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Wood Tavern, Oakland CA

Last night we practically closed the restaurant.  Despite having 8:45 reservations for a party of four, Wood Tavern is so popular that we had to wait for other guests to clear their checks and leave, which meant we ended up getting home after midnight; we hope you understand why we waited until this morning to post.

Before we even start talking about our wonderful meal, though, we must offer this disclaimer: Lighting was horrible.  We improvised and did what we could, but the pictures aren’t as pretty as they could have been if the place was better lit.  Dim lighting is “so 1920s” (according to Zach), and one votive wasn’t sufficient for mood lighting at the table, so forgive us for the funky shots.

surprise sampler

surprise sampler

We were immediately and graciously brought this variety.  A “butcher block” and a “cheese board” were at the top of the day’s menu, but we got a combination of items from each.  Brillat savarin (French triple crème cow’s milk cheese), head cheese, whiskey laced chicken liver pâté, honey chipotle almonds, sliced apple, and a pair of spreads were all delicious for smearing and placing on the rustic table bread.

crispy pork belly

crispy pork belly

We all loved the flavor of the tender pork belly.  It was a bit rich for some (hey, it’s fried meat and fat) but that left more for August.  With refreshing and tart green tomatoes, feta cheese, Sausalito Springs watercress, dry cured black olive aioli, and chili oil, this was a succulent salad-like treat.

russet potato gnocchi

russet potato gnocchi

Tiny, tender gnocchi were dressed with roasted wild mushrooms, ricotta salata cheese, sautéed wild ramps (a type of mild onion/garlic), rich and savory brown butter pan sauce, and truffle oil.  The delicious mushroom morsels were varied and perfectly sautéed to provide a contrasting texture to the light and fluffy gnocchi.  August and Zach already love mushrooms of all types, but our friend Jessica is a super-fan so this was particularly enticing to her.

sautéed alaskan halibut

sautéed alaskan halibut

Jessica ordered the halibut and gave us a taste.  On a bed of Yukon Gold potato-fennel purée, roasted wild mushrooms, pea tendrils, and spring onions in a fennel broth, the fish was mild and delicately flaky with a crispy sear.  The fennel flavor wasn’t overpowering (it can be too much for some).  The mushrooms, pea tendrils, and spring onions melded well and added a lot of depth to the dish.

grilled double cut pork chop

grilled double cut pork chop

Our friend Tal picked out the pork chop with guanciale, Yukon Gold potatoes, spinach, fava beans, and green garlic-Marsala cream sauce.  His creamy and rich sauce was the favorite at the table, as we all love Marsala.  For being double cut, it was not overcooked at all – it was tender, moist, and juicy, so the thickness did not hinder the cooking process one bit.

fresh tagliatelle

fresh tagliatelle

This fresh, hand-made pasta concealed the wonders within: tomato braised lamb shoulder with tarragon, chili flakes, and ricotta salata.  The pasta had a pleasant give to the bite, and did not compete with the texture of the braised lamb.  The spices, in particular tarragon, pulled August back to the memories of food during a weekend jaunt to Morocco while she was living in Spain.  The tarragon wasn’t overwhelming, and don’t be scared of the spiciness, either; she was apprehensive about the chili flakes, but the heat of the plate was minimal.

niman ranch burger with fries

niman ranch burger with fries

Zach was in a burger mood, and he added lots of optional toppings.  It’s already served “with all the fixings” like pickles, onions, lettuce, and tomato, but he requested emmenthaler, applewood smoked bacon, and avocado (August is so proud that he’s liking avocado more, because he used to not).  The La Farine baguette was artful for the burger and had an excellent crunchy crust with soft insides like a good European-style baguette should, but honestly it was a little impractical if you wanted to eat this like a burger; you can’t bite through both pieces of bread without the insides squishing out.  Zach had to resort to a knife and fork to deconstruct it, but it was delicious all the same.

Like we said in the introduction, reservations are a must because the place is so popular, there is no room for walk-ins.  Even still, be prepared to wait, because it’s worth it.  Parking can be tricky as well, but College Avenue is easy to walk with lots of shops to distract you along the way.

Homemade Gnocchi with Gorgonzola Cream Sauce, Truffled Walnuts, and Early Spring Salad

Gnocchi is our favorite pasta; it had been for each of us before we knew each other, so it was one of those “it was meant to be” things we gushed about when we met.  Zach grew up with it in his nonna’s kitchen with Sunday gravy, and he made thousands while working in Vegas, but tonight he finally made it from scratch for August.  So filling and so rich with the Gorgonzola cream sauce, we balanced it with a salad with bright, tart produce.

Makes 4

• For the gnocchi:

3 lbs. of russet baking potatoes

2 cups of all-purpose flour

6 egg yolks

1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese

1 large pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Salt and pepper to taste

potatoes, flour, egg yolk, parmesan, nutmeg

potatoes, flour, egg yolk, parmesan, nutmeg

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  Place potatoes on a baking sheet, then bake for about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes until slightly overcooked.

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Use rubber gloves to protect your hands, and peel away the skins to discard.

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Run the potatoes through a potato ricer, or grate them with the large holes of a hand grater; this should yield roughly 2 cups.

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Mound the potato, leaving a well in the top, to which add the egg yolks, cheese, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

Using your hands and a bench scraper on a lightly floured surface, mix well and then little by little fold and press in the flour – kneading will overwork it.  If the mixture is too dry, add a little water or an additional egg yolk.  The dough will feel firm but will give under slight pressure.  Form into a loaf so that portions are easier to cut.

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Divide the dough into 5 pieces and roll out into 1″-thick ropes.  Cut each rope into 1/2″-long pieces, lightly flouring as you cut them.

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After 1 hour of resting and being flipped over at the half-hour mark, these can now be cooked.  Heat water to a light bowl in a large pot of water with a pinch of salt.  Drop in the gnocchi; they will immediately sink, and once they rise back to the top, cook for about 90 seconds more.

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Remove from the water with a skimmer, let drain, and serve as desired.

• For the Gorgonzola cream sauce:

1 1/2 cups of heavy whipping cream

4 oz. of Gorgonzola cheese

1 roasted garlic bulb, peeled

Salt and pepper to taste

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In a medium saute pan, bring cream and garlic to a low simmer over medium-low heat.  Add the Gorgonzola cheese and mix until fully combined and the mixture is smooth and creamy.  Add salt and pepper to taste, and toss the gnocchi.

• For the walnuts (a nice touch with the gnocchi texture and Gorgonzola flavor):

1/2 cup of walnuts halves

1 tbs. of truffle oil

2 tsp. of truffle salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Roast walnuts for 12 minutes, then immediately upon removal from the oven, toss in the truffle oil and truffle salt.  Garnish the gnocchi.

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• For the salad’s vinaigrette:

1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup of freshly squeezed blood orange juice

1 tbs. of balsamic vinegar

1 tbs. of finely minced red onion

1 tsp. of Dijon mustard

1 tsp. of Marshall’s Farm thistle honey

Salt and pepper to taste

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In a bowl, combine all ingredients except the olive oil and mix until well blended.  Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while mixing until somewhat thickened and emulsified.  Serve with a salad of baby spinach, green romaine lettuce, green leaf lettuce, tango lettuce, green oak lettuce, lollo rossa lettuce, radicchio, red romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, red oak lettuce, red butter lettuce, red bok choy, arugula, and mizuna (essentially a spring mix with spinach added).  Other recommended toppings are blood orange supremes, dried cranberries, halved cherry tomatoes, and red onion slivers.

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Prima, Walnut Creek CA

It’s prom season for high school students, and August’s classes are asking her for ideas.  Prima is a place both of us had heard of for years, and to be honest most of what August heard was about the vast wine selection.  Tonight we learned that good wine is made great when paired with excellent food, but you don’t even need wine to fully enjoy these plates.

grilled asparagus and frico di montasio

grilled asparagus and frico di montasio

From the antipasti menu we picked the asparagus.  Owner/Chef Peter Chastain personally explained the frico to us: Montasio cheese, which is much like asiago, is simply fried, crispy, savory, and artsy.  Zach especially liked the fennel seeds mixed into the cheese, because paired really well with the slightly sweet Montasio.  He also appreciated the shallots in the vinaigrette, adding a mild, spicy earthiness.  The asparagus from Victoria Island was fresh and grilled just right, and the sprinkling of fennel pollen was a nice addition.  A bite of the farm egg with half an asparagus spear, a section of blood orange, and a chunk of frico was simple but so refreshing and fulfilling.  Presentation, clearly, is fanciful and fun.

roasted seasonal mushrooms and medjool dates

roasted seasonal mushrooms and medjool dates

August may have found a new favorite salad.  If all restaurants served something like this, it would replace Caesar as her go-to leafy green mix.  This insalate had roasted hedgehog, cremini, oyster, and chiodini mushrooms, medjool dates, lacinato kale, pine nuts, and lemon vinaigrette.  She took a bite and said, “Zach, make this please?” and he said, “Okay, we’ll get Farm Fresh to You and start using more ingredients like this.”

gnocchi al forno

gnocchi al forno

Gnocchi, as you know, dear reader, is our favorite pasta; August also likes miniatures, so she thought the tiny cast-iron casserole dish was adorable.  The hand-made gnocchi was tender and light, and layered with ricotta, pesto, broccoli rabe, and melted leeks.  The pesto was mild and, due the nature of being baked, a little crispy to contrast the soft gnocchi.  There are many pestos that can be overpowering, either for the garlic or the basil, but this was very well balanced.

niman ranch bistecca alla fiorentina for two

niman ranch bistecca alla fiorentina for two

Alright, so the bone might make some prom goers snicker.  But the meat quality and taste with leave anyone at a loss for words.  This mass of porterhouse sliced off the bone was served on a bed of arugula with lemon and parmigiano cheese shavings, and green garlic mashed potatoes on the side. This is beyond perfect for a date night, anniversary, Valentine’s Day, prom dinner, or any other holiday of that ilk because it is ideal for sharing – well hey, it’s labeled on the menu as a dish “for two.”  Part of our conversations with Chef Peter was about sourcing of ingredients close to home and the quality found among smaller producers like Niman Ranch.  The meat was buttery, almost like it melted and required very little chewing, for it was that tender.  It was seasoned and cooked extremely well, bringing out the flavor of the beef.  The side of mashed potatoes was creamy, light in texture, and had a well-rounded garlic flavor but was not at all overpowering.

When we walked in we were surprised by hostess Sarah – she was one of Zach’s classmates from high school!  She, just like server Chris, were strong cogs in a well-oiled machine of collaborative staff.  Attentive, conversational, and knowledgeable (just like Chef Peter), every team member seemed to love working here.  How could they not, when they’re justifiably confident in the food they prepare and serve?