It’s not often that you can lure me over the Bay Bridge. I’m not a total San Francisco snob (well, not total), but unless I’m taking somewhere to the airport or have a need for an IKEA or Wendy (one of my dear friends residing in the Eastbay) binge, I can’t be bothered across town in city traffic to catch the 80, only to hit more traffic as we all desperately merge from 6 lanes to 4 on the bridge. Incidentally, you should know that 1) I’m a native to Los Angeles (and the 405 — if you know the 405, you know how bad it sucks) and 2) I used to commute to Sunnyvale for my job, so there is a reason why I don’t like to sit in the car for hours upon hours unless the reason is really compelling. I don’t just ‘not like it,’ I actively resist it. This evening, the company of Wendy and her husband (a college mate of my husband) was the compelling reason to brave the traffic; and in case that was not enough to build my will, we made reservations at À Côté, a perennial Top 100 restaurant and apparent local favorite as well.
À Côté, nestled in the Rockridge area of Oakland, uses the small plate sharing concept to showcase their Mediterranean fare. I have to admit, I hate small plates. Maybe because I hate sharing. Or maybe because I hate small plates. The restaurant must have sensed this about me, by enticing me with a generous pour of vino upon being seated. The wine list is completely interesting, highly curated, and features wines from regions like Croatia and Hungary. Glossy eyed after gulping my vino, I started to seek sunlight in this incredibly dark restaurant. The wimpy tea light on the table taunted me with its faint glimmer and I was about to break out the driving glasses, when someone in the front clued in and opened the shades. Despite the darkness, the restaurant is friendly and happy. There is a big rectangular communal table set in the middle of the room, parallel to both a generous bar and small tables lined up against the wall. The server recommended 6-7 dishes for the table, and we obliged.
We started with the calamari and baby artichoke salad, with fingerling potatoes, Castelvetrano olives, and Calabrian chili aioli. I loved the combination of the calamari and artichokes, but I found the dish to be overdressed. I know some people like slatherings of dressing or mayo, but I’m not one of them. So much to my friends’ chagrin, I dug around the bottom of the salad to avoid the heavy dose of aioli.
The seared scallops, with carrot risotto, morel mushrooms, and sugar snap peas was a much bigger hit with me. The scallops were juicy and nicely-seared. The risotto faintly sweet and slightly chewy; the snap peas a refreshing crunch. We also ordered the longstanding mussels in Pernod sauce, which was so delicious that we gobbled it up before I could bring a camera out. There’s a reason why they’ve been doing this dish from the beginning. Sometimes, you don’t mess with a good thing.
Next up was the pork tenderloin milanesa with farro, spigarello kale, and caper-mustard crème fraîche. Though it looked delectable, this was a real misfire for me. I love farro, kale, pork, and capers separately, but altogether here wasn’t doing it for me. It wasn’t so much the combination of the ingredients as it was the rawhide-gnawing milanesa. That poor pig was killed twice in its lifetime; the first time to be butchered, and the second time in the fryer to make this dish. Then, there was an oddly sweet aftertaste that I couldn’t attribute to anything and that wasn’t gelling with the rest of the dish. Wendy surmised it was the sauce, but how you can get something with a sweet aftertaste in a caper-mustard sauce was beyond me. But let’s remember, I am just a culinary-uneducated eater. I eat. And I either like or don’t like. This was a don’t like.
A better dish was the grilled flat iron steak with cauliflower, potato and spinach gratin, and a green peppercorn sauce. This wasn’t the most inventive of dishes, but it was gratifying the way that you would expect steak and potatoes to be. The greens were dripping with oil, so I avoided them after the first taste, but the steak had a nice char from the grill and the green peppercorn sauce a nice, unobtrusive accompaniment.
I was really looking forward to trying the flatbreads, as they have been hailed up and down as simply amazing. We tried the asparagus flatbread with spring onions and crescenza. The flatbread, by itself, is fabulously thin with just enough burn on the edges. But for me, the dearth of crescenza ruined the flatbread. Rather than enjoy a thin, crusty flatbread, the cheese made it like a soggy, too-thin-of-a-crust pizza. I think if they simply eased up on the crescenza (which is like a soft spreadable cream cheese), then the flatbread would have been wonderful. I know, I know, I’m never one to complain about too much cheese. Who am I?! But really, here, the creamy cheese was too overwhelming; the poor wafer-like flatbread had no chance to compete with the 1-2 punch of cheese.
We ended with the Bellwether Farms Ricotta Fritters with strawberry, vanilla, and cocoa fudge sauces, as well as the La Tur, a creamy three milk cheese from Piemonte. Again, no earth-shattering concepts here, but perfect little endings to a generally nice meal.
À Côté is a nice place. But that’s all it really is. A nice place. It’s not fantastic or earth-shattering or interesting. But you can rely on a terrific wine list and some good — not necessarily fabulous — food on your visit. Let’s put it this way. If the restaurant was down the street from me, I’d go again. But it’s not. It’s across a bridge.
On a separate note, I learned something new about my husband that evening. My husband has a close circle of friends from his undergraduate and we see them all regularly. Over the course of one recent week, my husband was on the phone with various pals, discussing things like job offers, purchasing real estate, and stock sales. The phone calls were repeated, and my husband would sit on the phone playing out various scenarios and giving his two cents. While dining at À Côté, our friend (and college mate of my husband’s) joked that my husband actually knew what he was talking about, as my husband’s prediction of how a stock would play out came true. And that’s when I realized it. I married the “Dad.” You know who I’m talking about. The one guy that is pretty steady, and from whom people seek input. And that made me scared.
Because to this day, if you are a male friend of my husband’s from undergrad, and you happen to get drunk and pass out in front of my husband, he will take a Sharpie and draw a penis on your cheek.
Bauer’s two cents here.