Alameda welcomes an upscale New American take on cuisine to Webster Street.
Alameda sometimes feels as if it’s suspended in time, a middle-class American suburban town preserved quite charmingly in amber. Of course, the Island City has taken giant strides out of the 1950s and ’60s in recent years, to the point where it ranks No. 51 in Livability.com’s top 100 places to make a home in the United States and is welcoming a new generation of residents with hip brew pubs, urban wineries and distilleries, and an increasingly diverse array of cuisines. CK Restaurant, which opened on Webster Street in March, fits snugly in the space between comforting nostalgia for old-school ways and aspirations to nudge the community lifestyle forward.
The second brick-and-mortar project of chef/entrepreneur Ivan Tellez, who parlayed a successful taco truck business into the Canasta Kitchen Mexican restaurant in Concord, CK was originally planned to bring Tellez’s taco-burrito-enchilada-mole formula to Alameda. But a visit to the new restaurant’s website reveals menus that include seared scallop risotto, grilled prawns with fettuccini and creamy white wine sauce, beer-batter fried fish, pan-seared skin-on salmon, pancetta prawns, free-range chicken breast with herb butter sauce, Caesar and warm red wine spinach salads, steamed mussels, brothy manila clams, smoked salmon Benedict, and red velvet pancakes. The only south-of-the-border allusions are the inside-out Wagyu Oaxaca burger, with Oaxaca cheese inside the patty, and chilaquiles.
Tellez decided to change things up just a few months before opening. “I saw the place and decided I’d like to do something different,” he texted me. He recruited his friend Ruben Diaz to be CK’s chef, and Diaz’s experience included stints at Michael Mina’s RN74, Cindy Pawlcyn’s Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena, and Tratto in San Francisco’s Marker Hotel. So, instead of competing with such Webster Street establishments as Otaez and Calafia Taqueria, Tellez and Diaz fashioned their version of an upscale New American bistro.
To that end, they created dinner, lunch, and brunch menus that feel solidly grounded in hotel dining room cuisine of the ’90s and aughts. And they gave the space, which previously housed Coffee for Thought, Acquacotta, and Chicha Peruvian Kitchen and Pisco Bar, a pleasantly minimalist facelift, paneling the walls with unfinished horizontal wooden boards of varying hues. The faux-wood flooring, however, and the tables and chairs (seating 44) would look more at home in a fast-casual pho house. The bright-as-day lighting, from overhead tracks and cans, could be dimmed a bit to achieve an atmosphere of elegance that matches the ambitions of the cuisine.
Said lighting, however, does lend itself to Instagram shots of the food, which is almost universally photogenic, sometimes stunningly so. Some of the plating was as old school as the ’80s MTV-super-hits background music, but I can appreciate broad brushstrokes of purée, fussy sprinkles of paprika on pristine porcelain, and a solitary sprig of rosemary poked into a hillock of mashed potatoes as much as I can be mildly tickled by Duran Duran, the Motels, and Lionel Richie. A generous squiggle of serrano aioli elevated a big, crusty piece of battered cod ($17) above ordinary fish and chips. An ample filet of salmon ($22) leaned stylishly against a mound of al dente, pearly, almost barley-like fregola pasta that was studded with irregularly carved chunks of perfectly cooked summer squash. Four seared scallops ($19) tumbled gracefully alongside gooey and chewy three-cheese risotto, garnished with frilly pea sprouts and soft, juicy tangerine wedges. On a narrow rectangular white plate (all the plates are white), four appealing lentil cakes ($9.50) tilted like falling dominoes over an “S” of aioli, trailing lovely dollops of spiced cucumber yogurt sauce. And the only in-house specialty dessert we tried, mango panna cotta ($9.50), was almost too pretty to eat, with chunks of fruit atop a perfectly firm low cylinder of creamy gelatin and a comet-tail of mango sweeping into an arc of toasted coconut.
While heavy on protein and starch options, CK Kitchen does have a nice arugula salad.
On the rare occasion when the visuals fell short — the crispy pork bites ($12.50) were a chaotic pile-up of three meaty deep-fried ribs, lettuce confetti, squirts of aioli, sprouts, and diced red bell pepper, and what can you do with a dozen mussels swimming in a gingery coconut curry broth other than perch a slice of toast on top of the gaping shells? — the preparations excelled. With the exception of a mushy layer just under the fried cod’s crust, and the underwhelming flavor and texture of the otherwise promising lentil cakes, everything that came out of the kitchen was expertly executed.
On CK’s menus, you’ll find a lot of calorie-and-cholesterol-packed protein and starch combinations (did I mention the roasted bone marrow with toast and bacon marmalade?), little dramatic experimentation or innovation, and only a handful of leafy greens and vegetarian friendly lunch and dinner choices — a veggie burger with sweet potato fries ($15.50), a roasted vegetable sandwich ($13), sides of mashed potatoes, roasted baby carrots, and polenta ($6 each), the lentil cakes ($9.50), and three salads ($9–$11). However, you might be as pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the ingredients and the cooking as Robin was by the crisp-skinned salmon (an all-time top salmon experience) and as I was by the grilled Wagyu ribeye. At $36, a relative Bay Area bargain (like many of CK’s prices), the steak boasted a smoky char on the five thick medium-rare slices, plenty of rich marbling, an unctuous fatty rind, and a tender chew. It reminded me that I actually do like beef once in a while, although I could have done without the doodle of dried out chimichurri sauce. I would have enjoyed a hearty Cabernet or Syrah with that steak, but as close as we got to a glass of wine was the front-window posting of the license application, which Tellez said was this close to approval. The addition of beer and wine will not only enhance the dining experience in general but will also provide a reason to settle onto one of the tall chairs at the underutilized bar.
The timing of the kitchen and the coordination of service were spot-on for our dinner visits, and a few tweaks to the ambience could bring CK up to the level of its own refined objectives. That might not be enough to pull constant parades of diners through the tube or over the bridges to the island from the rest of the East Bay, but it’s enough to warrant an exploratory trip to sample the latest delicious addition to the quality of Alameda life.
1544 Webster St., Alameda, 510-992-2395
Serves lunch Wed.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner Wed.-Sun. 5 p.m.-10 p.m., brunch Sat.-Sun 8 a.m.-3 p.m.