We’re not saying that you should forego Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, California restaurant that the venerable Alice Waters opened in 1971. It’s just that … you have options. Many former employees have now splintered off from the House of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse to open their own kitchens—an inordinate number of them in Oakland.
Armed with Waters 101 (start with impeccable ingredients), these alums have broken away from the traditional cooking style to add a more personal imprint. Still, even in their new environs, some chefs have been known to create “Chez Panisse moments” as one food critic labelled it.
Many foodies might be surprised that balsamic vinegar, a standard in many professional kitchens, is nowhere to be seen at Camino. That’s because balsamic is from Italy, and chef/owner Russell Moore’s pantry is limited to the bounty of his state. “I opened with my own rules,” explains Moore who spent 21 years at Chez Panisse, many of them sourcing produce. “I think it’s weird to go to Hawaii and get Alaskan halibut.” In that vein, Camino’s vinegar is made in house, honey is harvested from rooftop bees, a North African herb jam is made from Cali greens, and a “crazy amount” of herbs flavour the food delicately. Moore’s signature, however, is cooking over a fire fed with almond and cherry logs. At first he tried to use only the hearth in Camino, but “I decided it was a lot easier to boil water on a stove,” the spiky-haired chef jokes. His ethos both limits and evolves the menu on a regular basis. Each night there are three mains, like grilled ling cod and rockfish with scallions and pickled chillies. Inventive combos and flavourful dishes have earned Moore a full house as well as a great reputation among the chef community. Camino regularly hosts high-profile cookbook parties open to the public.
Mexican isn’t a cuisine that’s been typically known for its quality ingredients or impeccable sourcing. But Cosecha isn’t your typical taco joint. Although it’s casual with counter service ordering, you can be assured that the chicken in the pozole comes from an organic Northern California farm and that the ever-so-lightly battered wild shrimp in the Baja-style fish tacos are from the esteemed Monterey Fish Market. Tortillas are made with fresh masa and creamy guac arrives at the picnic table in ceramic dishes. Chef/owner Dominica Rice-Cisneros worked in the Chez Panisse kitchen for many years. From Waters, Rice-Cisneros learned what impact food has on its community and the political side of food. “There was a lot of education, because Alice was a former Montessori teacher.” Cosecha, which means ‘harvest,’ can be found within the 1917 Swan’s Market, a food hall in Old Oakland.
Rockridge’s Ramen Shop features not one but three Chez Panisse alums, who have taken their training and turned it Japanese. What’s fresh at the farmers market makes it into their ceramic soup bowls along with the chewy house-made ramen, a salt-cured egg, and other fresh goodies such as wild mushrooms, Meyer lemons and mustard greens. Three seasonal ramens are offered nightly. Vegetable and pork broths bubble in front of you if you choose a seat at the extraordinarily long sushi-style-counter – but there’s no raw fish on the menu here. The rock ‘n roll front room is the bar, and the drinks shaken up at Ramen Shop are delicious, which is lucky since queues are long and reservations are not accepted.
In the near decade since chef Charlie Hallowell departed Chez Panisse, he has started a mini food empire. It began with Pizzaiolo in 2005, which serves up delicious Italian fare. The pizzas emerge bubbling and lightly charred from a wood-fired oven and are topped with ingredients like wild mushrooms or nettles and pecorino. Antipasti, pasta and secondi will round-out an evening in this wood-and-brick dining room in Temescal.
Hallowell’s success led to his 2009, aptly named, Boot & Shoe Service – an Italian restaurant in a former shoe repair shop on Grand Avenue, located near to Lake Merritt where early-century buildings house indie shops. Superb cocktails and the share-plate ethos of dishes like meatballs and swordfish crudo fuel the buzzing, upbeat atmosphere.
After opening two restaurants, Hallowell uncovered another passion: restoring ugly storefronts. “I want them to be reborn.” Exposed beams and bricks, extreme woodcrafting, and interesting light fixtures and art are hallmarks of his trio of restaurants. At his latest, Penrose, across the street from Boot & Shoe, a cast-iron baseboard from the West Oakland train station is part of a dividing wall that separates the open-fire hearth from diners. A gigantic peacock-ish Plexiglas centrepiece fans from the ceiling, adding a modern art deco splash. Here, Hallowell has wandered the farthest from Waters Avenue, using non-trad spices like za’atar, berbere and harissa. Dishes lean more towards Middle Eastern cuisine and are separated on the menu by the categories of veg, meat, and fish. Try stand-outs like Tokyo turnips from the grill with sea salt and olive oil.
The outcome of painfully short opening hours at Temescal’s Bakesale Betty is the long queues. Open only four hours per day five days a week, this tiny spot is known for its buttermilk-fried chicken sandwich with jalapeno-laced coleslaw on a bun. “Known” might be missing the point. Revered is better. The blue-wig wearing Alison Barakat spent three years at Chez Panisse after moving to the Bay Area from Sydney; opening Bakesale Betty in 2005. Not to be missed are the oatmeal raisin, ginger molasses and chocolate chip cookies. The inspiration for her cult sandwich is Waters’ buttermilk fried chicken. Barakat sells about 800 per day, closing when they’re sold out.
Two Degrees of Separation
Duende may be chef Paul Canales stomping ground, but he married into Waters royalty. His wife, Mary Canales was a former pastry chef at Chez Panisse and started Ici Ice Cream in Berkeley in 2006. You can order it off the sweets menu at Duende.
On a typical Saturday Hannah Hoffman sells 800 doughnuts at Temescal’s Doughnut Dolly, each pillowy ball stuffed right before your eyes with seasonal jams (nectarine, sour cherry) and boozy creams (banana rum, St. Germain Elderflower). By far the most popular is the Naughty Crème, a mix of crème fraîche and vanilla. Hoffman’s mother, Lisa Goines, was the pastry chef at Chez Panisse for 16 years. Doughnut Dolly opened on Julia Child’s 100th birthday, August 15, 2012.
Header photo © Clara Rice
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Have you sampled any of the food from these Alice Waters and Chez Panisse alums? Which are your favourite restaurants in Oakland? Share your thoughts with us below.
Written Christine Ciarmello
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About the author: ChristineCChristine Ciarmello
A San Francisco-based freelancer and now fog aficionado, Christine Ciarmello was editor-in-chief of Islands, then deputy editor of one of the largest circ lifestyle magazines, Sunset, where she created the culture blog Westphoria. She left her hometown of New Orleans after a nearly lifetime stint, three hurricane evacuations, and too much seafood gumbo. She covers the hedonistic sports of traveling, eating, drinking, and design-hunting. Places that require a ferry to get there, plus modern-vintage hotels and the tropics are her weaknesses. cciarm.com