Smitten With Signature Dishes
Habit-Forming Food Transcends the Norm at These 10 Hallowed East Bay Eateries
We identify our favorite restaurants in a variety of ways: by the chef, by the unique take on a particular cuisine, by the cocktails or the wine list, by the neighborhood feel. But often it comes down to that one beloved specialty that summons us to the same place over and over again. In the common parlance, this is the signature dish. It can be as simple as a hamburger at Luka’s Taproom & Lounge in Uptown or as complex as charcoal-grilled Alaskan black cod marinated in saikyo miso and sake kasu with dashi cream and sweet soy sauce at Ozumo just across the street. Once it implants itself on our palates, we can’t get it out of our heads. We link it indelibly to that one place, and we keep going back for more.
But a signature dish is a double-edged cleaver. GiltTaste.com writer Francis Lam, in a story published on Salon.com in 2011, argued that what we celebrate as a culinary bellwether could become a straitjacket. What starts as a recipe for success becomes a formula for stasis. “The meaning, the very point of a signature f dish is that it doesn’t change,” Lam wrote. “Rarely do chefs themselves set out to create one; it’s a designation conferred by the public, and yet, once you accept it, it becomes a pact with your diners: If you come here, you can have this thing. It’s both an honor and a bind. So how do you deal with that if your entire culinary philosophy is based on change?”
Down the rabbit hole of speculation we go. Is the very notion of continual innovation in a restaurant kitchen an illusion, like the Cheshire Cat who hangs his signature grin out there to allure us, and then disappears? In a piece titled “Slackers” in a recent issue of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell cited Tyler Cowen, author of An Economist Gets Lunch, to the effect that ossification is a fact of life on the dining scene. “A restaurant can be great for its first three to six months — as the chefs and the owners strive to make the best possible impression on diners and reviewers,” Gladwell wrote. “But,” he added, quoting Cowen, “ ‘once these places become popular, their obsession with quality slacks off. They become socializing scenes. … Their audiences become automatic.’ ”
Does all this erudition add up to a death knell for the revered restaurateurs who give the people what they want? Should Bay Wolf eighty-six duck from its menu? Should Charlie Hallowell quit making pizza at Pizzaiolo and Boot and Shoe Service? Should Bakesale Betty banish the fried chicken sandwich? We think not. Just because a particular item never leaves a menu does not mean the chef’s imagination has gone fallow in the galley. Nor does it necessarily signal that a restaurant has put itself into a permanent holding pattern, resting on laurels garnered in the first half-year of its existence.
When we started thinking about stellar meals in the East Bay dining scene, it took us mere minutes to come up with an extensive list of signature dishes. Whittling it down was a daunting task (and that’s why we’ve raved on about don’t-miss dishes, starting on page 56.) But here, in no particular order are 10 ravishing, habit-forming menu highlights from 10 of our favorite eateries that show no signs of slacking off, no matter how many years or decades they’ve been pleasing their clientele.
Grilled Double-Cut Pork Chop
The pork chop ($28) is hardly the only reason that Rich and Rebekah Wood have been so successful since settling into their College Avenue location in 2007, but it is hard to ignore. A massive cut, grilled to a delectable brown on the exterior, tender and juicy inside, it dominates a plate on which it is typically joined by pancetta, Yukon gold potatoes, shallots, Marsala cream sauce and seasonal greens (Swiss chard, kale). Grilled chops, like steamed mussels, have become standard fare in East Bay neighborhood bistros and brasseries (Flora, Chop Bar, Bellanico, Picán, Hudson, Sidebar), but as with its other dishes, bar and service, Wood Tavern transcends the norm.
6317 College Ave., Oakland, 510-654-6607, www.woodtavern.net
Rick & Ann’s
Some things have changed since Rick and Ann Lauer opened across from the Claremont Hotel 23 years ago. (The partners are no longer married, for one thing.) But you can always count on the elevated versions of American comfort food, including meatloaf and macaroni and cheese at dinner. One of the prime motivations to stand around waiting to get in for breakfast is to abandon your carb and fat-calorie monitoring and sink your teeth into the golden brown potato-cheese pancakes. They take at least 15 minutes to prepare, but when they arrive — with sour cream, chives and applesauce — your patience is abundantly rewarded. Order a short stack or a full order, enhance your indulgence with a couple of eggs, or pig out on the “Midwest” plate, on which the potato pancakes complement eggs, grilled tomatoes and a house-smoked pork chop.
2922 Domingo Ave., Berkeley, 510-649-8538, www.rickandanns.com
Portabekka Mushroom Fritters
Wendy Brucker changes her Italian-inspired menu every two to three weeks, sometimes circling back to old favorites from Rivoli’s 18-year run, often coming up with inventive new combinations of seasonal and market-fresh ingredients. When Roscoe Skipper sends out his email updates, he often refers to something such as Wendy’s “signature seafood trio appetizer.” But when it comes to first courses, nothing says Rivoli like the crunchy fritters — earthy portobella mushrooms battered and fried, accompanied by an arugula salad that is a rainbow of tangy flavors (sherry vinaigrette, capers, wide shavings of Parmesan). It’s all boosted to another level by creamy drizzles of garlicky aioli. These fritters are as iconic as the hot fudge sundae at the other end of the menu.
1539 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-526-2542, www.rivolirestaurant.com
Steamed PEI Mussels
Credit must go to À Côté on College Avenue in Rockridge for boosting the popularity of mussels (and small plates, in general) among East Bay diners. In the past decade or so, the tight-lipped mollusks have popped up on more menus than you can shake a credit card at. Nonetheless, executive chef Barbara Mulas, who owns Sidebar along with partner/pastry chef Mark Drazek, has staked a claim in the mussels turf with a seductive treatment ($10) of the PEI (Prince Edward Island) staple. The broth of Pernod, cream and shallots, delicately perfumed with tarragon, will have you sopping up every last drop. The perfect shoestring potatoes, stacked atop the bountiful pile of beckoning shells, put this preparation over the top.
542 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-452-9500, www.sidebar-oaktown.com
Just about everyone acknowledges that some of the Bay Area’s best-cured meats are turned out at Adesso, Jon Smulewitz’s offshoot of his successful restaurant Dopo down the street. The Good Food Awards 2012, organized by the San Francisco–based nonprofit Seedlings Project to honor food products from around the United States, anointed salumi chef Chad Arnold’s speck. This smoked prosciutto is just one of more than three-dozen varieties of salumi on the Adesso menu. In the face of so many choices, we recommend the combo plates, salumi misti. You can focus on a single region — Emilia-Romagna, Calabria, Sicilia, Toscana, Piemonte — or yield to the daily Chef’s Selection ($17), which might include lardo, salametto, lonza, montalbano and Calabrian. Ask the server to suggest a wine pairing from the fine Italian list, or plunge into one of Adesso’s signature cocktails: the Billionaire (bourbon, grenadine, lemon, absinthe bitters) stands up to anything.
4395 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-601-0305, www.dopoaddesso.com/adesso
Full House Café
Fifteen years ago, after stints at the Homemade and Bette’s Oceanview Diner Cafe, Fred Dozier established his own niche far away from Berkeley’s gourmet-breakfast Meccas. Today, his corned beef, portobello mushroom, smoked chicken and red flannel (with beets and bacon) hashes remain compelling reasons to head to the otherwise barely changed block in the Laurel District. The chicken is house-smoked and comes with matching gravy; the corned beef is accompanied by fried tomatoes and creamy horseradish. For a slight upcharge you can round off your feast with the flakiest biscuits on the breakfast circuit.
3719 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, 510-482-2200
Sweet Potato and Chipotle Gratin
Chef/proprietor Rick Hackett might point toward more flamboyant concoctions — scallops in a Brazilian curry, flank steak chimichurri, achiote-marinated “Mary’s Chicken” in a tomatillo and white chocolate mole — as emblematic of Bocanova’s Pan-Latin sensibility. But it’s almost impossible not to order his sweet-and-spicy spin on potatoes au gratin ($9). An old-fashioned rendition would balance cream, cheese, butter, garlic and pepper. Bocanova’s nouveau classic side dish boosts the sweetness and chili quotients while keeping the potatoes just chewy enough that the layers talk back slightly to the fork.
55 Webster St., Oakland, 510-444-1233, www.bocanova.com
The breakfast and brunch choices (not to mention lunch and dinner) at “la taqueria de Doña Thomás” are many. It’s a split decision in our house, with Robin making the huevos divorciados (with red and green sauces, puréed black beans and corn tortillas) her regular order, while I never stray from the picture-and-piquancy-perfect chilaquiles ($8.35). House-made tortilla triangles, sautéed in a red guajillo chile sauce, are topped with a mound of fluffy scrambled eggs, barely cooked white onions, Mexican cheese, crema and cilantro. The mélange of crisp and cushy textures and mild and spicy tastes creates a tantalizing harmony on the tongue.
1788 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-525-5160, www.tacubaya.net
Bucatini Chi Finucchiede
Trattoria La Siciliana
We had been to the small and tremendously popular family-run and family-style Elmwood institution several times before a friend with deep Sicilian family ties turned us on to this shockingly muddy and complexly flavorful dish ($13). Bucatini is the thick spaghetti-like pasta with the hole down the middle. Finucchiede is a Palermo-rooted sauce that brings together earth and sea, savory and sweet, its signature written in a thick lava-like flow of fresh sardines, imported anchovies, pine nuts, olive oil, raisins, onions, saffron, fennel and toasted bread crumbs. The shorthand spelling is “wow!”
2993 College Ave., Berkeley, 510-704-1474, www.trattorialasiciliana.com
Anything Grilled in the Fireplace
As much as we want to single out chef/owner Russell Moore’s fireplace-grilled crab, we must acknowledge that a signature dish can’t really be seasonal. Still, during Dungeness season in the late fall and winter, pay attention to what this Chez Panisse alumnus is doing with our revered local crustacean. “Crab Mondays” are not to be missed: The prix fixe dinner ($30–$35) might bring you spicy crab broth with rice, a spectacularly seasoned half crab and sides of farro, chicory salad and red daikon, or new potatoes and preserved lemon, or scallions, chilies and duck cracklings, plus dessert. The fireplace and nearby wood oven are Moore’s playgrounds, and everything — goat, steak, lamb, duck, boudin sausage — comes out swinging.
3917 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-547-5035, www.caminorestaurant.com