Thursday, May 5, 2011
Oakland restaurant bounces back
By Michael Bauer
Oliveto in Oakland has a long, distinguished culinary history, thanks to Paul Bertolli, the onetime chef of Chez Panisse who fell in love with everything Italian. He made Oliveto into what many considered the best Italian restaurant in the United States before he left in 2005 to follow his passion for salumi and start Fra Mani.
In the past six years, other Italian restaurants have come on the scene and upped the stakes. At the same time, Oliveto suffered from its own success; when I visited about two years ago it felt as if the restaurant was resting on its reputation.
Late last year, Bertolli's protege Paul Canales left the kitchen and was replaced by Jonah Rhodehamel, with 2003 Rising Star Chef Malachi Harland as chef de cuisine.
They're cooking as if they have something to prove, bringing back the soulful food that first put this restaurant on the culinary map. Maybe it's the new menu, but it seems the restaurant has a new vibrancy; even the service staff appears more engaged.
I was electrified by the corned veal tongue ($12). Thin slices of meat, so tender they barely hold together, drape like silk over a thin crouton, with
a thin smear of horseradish creme fraiche and arugula glistening in a lemon dressing. The tongue explodes with flavor, augmented, but not overshadowed, by the accompaniments.
In another starter, pencil-thin spears of roasted asparagus ($12) sit next to a poached egg that tastes as if it were gathered that morning, again enhanced, not overpowered, by a lemon zabaglione.
Pastas are also back on course, including pappardelle ($14.50) purple from Gaeta olives incorporated into the dough. The strips of pasta puddle like fine silk in a bowl, topped with braised rabbit and capers - simple, but totally integrated. Malloreddus ($15), curls of ribbed pasta, create a pleasantly chewy backdrop for thin slices of artichokes, potatoes and onions, all flecked with almond mint pesto.
The grills and sautes on the daily-changing menu brought the only minor disappointments. Maybe it was because what came before was so exciting, but the roasted goat ($29) - slices of leg, loin, a hash made from the scraps and formed into a patty, and fragrant merguez sausage - was so mild it could have been any red meat; it tasted more like lamb. However, the peas that tumbled over and around the arranged slices of goat telegraphed spring with every bite. The precise square of sauteed halibut ($28) had equally seasonal accompaniments, with peas, favas and asparagus in a cheerful spumonte sauce reinforced with chervil.
When it came to dessert, crunchy almond meringues ($8) perfectly showcased layers of strawberries and whipped cream. And for a cooling finale, there is always a selection of ice cream ($7.50) that can include Amarena cherry and cocoa nibs doused in a mild chocolate sauce.
On my previous visit, I felt hornswoggled when I got the bill, but this time around I felt like the price was fair; the meal wasn't cheap, but the prices seem more in line with the experience.
It's also nice to find wines on the list for less than $40, although our red was served much too warm, something that shouldn't happen at a restaurant that supposedly takes such pains in sourcing and handling food products.
So while Oliveto still has a little way to go to recapture all its glory, it's certainly back in the game.