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Oakland (Rockridge): Marica Restaurant’s $18.90 prix-fix – Lobster bisque, escolar, Grand Marnier creme brulee … and lots of charisma

The Bay Area needs more restaurants like Marica. A true neighborhood cafe that is stylish yet casual where the food and wine is delicious, reasonably priced and served by the wonderful staff who … well ... know everyone’s name. Cheers to you Marica.

If it was a thesaurus entry the synonyms would be delightful, flavorful, generous, convivial, contemporary, cozy, intimate, homey, welcoming

My dinner on Sunday (with a happy hour special)

Mesquite roasted Prince Edward Island mussels, pernod shallot butter $5
Lobster corn bisque with shrimp
Mesquite grilled escolar with romesco salsa, portabella mushroom orzo risotto, asparagus
Grand marnier creme brulee
2006 Verdillac light red Bordeaux $6

Complimentary:
Warm, crusty rustic bread with butter
Glass of prosecco
House-made pineapple, blueberry and plantano sorbet

The tab: $31.50 (includes tax and 10% cash discount)

Like Bakesale Betty, the place seems big on generous surprises.

The restaurant that night seemed to be giving out complimentary glasses of prosecco to many tables for various reasons. I won’t say what they were because it is like Bakesale Betty. Sometimes you score freebies and when people don’t they get ticked off.

Even without the extras, that was a really swell price for a tasty dinner.

It is an American restaurant (with Asian and Mediterranean touches), yet it reminded me so much of the little no-name restaurants in Paris filled with happy French locals sharing a carafe of vin de pays while enjoying the plat du jour .

The happy hour is all night. There are $5 cocktails, $1 oysters, and a few $5 appetizers such as mussels and pommes frites. Two weeks ago one of the specials was oven roasted dungeness crab marinated with chili, coriander, fennel, cumin in shell. $7.

If seated by 6:30, the prix-fixe is $20-$21. The rest of the night it is $25-$26. The price depends on how expensive the fish selection is that night.. There is a 10% discount for paying with cash. That made the $21 dinner, $18.90.

The meal starts with nicely warmed crusty white bread. They use different bakeries. Sometimes it is Acme, sometimes Semifreddi. I’m guessing Sunday it was the latter.

A dozen small mussels were served in the most spectacular broth …rich, buttery goodness with roasted lemon slices and brimming with chopped fresh herbs. .Fortunately there was lots of bread to mop up every last bit or I would have licked the plate.

The generous bowl of creamy bisque with big toasted croutons was lovely with bits of fresh corn and a large, plump, tasty shrimp.

I’ve been wary of escolar because of its, um, cleansing effect if you eat too much. This was my first time trying it and it was delicious with no after problem

It is a firm white fish that reminded me a bit of monkfish. It was expertly grilled with a smokey seared crust outside, the interior moist. It was topped with a tasty romesco sauce.

The six fresh asparagus spears seem to also have briefly touched the grill. They were tender but had wonderful mesquite flavor. The orzo was fabulous with lots of slices of portabella mushrooms

The crème brulee was very good the crackly top lightly dusted with powdered sugar and topped with six fresh blueberries.

I was really impressed with the generous three scoops of sorbet served in a martini glass. The fresh fruit flavors were front and center..

I’ve read the souffle is very good. It can be added to the prix-fixe for $4 extra.

The seasoning was well-balanced and a compliment to each dish. There was no over or under salting. It was just right.

The regular menu looked very good and was well-priced with many entrees under $20. The ‘pricey’ items at $25 were rack of lamb, fillet mignon and a seafood stew with halibut, scallops, shrimp, simmered in lobster cognac sauce and served with gruyere cheese soufflé.

The top priced item at $34 was a whole “twice cooked Maine lobster, splash fried + sauteed, ginger, cilantro, five spice, carrot parsnip puree” A half order was available for $18.

The menu crosses many cultures with house-made Yucatan sausage, chicken with Thai peanut satay sauce, handmade cannelloni pasta or lemongrass marinated Chinese lamb salad, or simply grilled Niman Ranch pork chops

The service was probably the best of any restaurant in this category. It is to neighborhood cafés as French Laundry is to fine dining Topnotch.

Attentive, thoughtful, polite, helpful, down-to-earth and not pretentious, they make you feel special and completely at home.

Like those charismatic people who seem to focus on your every word, the wait staff seems to focus on your needs alone … quite the magic trick since basically two people were taking care of the entire restaurant where every table was filled.

Reading about Marica, they just do damn nice things that should be what ever restaurant does such as
- splitting plates without cost and plating each beautifully … even the prix fixe
- seating everyone even if the entire party hasn’t arrived yet

Things like that.

Go early or make a reservation

Every table was filled by 6:30 with a nice mix of people. There were families with both babies and grand parents, people on dates, singles enjoying the happy hour, people celebrating a special occasion and locals just enjoying dinner out. It seemed to fit each situation perfectly.

The restaurant seats about 30. The large wooden bar is against the brick wall. Blond wooden tables are set with white napkins. The restaurant is softened by the lighting, glowing candles on the bar, a lovely flower arrangement and large windows lined with white light strings.

The chef formerly owned Christopher’s Café.

Make no mistake thinking this is Commis, Oliveto, Chez Panisse or a restaurant like that. The few negative yelp reviews had to do with those expectations. It is the American equivalent that excellent Parisian café and not Pierre Gagnaire..

However it is solid, honest, tasty fare … and whether you like star ratings or not … it is five stars in its category.

If visitors to the East Bay really want to eat in a non-touristy place that is a local favorite, I wouldn’t hesitate sending them … or taking them … to Marica.

It is a family-owned treasure that makes its customers feel like family

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Marica Seafood Restaurant
5301 College Ave, Oakland, CA 94618

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    1. re: wolfe

      Great to see a review about this place. I've been coming here for years and have always thought the food was fabulous and a great deal.

    2. I have to admit I'd forgotten this place existed. Thanks for the review; I guess I should make a return trip!

      1. Thank you RW for the post. I really need to try Marica - sounds Awesome! Great that's it's close to Rockridge Bart - I can go! Did you add it to your Bart list?

        1 Reply
        1. re: hhc

          It is a longish walk from Bart, but unlike some, the walk is interesting. But do keep in mind my high regard has to do with a combination of atmosphere/price/food AND proximity. It is a neighborhood place. I'd have to get to know it better to send someone on a special trip there. I don't exaggerate saying how much it reminded me of little Paris cafes that I stumbled across and immensely enjoyed but will never be able to find again. It is great for what it is.

        2. Thanks for the report on Marica. I haven't been in years but glad to hear that it is still as good. I checked out the menu and they still have my favorite lobster dish on the menu. With the oysters and cocktails now on the menu, I'll make a point of going again soon.

          1. We had dinner at Marica tonight and had a great meal. As noted, the service is friendly, down to earth, and extremely accommodating. They even gave us complimentary glasses of champagne for being first time customers -- I don't know if that's standard practice, but it was a nice touch that really set the tone for the rest of the meal.

            We started with an order of the mussels ($5) off the happy hour specials list. I also noticed that they offer pommes frites as a side for one of the entrees, so I asked our waitress if we could have a side order of those to have with the mussels (even though the fries weren't listed as a separate menu item). No problem, and so they brought out a huge bowl of the super crisp, super thin frites -- we just devoured these. When we got the bill we saw they'd only charged us $4 for the fries. Good deal. The mussels were also a steal at $5; my only quibble is I thought the sauce was a touch too lemony, but that's more a matter of personal preference than a criticism. I still thought it was a tasty bowl of mussels, and the price is definitely right.

            I was tempted by the dollar oysters too; would go that route next time if I didn't want so hearty an appetizer as the moules frites.

            Speaking of good deals, my wife opted for the prix-fixe ($21 since we were seated at around 6:00). She started with the chopped salad (quite good, not too vinegary, some nice chunks of avocado), then for her entree she had a sesame crusted seared ahi tuna, which was served with a spinach puree, mashed Yukon gold potatoes, a few spears of grilled asparagus, and what I believe were some pieces of poached pear. I thought the spinach puree was especially tasty -- tasted like it might have had some green garlic in it too, but I'm not sure. For dessert, she had a vanilla panna cotta, which came in a champagne glass with a kind of berry compote on top. I only had a bite, but I thought this was excellent.

            She also took advantage of the endless happy hour deal with a $5 margarita, which she seemed to enjoy (and which was strong enough to get her a bit tipsy).

            I ordered a la carte and for my entree opted for the half order of the lobster dish described in the original post ($18). The waitress said that it was a smallish lobster they served, so I was afraid the half order was going to be a tiny portion, but it turned out to be just the right amount of food -- a respectably sized entree portion by any standard, I thought, with a meaty half tail and a big claw that you had to work at a bit. (It crossed my mind to ask for one of those bibs, but in the end I managed to polish it all off with only minor soiling of my shirt.) The spicing on the lobster was wonderful, and the carrot-parsnip puree was delicious. I'd put this up there as one of the top five lobster preparations I've had, and I lived in New England for six years.

            For dessert, I ordered the highly vaunted chocolate souffle ($9), which didn't disappoint. Maybe not the most intensely chocolaty dessert ever, but as airy and delicate as you'd want any souffle to be, and I appreciated that it wasn't overly sweet. Served with three generous scoops of house-made vanilla ice cream. Definitely big enough a dessert to share, but I had to do the brunt of the work since my wife already had her panna cotta to deal with. Note that the souffle takes 20 minutes for them to prepare -- I just ordered it at the beginning of the meal so that they could time it to come out with the other dessert.

            All that food (plus a cup of coffee with dessert) and, since we got the 10% cash discount, we got out for $80 total, including tax and tip. For this quality of service and food (especially for seafood), I don't know if there's another restaurant in the East Bay where you'd be able to make out much better than that!

            1. Another fabulous meal at Marica

              We had

              - 2 complimentary glasses of prosecco
              - Complimentary Shirley Temple ... or something like that
              - Crusty artisan bread with butter
              - Mushroom, oregano and sherry soup (very good)
              - Caesar salad, garlic anchovy dressing. w/ two fried oysters (salad excellent. oysters skip)
              - Complementary hand chopped calamari, wok tossed with jalapeno, ginger and scallions served with mixed greens and cherry tomatoes (A-MAZING !!!)
              - Mesquite grilled Chilean seabass, lemon caper beurre blanc organic crispy baby potatoes, grilled asparagus (A-MAZING !!!)
              - Mesquite grilled Australian Tasmanian salmon, organic arugula pesto, mushroom tomato basil orzo, French green beans (very good)
              - trio of sorbets - strawberry marscapone, raspberry, banana (excellent)
              - Chocolate Souffle topped with housemade vanilla ice cream (excellent)
              - Squeezed-to-order lemonade (very good)
              - Coke

              Total tab after tax; $67.49

              If we had paid with cash, the bill would be 10% less.

              Due to a misunderstanding, a 5 year old granddaughter joined us. Very cool kid who knows what she wants and she wanted a hamburger. Marica didn't have any ground beef but said it would be fine to go over to Christopher's Burgers next door and bring a burger and fries back.

              Christopher's plated it up nicely and the Marica staff returned the plate for us. Unfortunately the little girl wasn't into Christoper's food, so the Marica people were nice enough to put it into a take-home container. Kid wasn't into the Shirly Temple though both grandma and I thought it was excellent.

              What did impress the kid was the trio of sorbets. She loved, loved, loved the strawberry marscapone and liked the other two. We thought they were great too. What was funny was the kid was really impressed with the presentation. She loved the look of the Shirley Temple even if the taste wasn't her thing. She oohed over some of the dishes that came out and went mad for the trio of sorbets in a martini glass. She wanted to bring the glass home ... this can't be a good sign. I see a future of her in bars mad about cosmos and martinis because of this first wow presentation of the glass. I'm buying her a glass of her own tommorrow.

              Staff was superb handling the situation. I suspect they made some catsup for her

              ANYWAY ... back to the adults

              The grandmom who loves caesar salad though this was excellent. I had a bite and liked it but i'm no caesar expert.Got it with the two fried oysters. She thought it was good, I thought it was meh with not much flavor. I wouldn't order the fried oysters again.

              The complimentary calimari ... good heavens ... amazing, amazing, amazing. The squid was was so tender and the spicing supurb. I highly, highly recommend this dish and it goes on my top 10 list for 2010.

              Marica does a great job with soup and the lovely mushroom soup of the day was no exception.

              I went with the salmon since I got the $21 prix fix (early bird price, $25 after 6:30). The sorbet and soup were my choices for appetizer and dessert.

              My friend had the seabass and I had a taste and it blew me away. It was wonderfully moist and nicely smokey from the mesquite. She loved it and the asparagus and the baby potatoes. They were actually marble potatoes which were similar to what I bought at Berkeley Bowl and thought were so wonderful. They caught my friend's attention and she just raved about them.

              The salmon with pesto was very good, but having tried the seabass I kept glancing enviously at the other plate. The mushroom orzo was really swell and came with a wonderful, juicy whole grilled tomato. The green beans were very good as well.

              The souffle was top-notch with nice chocolate flavor, wonderful texture and the ice cream melting into the warm souffle just upped the deliciousnes.

              The only nit was that with all the rushing around with my pending move to Gautemala next week, I put all my easily accessable cash into travelers checks. Big mistake.

              Due to excellent copiers these days. I've had trouble cashing these anywhere. The bank where I have my account and where I bought them, refused to cash them until I made noise with a manager. Anyway, the money goes back into my account tommorrow. Better to learn this now than on the trip.

              My husband took most of the credit cards with him and I forgot about the emergency card in my wallet.

              So I thought all I had was the travelers checks. Marica refused to take them even when I said we would have to leave otherwise. Come on, Marica, we were two middle aged ladies with a kid. I'm a repeat customer who they recognized on my return. Hardly the type to be running a travelers check scam. Raley's who no longer accepts them, took one because i shop thery regularily. Marica could have accepted them, IMO. This isn't some big corporate policy, but a small family restaurant and there are times you need to make a judgement call and make and exception.

              My friend paid for the meal and I'll reimburse her tommorrow. But that was just so tacky.

              Also,I would have ordered more. I was planning on the lobster and I would have had a glass of wine or two with the rest of the meal. I just didn't want to dump too big of a bill on my friend even though I'm paying her back tommorrow.

              Still, it was 99.9% fabulous.

              5 Replies
              1. re: rworange

                I'm glad you had a great experience for a meal so important to you. I read with interest the comments re: the caesar salad as I can still remember Christopher's caesar when he worked for Mark Miller at 4th St Grill in the 80's. It remains a standard of that salad for me. His Hunan lamb dish at his place on Solano is still something I think about. He is and has been an under the radar chef in my opinion.
                Also an important heads up re: the use of traveler's checks. They aren't what they used to be in terms of protection. I have many friends with similar stories of non-acceptance so I'm sure this will help others. Glad you had a good meal.

                1. re: cakebaker

                  Yeah, it has been a few years since i've done any major traveling. No more travelers checks for me.

                  The other shame was that I would have liked to leave a much bigger tip. We left 20%, but given how helpful the staff was with the little girl, I would have went more if I was paying immediately. Also, I always add into the tip the price of complementary dishes.

                  I forgot the lemande was good and quite tart. Anyone who likes sweeter can add sugar. I liked the option of not having overly-sweetened lemonade. It is like salt, you can always add more sugar, but you can't take it out. I saw the bartender squeezing the lemons into the glass. They also have limeade

                  1. re: rworange

                    Cashiers checks?

                    I thought most Businesses stopped taking those over 10 years ago?

                    Does any one know of a restaurant in the Bay Area that still takes them?

                    Perhaps Fisherman's Wharf with a foreign passport and second ID?

                    1. re: Mission

                      Travelers, not cashiers.

                      Oddly K-Mart takes them. Also a few restuarants took them, but at this point i don't want to mention them as it might draw scammers.

                      1. re: rworange

                        I came here for a work dinner last night and it was fabulous as usual. My co-workers were very impressed with the high quality of food and service.

                        The two of them ordered the prixe-fixed menu, which is a total steal. They both had the chopped salad, salmon and crème brulee. I had the cesar salad with fried oysters, seafood stew and sundae. Everything was fresh and tasted exceptional. My seafood stew is almost as good as Tadich Grill’s, without having to drive into the city.

                        The service is probably the best I’ve seen in a long time. There was basically one guy running the entire show in the dining room. He was our bartender, waiter and buser. Usually that’s not a good combination, but this guy was great. He was fast, efficient and very friendly. And it’s not like we were the only table. By the time we left most of the restaurant was full.

                        Oh, they also gave us complimentary mussels (for me coming back as a customer!) that were delicious. I don’t even think he recognized me since it’s been a few months, but he asked if we were first time diners when he sat us. I’ve heard they do this occasionally and think it’s a sweet and smart gesture.

                        I highly recommend this restaurant to anyone who loves good food.

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                        Tadich Grill
                        240 California St, San Francisco, CA 94111