Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Oakland, September 28, 2010—

ANOTHER DAY IN Berkeley and, later, Oakland: a chance for another Perfect Sandwich (mortadella and galantina on a buttered ciabatta roll with a little chopped lettuce); then a fine dinner with friends at a restaurant we patronize far too rarely. Oliveto has been around for a number of years; I don't recall who was the first chef; the second was, memorably, Paul Bertolli, before then at Chez Panisse, subsequently on to do his own things. Now the chef is our friend Paul Canales, who combines so many of the essentials: intelligence, seriousness of purpose, good humor, impressive technique, and focus.

I started with carne cruda, knowing (or at least strongly suspecting, nearly as good) that it would have been made from a razza Piemontese steer. In fact I'm sure it was; it had that uniquely sweet beefy soft but not fat quality I've associated with the breed. Paul served it with a small raw egg-yolk on top, nicely peppered, dressed with Parmesan, and surrounded by a halo of very finely chopped walnuts whose own sweetness complemented the beef perfectly.

We had an unexpected entremet, a plate of spaghettini with beautifully sautéed "Lipstick" red peppers generously dusted with finely chopped tuna heart; and then I went on to a plate of stradette, rectangles of pasta made with corn flour — the corn an heirloom Italian variety that's being grown in California's delta country somewhere — served with a thick sauce involving braised leeks and radicchio and aged Provolone. This was an amazing dish, the hard dent corn still recognizable by its taste and hardness, though nicely softened first by being turned into perfectly cooked pasta, then veiled with that intense and, let's face it, rich sauce.

Chocolate cake for dessert. It was a birthday meal.

Vermentino di Gallura, Piero Mancini, Sardinia 2009



Curtis Faville said...

Olivetto was once on our regular round of places to eat out. At some point, maybe in the mid-1990's, we stopped going, after a couple of blah meals, and being unceremoniously shown the kitchen door table twice in a row. (What is it with these snotty maitre-d's who treat you like shit? Pardon my French.*) Anyway, we stopped going, and haven't looked back. There are always enough good places in the Bay Area that you don't need to stick with the second-rate.

Charles, I've been meaning to ask you what you're eventually going to do with all these meal accounts. Do you have some kind of book in mind, or does it just constitute a file to refer to at a later date? Or is it practice--and if so, then for what?


*I've been meaning to write a blog on the reservation system/seating practice of better restaurants for some time. In our view, the whole practice of shunting patrons off to "bad" tables, and reserving the better ones for "healthier" looking tippers, is simply unacceptable. Maitre d's taking tips, giving favors, lying about policy, and "withholding" tables on speculation--these are what drive customers away.

My worst case is the restaurant which tells you over the phone that it doesn't take reservations, then refuses to give you a preferred table because "it's reserved."

Charles Shere said...

Your loss: under Paul Canales, the Oliveto kitchen has become a major player where the Slow Food motto "Good, Clean, Fair" (buono, pulito, giusto) is at the center of a cuisine of rare intelligence.

As to reservations and tables, there's too much to comment on here to tap out on my iPad. Mostly we're rarely aware of the table issue. It's just not that imporrtant to us.

Book — I'd never thought of that; I doubt anyone would be interested. Mosttly this blog is 1) a journal as aide-memoire,2) an excersise in focussing, 3) a pathetic attempt at self-discipline.

Curtis Faville said...

Perhaps because as famous foodies you invariably get preferred tables?...or is it that you simply don't care?

At restaurants where we eat regularly, we usually get the table of our choice. What I particularly resent is being "once-over'd" by young maitre d's in their twenties, sized up as deadwood (which is hardly accurate, since we rarely escape for less than $140 at any meal), and dismissively shown the worst seat in the house when the place is practically empty.

Whenever we eat at Green's in San Francisco, there's this competition for window seats. There've been times when we waited 40 minutes for a window seat, and a young couple walks in unannounced without reservations, and is given the first window table within seconds.

Once at Chez Panisse Cafe, I waited 35 minutes (from about 2:20 PM) for the balcony window seat. After 20 minutes, it was vacated, but the maitre d' insisted I wait until the table was "cleared." After 10 more minutes, the table was cleared, but just as I was standing up, two young women with a baby in a stroller arrived, without reservations. The maitre d' rushed over to them and insisted that they take the balcony table. The two women demurred--"oh but I could seat you immediately, no trouble at all!" But they declined. Obviously miffed, he contemptuously led me out to the table and threw a menu in front of me, turning on his heel. What is WITH people like this? It was clear that he would have gone to any lengths to avoid seating me at my choice. It's like "well, if you refuse to be seated where you're put, then you can jolly well wait 30 minutes, and I don't care if you like it or not!"

Restaurant owners who maintain policies like this deserve to fail. In any restaurant I managed, I'd see to it that first come first choice would apply in every case. Reservations would imply availability only for a 10 minute window, and then would lapse. Any maitre d' failing to apply these principles would be fired on the spot.

One thing your menu reporting does is teach you how to describe food--not always an easy thing. If I had to report what I had last night, in detail, I'd be hard pressed. Ingredients almost always elude me. And the names given to certain dishes, national types, foreign words, etc., it's daunting.

We enjoy your meal descriptions, though.

Charles Shere said...

I suppose we are "foodies," though I dislike the word, as it implies a superficial interest in food, motivated primarily by fashion; and our interest runs pretty deep, and we share it with intimates rather than parade it publicly. (Though this blog clearly denies that point.) But we don't "invariably get preferred tables", because — as I've indicated — we' don't really care that much about the table location.

There are of course hosts (or
maîtres d') of varying degrees of professionalism; when one is rude, for whatever reason, his lapse can hardly be considered a demonstration of a restaurant "policy." In general I agree completely in "first come, first served." There are two or three problems, though. One is what used to be called "the Herb Caen table," held empty in case an influential person may show up — one whose experience, when he publishes it, can make or break the business. (Fortunately that tribe seems to be dying out.) Another is any restaurant's desire to be friendly with old friends; closely related is the urge to indulge family. These occasions are a test of the host's discretion, and I believe, with you, that his first loyalty must be to the first arrival.

The ten-minute window isn't a bad idea, but traffic problems, a failed transbay bridge, bad weather and the like have to be taken into account. And I don't believe a firing "on the spot" can be justified by any but the most egregious lapse of judgement.

In general I believe we all get the treatment, in restaurants and elsewhere, that we somehow suggest we want or expect. But that's a more general area of discussion, and this exchange is getting a little too long for an appendix here.