Happy Bastille Day! July 14 is French National Day, or La Fête Nationale, commemorating the beginnings of modern day France. To honor the country, we are going all-out French today. It required a drive to San Francisco, but traffic wasn’t bad and the weather was beautiful. Our two destinations of a restaurant and a bakery were across the street from each other, so we enjoyed a leisurely brunch/lunch without the pressure of driving across the city. Chez Maman West of Hayes Valley, the youngest member of the Chez Maman family including Chez Papa and Papito, has a broad menu almost entirely French-inspired, save a section of fresh Mexican dishes. The basics of French cuisine are, well, to follow the basics; simple ingredients, cooked with exemplary technique by a knowledgeable chef. Today we were enamored by the food from Chef Russell Cab’s kitchen.
We split an appetizer of baked Camembert as evenly as we could, but it was difficult because we both liked it a lot. The extremely creamy and gooey cheese was baked with some of the rind, so there was an earthiness and musk to the flavor. It was balanced by the subtle sweetness of the buttery roasted garlic and mixed greens with a light vinaigrette. The toast points for scooping up the cheese were crispy but not rock-hard, thankfully, or else the effort of eating would have overcome the balance of textures.
Oeuf cocotte, or “egg in a pot,” is a poached egg dish with cream, and August wanted to try Chez Maman’s version with meaty smoked salmon and goat cheese. Neither salmon nor goat cheese are pleasing to Zach, but he had to admit that the smokiness here drew him in. That which helped his palate further was the mildness of the goat cheese; more pungent, and it would have overtaken the plate. The rich yolk melded with the cream to enhance the smooth, creamy flavor of the tender egg, which was complemented so well by the salmon and goat cheese. Balance is a prominent theme in French cooking – some ingredients work together only when combined in the right amounts.
If you are a truffle fan, you cannot pass up the mac and cheese. Likewise, if you’re a mac and cheese fan looking for something different, this will hit the spot For the price, you’ll be amazed at the quantity of truffle oil and thick truffle shavings mixed with al dente noodles and Gruyere cheese. Gooey, creamy, savory, and earthy, it was not a pretty looking plate but it was “pretty for your mouth,” as per Zach. The truffle flavor was strong, but the dash of nutmeg did not go unnoticed as it balanced the intense truffle.
The savoyarde crepe had Swiss and Raclette cheese, fingerling potatoes, prosciutto, and cornichons; a sharp salad with tomato tapenade offered contrasting green flavor. Zach enjoyed the mildly tangy cheeses, particularly the Raclette which to him was like an extremely mild blue cheese. The term Raclette originates in the French racler, “to scrape”; this cheese is used for melting, and traditionally one would scrape the melted cheese off of a wedge after it had been heated by an open fire. The potatoes were slightly sweet and tender in this crepe, while the thick prosciutto provided texture, something to chew, and a salty element to work with the potatoes and cheese. Made with a buckwheat crepe, this plate is both gluten-free and delicious.
We didn’t think we were going to get two desserts when we first came into the restaurant, but hey, it’s Bastille Day! The cinnamon pain perdu, a favorite here, was served with marinated raspberries and strawberries, apple syrup, and chantilly. The base of the dessert was essentially French toast, with a thin crispy crust that resulted from grilling the bread. The apple syrup gave a teensy bit of tart, while the mild sweetness of the chantilly smoothed out the bright fruits. The crème brûlée had a rich, velvety texture and vanilla flavor with visible vanilla bean scrapings under the candy crunch top. It was not overly sweet, and August thought it tasted close to homemade vanilla marshmallows.
What makes certain dining experiences more memorable are the chance encounters with charismatic others, be they restaurant staff or fellow patrons, and today we had the pleasure of meeting two of each. Manager David was conversational and generous in his kindness. Server Sophia is young but waits like a seasoned professional, so to find out that it was only her second day on the floor was surprising! At the table next to us were Roger and Jordan, who told us about Check, Please! Bay Area. Coincidentally, we got home just in time to catch an episode of it on PBS! So we owe a big merci to all who had a part in memorializing our meal, not just for the food but for the connections made as well.
Across the street from a high school and not far from the zoo, Ol’ Yeller Cafe & Market is in the right location to get traffic and be noticed by thousands of people every day. As it is open 7 days a week from 7 am to 7 pm, the restaurant is a hub of good, fresh food and a welcoming neighborhood vibe. Beautiful student artwork adorns the walls, celebrating the most important members of the community, the youth. There is even a “Recess Menu” on weekdays from 2-5 pm with kid and adolescent favorites, but we were here on a Sunday morning looking for a fresh and filling breakfast.
The Mexican hot chocolate arrived at the perfect temperature, so August could immediately enjoy it without ruining her ability to taste anything the rest of the day. Mildly sweet, as it should be, the bitter chocolate and cinnamon drink was very tasty.
We shared a traditional breakfast sandwich with all kinds of choices. Two eggs any style, choice of meat, choice of cheese, and mayonnaise come together with your choice of bread. So much to choose! We got the eggs scrambled, with Canadian bacon, American cheese, on a soft roll, with extra (regular) bacon. The eggs were fluffy and the mayonnaise helped give a bit of creamy richness. A thick slice of American cheese melted over smoky, lean, and crispy bacon. The sandwich was perfectly and proportionately layered, and very rich.
One of the specials today was chimichangas, deep fried burritos that are popular in Tex-Mex cuisine, the Southwestern US, and two coastal Mexican states, Sinaloa and Sonora. The chef came out to us to talk about the process of making his beef with “the tender part of chuck roast” (but sorry, we promised not to share his secrets!). With gooey cheese and a crispy flour tortilla, each bite had a myriad of textures and greasy was not one of them. The traditional sides of salsa, guacamole, and sour cream came with it, and like the chimichangas, the salsa and guacamole were house-made. It is that kind of attention to detail, even in making condiments, that makes diners return.
When there is warmer weather, we’ll have to come back to enjoy a meal on the big patio. Likely we’ll make a day of it, going to the zoo first and then, with our ticket stubs, we can get 20% off the tab at Ol Yeller. They’ve only been open since 2012, but they’re working hard to establish themselves in the community by doing things like promoting and supporting local bakers and farmers. Freshness is key, since they “freeze only for emergencies.” We’re happy to have found them here in Oakland, and we like supporting restaurants that support their neighborhood.
There was nothing in the fridge or cabinets this morning for a decent brunch since we slept and, because we just moved in, we hadn’t done grocery shopping yet. Zach found Cock-a-Doodle Cafe online looking for “best breakfast oakland,” and we can see why diners would feel that way. Latin/American fusion for breakfast, brunch, and lunch, with an impressive selection of fanciful coffees and cocktails, this establishment merits a few visits.
Despite having seeds, Zach wanted to try the lemonade – made in house, organic, and very refreshing. It was strong in strawberry flavor with lemon as a medium background, not too sweet but not too sour. There was some pulp, and the garnishes were cute.
His entree isn’t on the online menu, but off the in house menu he ordered this version of Eggs Benedict. Poached eggs with smoked pork loin, tomato, avocado, and lemon caper sauce were deliciously layered on English muffin. The egg whites were tender while the yolk was still rich and creamy, all over breaded with a crispy cornmeal crust. The smoky pork loin was also tender, and lean. Sweet tomato and creamy avocado were both fresh, and the rich Hollandaise was tangy thanks to the capers. With a choice of house griddle potatoes or organic greens, and being in a breakfast mood more so than lunch, Zach chose the potatoes; they were crispy and very savory with onion, garlic, and the right amount of salt.
August’s Mexican hot chocolate took a bit longer to make than Zach’s strawberry lemonade, so this big bowl barely had room on the table, competing with the other items taking up space. It was very mild and an easy way for someone new to Mexican hot chocolate to ease into the “spices,” because for this it was cinnamon that stood out the most. It was very easy to sip, but you almost don’t want to disturb it because it’s so pretty.
The egg in August’s omelette was fluffy with no skin, nor was it overcooked (causing the egg to brown). It looks simple, but inside it hides thick-cut pancetta, chipotle aioli, green onions, tomato, and cheddar. The cheese is creamy, balancing out the flavorful but not-too-spicy aioli. The green onions were on the inside, not on the outside like she had anticipated, so they were slightly cooked and therefore not too strong. She enjoyed the same potatoes that Zach did, but she wished there was more omelette for a few more bites of delight.
Zach found out a little too late that the french toast has poppy seeds, but we both thought it was fantastic. It had a little more texture than your typical french toast with a thin, crisp, and crunchy graham cracker layer. Light, airy, and somewhat pillowy in the center, the thick-cut bread was slightly sweet so we used very little syrup. For the price and size, being a half-order, this is a great deal and a unique find.
Raul, our server, was attentive and understanding. We found this place on a whim, but with perfect timing, we didn’t realize we were going to be right next to the Old Oakland Farmers Market where Zach found inspiration for dinner. Even further, August overheard the lady at the table next to us mention to Raul that her family used to own the very building we were eating in. What an introduction to living in Oakland!