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Oliveto Oceanic Dinner 2011

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Oliveto is doing their annual seafood focused dinners and this week the menu is focused on our California Coast. We got a taste of a majority of the menu and were impressed with the new chef. Of the starters, the standout was the sea urchin panna cotta. The urchin flavor was not diluted by the creamy preparation, it carried a deep, almost smoky note. The halibut crudo was served like a tartare, well seasoned with pine nuts balancing the smooth halibut.

In the past, the pasta course has been the favorite part of our meal. This time I felt the secondi proved even better than the (still very good) pasta. Sand dabs usually leave me with the feeling of light and nice, but not quite substantial enough. These were stuffed with fregula and were as satisfying as a meat dish, with the savory fregula adding a lot of body and texture. My favorite was the sole with a spumante sauce that was flavorful delicate and matched well with the excellent piece of steamed fish.

The style of the food is a bit less bold than before, no unusual preparations -- more refined, though every bit as delicious. The service was professional, and gracious, making us feel they wanted to take very good care of us - and they succeeded.

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Oliveto Cafe
5655 College Ave., Oakland, CA 94618

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  1. Had a terrific dinner last night. There were literally no misses - every single thing we ordered was excellent.

    Charcoal-grilled Santa Barbara octopus with warm farro and cherry tomato salad - flavors and textures were all spot on for me. One of my friends thought the octopus could be more flavorful, but I enjoyed its subtle, smoky flavor. The farro was terrific.

    Charcoal-grilled Monterey Bay sardines with fregola, fried eggplant, and Calabrian chili - one of my favorite dishes of the night. The sweet/bitter/oily tiny cubes of smoky eggplant accentuated the beautifully grilled sardines perfectly.

    Tortelloni of Fort Bragg sea urchin and potato with rapini and fried breadcrumbs - my friends were hoping for more assertive sea urchin flavor - I liked the subtlety, and the texture was perfect.

    Santa Barbara spot shrimp in una coperta with Fava beans and lemon verbena - three head-on spot shrimp, snuggled between two sheets of egg pasta, dressed in a terrific shrimpy-buttery sauce.

    Toasted Durum wheat trompetti with guanciale, New Zealand sea spinach, and Tomales Bay Manila clams - there weren't many clams - maybe 5 tiny clams in the whole dish? But they were the most flavorful clams I've ever had.

    Fusilli rossi with Monterey Bay squid ragù and and sorrel - terrific, intense squid ragu spiked with slivers of lemon zest. I had a version of this the other night that was spicier, and just as good.

    Local sand dabs stuffed with almonds and caramelized onions and wrapped in fig leaf;
    roast Adriatic figs and old aceto balsamico - absolutely stunning dish. My other favorite of the night. It looked a little messy on the plate, but the flavor and texture was incredible. I do love a simply cooked sand dab, but this is my new favorite preparation. Also - charcoal grilled figs. So good.

    Roast Bolinas black cod with shellfish aïoli and yellow Romano bean salad - this fish had the best skin I've ever had - it was like a potato chip resting on a square of fish custard. Really, really good.

    Dessert was an excellent fig tart with fig leaf ice cream.

    A few quick notes on some of the changes in post-Canales Oliveto:
    - a lot of skilled use of a charcoal grill - I don't remember seeing this many grilled items before. They're doing a really good job with it. They were able to get the sardine skin perfectly crisp without burning any of the flesh - a problem I've had at other (highly regarded) restaurants.
    - FOH seems to have changed - don't know if it's a permanent change, but the ones last night were really friendly, lovely people. Waitstaff seems to have changed too - a lot more female servers than before. The one we had managed to be both warm and utterly professional at the same time.
    - secondi are much stronger than before. This was actually my second meal with Chef Jonah at the helm, and I was impressed with the secondi at my last meal as well.
    - more whole-grain options - there's actually a subheading under pastas for "pastas made with whole grain flours". All the ones we tried had intense, robust sauces that definitely paired better with the flavor and texture of whole wheat pasta.

    I'm giving the new Oliveto a thumbs up - in the past, I'd managed to have a lot of good meals by choosing carefully (primarily pastas) but I think all-around execution seems to have stepped up quite a bit. I definitely feel more confident ordering secondi now, which will significantly change my ordering strategy at Whole Hog and Truffle Dinners this year.

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    Oliveto Cafe
    5655 College Ave., Oakland, CA 94618