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César, Berkeley CA

Spanish dining is typically slow and relaxed.  Your server will bring your order very, very quickly, but there is no rush to finish the dish and clear the check so that the next party can take your table.  César is just like any restaurant in Spain in this regard: the tapas come out almost faster than you can blink, but after that the pace is set by the diner.  Keep the daily menu at the table and order the tapas one at a time, so that you can savor and appreciate each individually.

complimentary marinated olives

complimentary marinated olives

We started our dinner as soon as we sat down, nibbling on this sampling of marinated olives.  Zach had never seen such tiny olives amidst the regular sized ones he was used to seeing!  All were quite tasty, as each type of olive had its own unique brine or cure.

grilled asparagus with olive relish & egg

grilled asparagus with olive relish & egg

The chilled, grilled asparagus was a refreshing salad like none other.  Well, a form of a salad; it was our roughage of the night.  Salads don’t have much variety in Spain anyway.  The only salad August ever found while living there was iceberg with onion, tomato, tuna, egg, white asparagus, olive oil, vinegar, and salt, and sometimes not even all those ingredients.  But whole vegetables are popular, raw or boiled or roasted or grilled.  With the bright and salty olive tapenade, the crisp asparagus was hard to share.

patatas bravas

patatas bravas

Fried potato wedges with spicy brava sauce & alioli piled for a not-so-small plate, with multiple layers of flavor.  Spanish food is spiced, but it is not spicy hot.  The potatoes were seasoned with just the right mix of peppers to bring a tiny hint of heat to awaken the taste buds.  The brava sauce was sweet and smoky, almost like an American barbecue flavor but with a richer tomato base.  Spain is the birthplace of mayonnaise, but alioli is essentially a fancier version.  After noting the creaminess that it added to this plate, Zach said he will make some alioli/aioli soon.

montaditos with smoked duck breast and orange alioli

montaditos of smoked duck breast with orange alioli

Duck was a surprise to see on the menu, so of course we got it.  It was lightly smoked to allow the true duck flavor to shine, while the texture was supremely tender.  The bright, creamy, and refreshing orange alioli was naturally sweet and well paired for the meat.  The slices of bread were firm but not hard or tough.  It’s the bread slices that make these feel like “typical” tapas such as those found in the Basque region of Spain (in particular the city of San Sebastián aka Donostia, the tapa capital of the world and August’s favorite city in the world, as well).

ibérico presa a la plancha with mashed potatoes & spanish wine reduction

ibérico presa a la plancha with mashed potatoes & spanish wine reduction

Pata negra, the nickname for the meat of Iberian black pigs who feed on mostly acorns, has a mildly nutty and pleasantly earthy flavor.  For this final savory tapa we got a 5 oz. shoulder cut of pata negra that was extremely tender and sliced perfectly for sharing.  It was drizzled with a savory and delicious wine reduction, which went well equally with the meat and the potatoes.  Mashed potatoes with some firmness and height were unexpected here even though the menu said “mashed potatoes,” because from August’s experience in Spain, mashed potatoes didn’t exist there.  The closest she could find was puré de patata, or potato puree, that was closer to soup than mashed potatoes.

coffee flan

coffee flan

Just about everyone knows what flan is; since it’s popular not only in Spain but nearly all of Central and South America, it is almost invariably part of the gastronomic scene wherever there is a population of Spanish speakers, local or migrant.  Flan is so universal, spellcheck doesn’t red-squiggly underline it.  This flan, though, might start catching on.  Yes, the texture is smooth, velvety, and magnificent, which is something to be proud of, but the bigger deal is that it is made with coffee!  The coffee flavor provided a very distinct and robust richness, like that of a high quality bittersweet chocolate.

churros with chocolate sauce from spain

churros with chocolate sauce from spain

Speaking of chocolate, this sauce was apparently brought in from Spain.  It made such a big journey, and here we are dipping with it.  One of August’s common breakfasts while living in Alcalá de Henares was a big churro from the bar up the street plus a tall, wide mug of thick hot chocolate.  This comes very close to her memories, flavor-wise.  The churros tasted sweet and of cinnamon, with an added bonus of lemon zest.  The lemon zest was new and different from the standard churro, but totally right.  August and Zach have discussed before if chocolate and lemon could work together, and here we got the answer.

bread pudding with orange-caramel sauce

bread pudding with orange-caramel sauce

Whipped cream and caramel sauce acted as moats around the mini loaf of tender and light bread pudding.  The whipped cream was made by hand, and the caramel sauce was mildly flavored with orange so there was a citruc-y aftertaste to it.  The bread pudding itself, though, was very decadent.  This is something you have to share, maybe even with three or four others.

This was Zach’s first time at César, but August had been here once before around ten years ago with her mom.  Today was also somewhat of a significant anniversary of one of August’s goals from her past, so our dinner here was a rekindling of memories as well as a delicious celebratory meal.  It’s a great restaurant to bring a date, your friends, and your family, but reservations are not accepted so be prepared for waiting if it’s a busy night.  But don’t worry, the restaurant closes at midnight so everyone who wants to, will get to eat.

Capay Valley Almond Festival

just as the almond trees are starting to bloom

just as the almond trees are starting to bloom

Capay Valley, covering Esparto, Capay, Brooks, Guinda, and Rumsey, has hosted the Almond Festival since 1915.  We began in Esparto then made our way northwest to finish in Rumsey, sampling anything and everything almond that we could find.

mobile brick oven

mobile brick oven

Driving in, we met blocks of cars parked along the way up to the Esparto Community Park, and that’s when we realized this wasn’t just an almond festival – it was also a car show!  There were hundreds of cars on display, but somehow a parking spot opened up right before us, immediately next to the park.  It didn’t take long to find our first almond-based item from Caffé Italia, pulled from their mobile brick pizza oven.

sweetza pizza

sweetza pizza

This sweet and savory delight was exactly that.  Starting from the thin crispy crust, through the tangy and sweet satsuma mandarin marmalade and syrup sauce, a very light sprinkle of mozzarella cheese, and fresh sweet basil, the background for the day’s star was spectacular.  Plenty of toasted almond slices made this a real treat.

almond churro shortcake

almond churro shortcake

Puros Churros came up with an outstanding sweet treat, as well.  Shortcake was extruded in churro form and freshly deep fried, then dusted in cinnamon and sugar, topped with chocolate fudge sauce, almond slices, and whipped cream.  This was not your ordinary churro as the base was shortcake, so the crunchiness remained on the outside for the frying while the inside stayed cake-like and rich like a pound cake.  With the cinnamon, sugar, chocolate, and whipped cream, it was reminiscent of Mexican hot chocolate.

what we saw

what we saw

Soon after we found the first booth with nuts, and there were lots of them!  There were over 20 specialty flavors and we got to sample many of them while talking with friendly and knowledgeable Mel, but even at an extremely reasonable price, we settled on getting only five.

what we bought

what we bought

Some are for ourselves (really just for August since Zach can’t eat unprocessed nuts in excess) and most are for family members.  We can tell you about the mocha almonds; the smell is intoxicating, and the flavor is sweet from the cocoa powder yet has a hint of bitterness from the coffee undertone.  Fresh nuts always makes a difference – we learned that nuts found in the typical grocery store are at least six months old before they even get put on the shelf!

a-mend roca

a-mend roca

To support a local cause we bought a bag of almond, er, “a-mend” roca.  Too bad Zach can’t eat it, but August is loving it.  The toffee is crunchy but smooth, so it doesn’t get so stuck to your teeth.

fried mushrooms

fried mushrooms

Ok, so we got one item that wasn’t almond-related.  But it was good.  When we first arrived we saw a guy walking with these mushrooms and we asked him about them, so with his recommendation we got some after finding all the almond goods in Esparto.  With just a tiny bit of ranch dressing, these were mighty flavorful with fresh mushrooms and a light batter.

bake sale goodies

bake sale goodies

Along the way to Rumsey, Capay offered live music and barbecue food, Brooks did a wine tasting and olive oil tasting, and the Capay Fired Department barbecued oysters in Guinda.  In Rumsey we found more almond products to be enjoyed there and brought home.  Above you see an almond cake, a homemade bear claw, and blossom-shaped sugar cookies with an almond latte for sipping, all wonderful goodies from warm community members.

nuts n' honey

nuts n’ honey

Fine, we’ll admit, this is another non-almond product.  This is honey with walnuts, but who could pass it up?  Especially when we learned that almond honey is disgusting and only good for bees because it is very bitter, we thought walnut honey could make a great topping for waffles or pancakes sometime soon.

coconut crunch, onion garlic, and butter toffee almonds

coconut crunch, onion garlic, and butter toffee almonds

More nuts for family members!  Well, one bag might stay with August.  These came without business cards or a website, but were for another community cause.

We are definitely going back next year.  The people were friendly, the food was amazing, and there were lots of almond products.  The police did a great job in conducting traffic in these tiny towns.  It was a wonderful day!