crunch of the anise-flavored fennel. The salad was pulled together with a drizzling of olive oil.

There are a couple of more substantial plates. They’re not necessarily large in size, but they offer up ingredients that can be considered an entrée. For example, the tagliatelle al ragu or house-made pasta with four-hour pork and beef ragu ($12) could make a nice plate for dinner.

The ragu has the rich flavors of the meat, holding up nicely with the pasta. While the flavors were nice, I did feel the sauce was slightly watery, given it less body than other rich ragu sauce I’ve had around town.

I returned on another weeknight (but not Monday or Tuesday, because it’s closed then/UPDATE: The place has changed their hours since I visited and our now closed on Sundays and Mondays) and started with another red wine recommended by Madison, and instead of cured meats tried the special baked ricotta ($7). The ricotta had a nice golden crust, and was served on a bed of pickled red cabbage and crostini. The warm ricotta was light and mild in flavor, and it was a nice starter without filling me up.

Then I tried the Pesce Spada al Salmoriglio or Swordfish with Salina capers, Castelvetrano olives, Sicilian oregano and olive oil, garlic and lemon juice ($11). The swordfish was cut into three pieces that were seared to a nice golden color and drizzled with the olive oil and pieces of capers and olives. The swordfish did seem slightly overcooked, but I liked how the fleshy fish blended with the salty capers and olives. Again, it was a simple dish that highlights the natural flavors of the fish.

I was looking for another small plate since the fish was pretty light, so my server recommended the polenta con ragu di funghi ($8), which were polenta cakes topped with a mushroom ragu. This seemed like classic Italian flavors, but the ragu does make the polenta soft and I’m actually more a fan of polenta that’s been given a crispy edge (I know that’s not really the authentic Italian way to serve it, but that’s how I like it).

There are just a few desserts, which change quite often and sounds like they’re mostly made by one of the servers who’s often referred to on the restaurant’s blog as “cousin Mimi.” I ordered her panna cotta ($7), which was made with buttermilk and served with a cinnamon, orange and cardamon sauce. I’ve been making some of my own panna cotta lately too, and thought I’d mastered a nice creamy texture, but Mimi’s version was especially creamy and enjoyable. And the biscotti served with it was delightfully airy and filling.

On both of my visits, Enoteca Molinari had a quiet calm, unlike the bustling lively atmosphere that I imagine Italian wine bars to be. But that may be because people are still discovering this new spot and it’s still slowly building a following. I hope more people find this little gem because the wine list will open your eyes to new wine and the food is simple but sophisticated. They all add up to a nice neighborhood spot to stop in for some vino, good food and conversation.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (bright new find)

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

Enoteca Molinari on Urbanspoon

Also try these wine bars:
Bar Bambino: "Wine and Flavors Still Flowing"
Barbacco: "An Italian Gathering Place with Urban Sophistication"
Adesso: "Everyone Loves Free Food"


Anonymous said...

the panna cotta isn't made with buttermilk :)

Single Guy Ben said...

Oh, I stand corrected. It was delicious either way!

Carolyn Jung said...

The ragu looks to die for. I love lusty pasta sauces like that, especially in winter.