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One year of date night dinners

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Would denizens of this board help me plan a year of date night dinners?
My husband told me that my big gift would be one special dinner every month of 2012. HOWEVER, he set a few rules:
The restaurant must be new to us - nowhere we've ever been before.
This is a Date Night and dinner is the focus, not a bite before or after a play or concert.

We're both adventurous eaters, have zero dietary issues, and really have fun exploring a variety of foods, ethnic markets and restaurants. In general, food is primary, not tablecloths, and these dinners are absolutely not shakedowns. But since there is a Date Night theme, I think that really really noisy places are out, no matter how good the food might be, and, while reservations are not obligatory, we're probably not looking for a wait in line either. We have a whole year to plan, this could be the spur needed to make reservations at places that normally seem like too daunting a wait. We live in Oakland, so nearby would be the focus, but don't limit yourselves - we've been known to overnight elsewhere in the Greater Bay Area, and besides, we're willing to trek for good food.

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    1. It would be helpful if you listed some of your regular haunts, or the neighborhoods that you've covered pretty well already; otherwise, it's difficult for us to speculate what might be new to you.

      A couple relatively newer places sort of flying under the radar that come to mind: Gaumenkitzel (Berkeley), B-Dama (Piedmont Ave.).

      Commis would be my top pick if you haven't been yet. Also, brand new is Haven, Patterson's new place in JLS, which I haven't tried yet.

      Maybe one of those secret Lazy Bear dinners that there's been some buzz about lately? http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/823307

      3859 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611

      2121 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley, CA 94702

      4301 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, CA 94611

      44 Webster St, Oakland, CA 94607

      Lazy Bear
      San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

      16 Replies
      1. re: abstractpoet

        I agree that if you haven't been to Commis, it should be top of your list. [I'm not mentioning Cafe at CP, because as food lovers, I assume you've been there].

        I'd suggest Rivoli as a date night venue. Across the bridge, Perbacco, and Piperade; also Acquerello (although it's pretty spendy).

        1. re: abstractpoet

          The food is great at Commis, but it's also LOUD with all those bare, hard surfaces.

          1. re: drewskiSF

            We sat in the table in the front window, and the sound level wasn't bad.

              1. re: mariacarmen

                When we sat at the bar, it was so hushed as to be almost reverential. I found it a tad unnerving, actually. The chef, sous and other staff didn't say a word all night till our waiter introduced us (a nice touch, I thought).

                1. re: grayelf

                  Boy, am I glad you all mentioned this. I thought we'd sit at the bar for the view, and assumed that we'd still talk comfortably. When I mentioned the bar idea to hubby he wasn't interested (though he likes the bar at various sushi places, so...?) Those front tables were my choice when Jojo's had that location.

                  1. re: Kayde

                    We talked to each other (though more quietly than usual, at least in my case!). It was the silence of the cooking staff that was strange to me. To be fair, with it being completely open obviously they couldn't be yelling at each other. But I think you have to be a telepath to cook there ;-).

                    1. re: grayelf

                      Open kitchen does have its sacrifices, but reverential is not the scene I was hoping for. I do appreciate your observation and will discuss this again before making reservations. Commis might be it for February.

          2. re: abstractpoet

            February has been pretty hectic, but to keep on track with the monthly date nights, last night we went to B-Dama. Thanks, abstractpoet, for the suggestion - lively izakaya house scene and delicious food. One server in particular helped us narrow our initial choices off the specials board, as well as several yakitori (tongue, chicken cartilage, quail egg with short rib), and we kept adding more. We spent nearly 2 hours sipping, nibbling tasty bites and talking - definitely a good time, and the total bill was just over $60. It is a bit noisy, but we had no trouble conversing at a tiny corner table. Definitely a return spot, and often.

            1. re: Kayde

              I'm glad you liked it! What I love about B-Dama that it's so much more down to earth (not to mention affordable) than the so-called "destination" Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area. I see the chef at the Berkeley Tuesday farmers market every week, so I know he's using good, local ingredients -- but at the same time, he doesn't feel the need to remind you of that fact every other second.

              1. re: abstractpoet

                I know exactly what you mean...
                btw - our March destination is Commis.

                1. re: Kayde

                  So last night we went to Commis - sat at the counter and tried their wine and beer pairings. All those wonderful bites of intense flavor with texture, chew and crunch, and each pairing was delicious. We talked comfortably without raising voices and enjoyed watching the chef, sous chef and all compose various assemblies over and over again (lots of tweezers) and the overall effect was relaxed and relaxing. In fact, we enjoyed an evening of perfectly delicious courses and in an atmosphere much warmer and more welcoming than I had expected. One surprise ingredient was oxalis: Yes, new use for the yellow flowered weed that pops up around my garden, as well as some joking that they'd already come by for some of mine.

                  1. re: Kayde

                    I was looking forward to your report. Mrs. Rapini and I have been there twice now, and love it.

                    1. re: Kayde

                      Glad to hear that your experience at Commis was similar to my own. I haven't been back for over a year now, but reading your report reminded me of how much I loved each of the meals I had there. It's good to hear that they're still going strong.

                      Every once in a while, I'll hear someone describe the atmosphere there as "sterile," but we never found that to be the case.

                      In fact, I like Commis so much that every time I spend more than X dollars at a restaurant, I invariably find myself saying, "Well, we might as well have eaten at Commis then."

                      1. re: abstractpoet

                        Yes, across the range of reviews words like "sterile" and "refrigerator" come up often, even "indifferent," and that was not at all our experience. Hubby loves to explore good food, but has zero interest in temples to gastronomy or pretension to such, and he had a wonderful time, thanked me for choosing Commis. And commented that he felt perfectly satisfied, and better satisfied than after meals that had left him "full." We don't often spend that much, but it may now top the Special list.

                        1. re: Kayde

                          oooh goody, this means i'll have to revisit soon, it's been well over a year. i too loved Commis and found it high-end, thoughtful food, without the price tag. i recently went to Atelier Crenn for the first time and absolutely ADORED it, but that's really a once-in-a-lifetime splurge for me. Commis is re-doable.

            2. A Cote. Specify the back room when reserving.

                1. Thanks for all the replies so far. I loved Manka's and we've already been to Chez Panisse Cafe and downstairs. I was thinking of Commis when I said this project might spur me to actually make reservations. Was thinking of Haven, maybe Pican, and haven't yet been to Camino, but hear (!) that it's too noisy for a date night. The host at Wood Tavern told me to reserve a particular table if we actually want to talk. To tell the truth, I'm a pretty darned good cook, and most of the time when we go out it's usually for good budget food that is nothing like what I make at home. Shan Dong noodles. Sushi. The only-in-Chinese menu at Flower Lounge. Chop Bar pig roast. I was thinking of Jai Yun, for example. Looked at B-Dama and can't believe we haven't been there, especially for tongue and cartilage - yay! But back room A Cote sounds great, Marica does too., and I hadn't heard of Lazy Bear, but looks fun.
                  I appreciate your thoughts on this.

                  13 Replies
                  1. re: Kayde

                    The host was correct about Wood Tavern--it is tres noisy, and there's only that one table that's relatively quiet.

                    Given your additional comments, perhaps you and hubby would like Soi 4 for a date night. Good Thai-inspired food in a nice setting.

                    1. re: Kayde

                      I thought B-Dama was pretty good for the price, but for a Japanese dinner date I'd go to Ippuku or O Chame.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Thanks. I've been to O Chame, but it was long ago and I don't think hubby has ever been, so I say it fits the guidelines. B-Dama looks like a good suggestion too, and has the advantage of being closer and more likely to become a new fave.
                        I hope I didn't steer all suggestions toward Asian restaurants, though we have such a fabulous variety. Someone asked where we usually like to go, and when we go out, those happen to be the flavors and preparation we usually explore. Please - happy for all kinds of suggestions.

                        1. re: Kayde

                          La Ciccia

                          La Ciccia
                          291 30th Street, San Francisco, CA 94131

                          1. re: mariacarmen

                            Oooh, thank you. Looks perfect - love spots with specific regional emphasis. I'll start making a plan and will report back.

                            1. re: Kayde

                              +1 on La Ciccia.

                              How about Jai Yun? It's spendy, but definitely special date night worthy, especially if you don't care about the atmosphere as much.

                              La Ciccia
                              291 30th Street, San Francisco, CA 94131

                              Jai Yun
                              680 Clay St, San Francisco, CA 94111

                              1. re: abstractpoet

                                +1 on jai yun.

                                sawa sashimi in sunnyvale too, if you don't mind driving (and the meal price.)

                                1. re: abstractpoet

                                  Jai Yun has been on my own must-do list for a couple of years. Close to BART is a good thing, especially in SF, though certainly not a requirement. We are less likely to drive to Sunnyvale, unless otherwise in or going through the area. But I appreciate every one of these.

                                  1. re: Kayde

                                    it is a rough drive to/from sawa -- especially since it is so tempting to drink his (excellent) sake with the sashimi. i also only go if i'm down on the peninsula for some other reason.

                                    kiss or kappa are also both nice, tiny, expensive, a bit obscure japanese food places. but i consider sawa certainly the best and most unique, by a margin.

                                    z&y isn't particularly fancy or nice inside, but the food is excellent, and i think it is warm and charming at night when it is dark out. and you could trying bringing a really nice bottle of white wine to go with the meal to class it up.

                                    you could go to koi palace and try abalone, steamed live fish, and bird's nest in coconut milk dessert.

                                    you could sit at a table at ino in japantown, and order lightly: ankimo appetizer, flounder, maguro, and uni. then follow it up with some beef yakiniku at juban, and perhaps a couple karaoke songs, and/or an ice cream crepe from the japantown mall.

                                    if you don't mind the disneyland feel of both, and you've never been, you could share a crab at crustacean, then share a single order of prime rib at house of prime rib, which is a few blocks away.

                                    1. re: Dustin_E

                                      Does House of Prime Rib even take a la carte orders?

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        they allow you to split a single order, and i think charge a ~$5 split plate charge to do this. they give you each a full-size salad too. at least they did when we tried this ~6 months ago. they just don't give you the "extra little bit" at the end if you're still hungry.

                          2. re: Robert Lauriston

                            I second Ippuku, close to bart too, if that helps.

                            1. re: Candice

                              If you haven't yet been there, I third Ippuku. It's a fantastic place for adventurous eaters.

                        2. Kappou Gomi might work, but it might not be geographically desirable.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: RichInMV

                            We've been there, so rule number one knocks it out for date night. But many thanks for the reminder, because we'd like to return with a larger party. In fact, we've been wanting to treat a sister-in-law who worked for many years in Japan, and Kappou Gomi would be perfect - not only did she instigate the first visit, but they live in the Richmond.

                          2. So this is the January entry, in which we bent the rules. As others on this board have mentioned, Camino is very noisy, which is the main reason I wasn't going to consider it for date night, but we hadn't been there, so last night we went to the Monday Crab Feed at Camino and counted it for January.

                            We ordered 2 crab specials, and decided to add the pickled herring plate and the grilled duck while we were at it. Our main server arranged with the kitchen so that everything was spaced into separate courses.

                            So first the spicy crab broth with rice, scallions and chiles. Absolutely tasty, but not particularly spicy.
                            Then the salad of local house-pickled herring, mussels and potatoes, with mixed fresh herbs and house-made turnip kraut. Herring still had a fresh taste, not overpowered by salt, and turnip kraut was nice and crunchy.
                            Then halves of fireplace grilled Dungeness crab served over new potatoes, broccoli romanesco, chicory salad with a spoonful of garlic mayonnaise. Perfect. Aside from the mayo (excellent, but a little went a long way) not a shred was left on either plate.
                            Then grilled duck breast and slow-cooked leg with prunes, spatzle and homemade sauerkraut. We each had a couple perfectly moist slices of duck breast and set the rest of the meat aside (for the next day) while we polished off spatzle, prunes and sauerkraut. Another great melding of flavor and texture, as this kraut was also cut thick and nicely crunchy, wine-soaked prunes sweet-tart and soft, the spatzle substantial.
                            Dessert was buckwheat shortcake (crisp on the outside, earthy and just sweet enough) with slices of mixed citrus and whipped cream.

                            Servers were attentive and good-natured, drinks and plates arrived and disappeared at a perfect pace, which takes some organization, especially as the long tables filled. Twice we were brought what another party had ordered, and, when the error was promptly fixed, I saw that they were on the exactly opposite side of the dining room. We saw couples, threesomes, foursomes and larger groups come and go, and only as we were leaving did I realize that we'd been there for over 2 1/2 hours, and never once felt pressure to move on.

                            Yes, Camino is noisy, but neither of us found it unpleasant. It reminded my husband of dining room clamor in the big old resort hotels where his family vacationed throughout his childhood, and the association is comforting. But he did tell me that he could hear conversations on either side of us more easily that he could hear me (never a shrinking violet) and that was distracting, and may rule out Camino for future date nights.

                            But we will definitely be back. The food was excellent, fresh and inventively composed, it's a great atmosphere and the team of servers are a real asset. We had a wonderful time.

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: Kayde

                              I've had that duck dish, and remember that it was very good. Glad your year of dinner dates is starting out well...

                              1. re: Rapini

                                Thanks much, and it really is.
                                Maybe I should clarify - we each had a crab dinner and we split the herring salad and the duck plate, served in the order above. Which does add another few wrinkles into the service, but you'd never have guessed that from the team. So still more praise to the Camino kitchen and floor staff.

                              2. re: Kayde

                                Glad you found Camino. It's the BA restaurant I find myself going to over and over again, in equal parts for food, perfect cocktails, and relaxed, warm setting. I've never found it particularly noisy compared to other dining rooms. However, the Monday night dinners are usually the specials night and one of the most popular evenings, so you might try another night to see if you find it less noisy. Brunch is even better if you want a languid way to start a weekend.

                                1. re: Kayde

                                  that crab dinner sounds fantastic! thanks for reporting back - i like this thread!

                                  and as for noise factor, i went a few months back on a Tues. evening, 3 of us, and we talked the night away, so into our own conversation that we didn't even notice they were starting to clean up and we were the last ones there. they were gracious enough to not even rush us, tho it was obvious they were eager to go home. so as rubadubgdub says, maybe a different night.

                                  1. re: mariacarmen

                                    Camino is closed on Tuesdays, but the staff is nice there any other day of the week.
                                    I have been when it is too loud for normal conversing (too many people enjoying too many of their small but mighty cocktails, perhaps), and I have also been there when it was too cold for comfort (it was 40 degrees outside and about 50 inside, due to the draft needed for the cooking fires).

                                    1. re: foodeye

                                      ok, whatever night it was. it was a quiet weeknight.

                                2. April Report:
                                  Following a cluster of late afternoon appointments on Monday in Redwood City, we decided to bypass rush hour and give Donato Enoteca a try. We were seated in the airy front room alongside counter seating and busy open kitchen, and sat down to glasses of Drusian Proseco with house bread and tapenade. We went for the 7 course tasting menu ($68), and were glad we did. The chef devises them on the spot and accommodates preferences or aversions. We requested one weekly special item: grilled Monterrey sardines, but otherwise the chef chose among menu and special items, and added a few that were off-menu, like house-made ravioli of wild greens and Robiola cheese sauteed with brown butter and sage on a bed of mixed wild mushrooms. Just one delicious well-composed example of many. Oh, and risotto parmigiana with slow-roasted pork belly, crisped and glazed just before serving...
                                  We asked for wine recommendations, and the chef, sommelier and our waiter devised a pairing series of interesting Italian wines - one white, 2 reds - tasty every one, and each complemented the course in front of us as well as the one that followed.
                                  Our young waiter not only kept things moving smoothly at our pace (leisurely) but he was an enthusiastic collaborator. He described each course well, but not as though he was making a declamation, he listened, reported to the kitchen and, by request, he circled our courses that were on the menu and hand-wrote descriptions of those that were not.
                                  The 3 course weekly prix-fixe ($34) looked good and good value, and Monday night a varied clientele spread about a range of seating options: patio, counter, private rooms, large and more formal dining rooms. We really like Donato Enoteca, enjoy the fresh-tasting combinations of ingredients in the Italian tradition, as well as the carefully selected wine list, and especially would recommend it to people who live or work on the Peninsula.

                                  1. Just continuing to report on this thread, but in May we were in Milwaukee - my old home town.

                                    Sanford had been on my list for years. This is fine dining that honors its base: Sandy D' Amato's grandparents' and parents' grocery store in the old Italian neighborhood. Fresh, inventive, delicious yet unpretentious, seasonal with local roots.The prix fixe looked good, but we did the chef's choice, and one of our friends (not particularly adventurous) kept exclaiming, "But it's just so GOOD!" Interesting wine list, notably more German selections than you see on most Bay Area lists, and that certainly fits the place.
                                    I think it's a must-do if you're ever close to Milwaukee. People drive up from Chicago.
                                    1547 North Jackson Street Milwaukee 53202 (414) 276-9608
                                    More discussion on the Great Lakes board.

                                    1. Sunday we went to Gaumenkitzel for June.
                                      It's a lovely bright spot with a fresh, modern German food, and the chef knows when to stick with tradition. The rhubarb tart was flavor packed and light, but both red cabbage and spaetzle taste just like Grandma's.
                                      That night we ordered standards off the June menu - smoked pork loin with mashed potatoes and pork schnitzel with spaetzle, carrots and a side of red cabbage. Impressive beer selection.

                                      In some earlier discussions on this board Gaumenkitzel was recommended for gluten-free, vegetarians and even vegans. I concur with the first two but there is little on the menu for vegans. Worth noting: our waitress said that the chef is willing to put together a group of sides for vegans, and even enjoys doing that.

                                      Thanks especially to abstractpoet and rworange for recommending Gaumenkitzel. Looks like a great breakfast, brunch and lunch spot, and I'll stop by whenever in the neighborhood.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Kayde

                                        Glad you enjoyed it! One of my favorite light lunches is an order of whatever the seasonal soup of the day is, plus one of the excellent pretzels (served with mustard and butter). The brunch is really underrated and really different from all the other brunch options in the area.

                                      2. Getting down to the wire for July (and inspired by the Asian Fried Chicken thread) we decided to try Oriental BBQ Town. They did a good job dividing the space of whatever fast food spot the OB location once was. We settled into a cozy side table and ordered 1/2 order sweet and spicy Yang Nyum, 1/2 crispy garlic soy Gan Jang, and both were so very very good. Must have again. We also tried a platter of excellent grilled aspargus and spicy chicken feet, which came came perfectly done and bubbling in a black clay pot. The spicy rice cake we ordered never came (one guy seemed to be handling the front of the house by himself ) but by the time we noticed its absence we were satisfied. Next time.

                                        OB was quiet when we arrived, but tables filled up quickly and loud techno music started up shortly after. That and Olympics coverage on 2 TVs would probably disqualify OB for most date nights, but this month we just wanted to try someplace new to us. We had a good time at OB and will return. With 2 beers we ate very well for less than $40. For comparison maybe Dan Sun Sa for August. For the rest of the year we'll choose among all these great suggestions, especially Ino, Jai Yun, Haven, La Ciccia, Marica, A Cote. Maybe Lazy Bear.