Standing on Grand Avenue near Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., a couple of weeks ago, I was hit by a wave of both personal and cultural nostalgia. The personal came from having lived in the neighborhood a couple of decades ago—when young, naive, self-indulgent white boys were a rare commodity in the area. The cultural came from the sensual smoke wafting from new restaurants at the vanguard of the Bay Area’s wood-fired cooking renaissance.
White boys are now in plentiful supply in an area that’s been greatly gentrified in the past 20 years, but—even in the face of hipsterdom and young families who purchase $400 designer baby strollers—Oakland has admirably retained much of its own character. And the influence of this influx isn’t entirely negative—especially if you’re hungry.
Boot and Shoe Service is a cozy, pizza-centric offshoot of Berkeley’s Pizzaiolo, and Camino is a cavernous, slyly theatrical restaurant that feels more like the staff dining hall in Valhalla than your average eatery. The chefs and owners of both establishments did long stints in Alice Waters’ kitchen at the legendary Chez Panisse, but their efforts are hardly derivatives or imitations, since they do the bulk of their cooking with wood fires.
Boot and Shoe Service does most of its work with the classic pizza oven—after all, pizza is the dominant menu item—in which a plate of mussels or clams is equally likely to be roasted by gently, expertly coaxing a frying pan around the hot coals. Wood-fired pizzas in Santa Fe are capable of competing with Boot and Shoe on the crust front, but the topping configurations have yet to be equaled in the City Different: fresh rapini and house-made sausage; potato, pancetta, fontina and rosemary; manila clams, chile and young garlic. These are good pizzas, possibly better when you opt to add a fresh farm egg on top.
Camino operates both an oven and an immodestly sized open fireplace ready to prepare food in pans, pots, smokers; on spits or rotisseries; or a la ficelle (hanging next to the fire from a string that can be twisted to create a sort of vertical, luddite’s rotisserie).
Ridiculously long tables hewn from wind-felled redwood trees line the restaurant, each seat with a view of chef Russell Moore’s stage-like hearth. As the evening winds down and most patrons have been served, Moore is likely to pull out whole quarters of lambs and pigs and start butchering them for the following day’s menu, in full view of his customers. It’s showy, but honest and mesmerizing.
Still, Camino (Italian for “fireplace,” rather than Spanish for “road”) is no temple to meat. The vegetarian dishes are exquisite, fresh, seasonal and prepared with a sense of balance usually reserved for undisturbed, natural ecosystems.
After sharing with a friend two bar plates, two starters, two entrées (one of which was lamb leg a la ficelle with the tenderness of God’s pillow) and dessert, I was blissfully sated, but not overwhelmingly full and burdened by digestion. The prices are reasonable enough that, given affordable airfare, I might fly to Oakland just to eat at Camino again.
Both Boot and Shoe Service and Camino work exclusively with organic, sustainably harvested, frequently local ingredients, but neither uses the fact as a promotional tool nor spends time trying to impress anyone—it’s just what makes sense and creates the flavors the chefs are after.
A visit to Santa Fe’s Burro Alley and a glance at the artwork that adorns it is a good reminder of how much wood gathering and selling is a part of Santa Fe’s cultural history. But after experiencing the Bay Area boom in wood-fired cooking, when I see the iconic burro with a load of wood on its back, I don’t think about keeping warm in the winter. I get hungry—hungry for something other than pizza.
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