Discovering the Food Scene in Oakland, CA

On Marcus's recent trip to the Bay Area, he was inspired by the local cuisines hitting the Pacific coast, and the oscillating art and rhythm of it all. From great chefs like Michael Chiarello all the way to the Mom-and-Pop shop that inspires with news ideas and a passion for food, Marcus made sure to hit all corners of the Oakland food scene (and a bit of San Francisco) in order to experience what the Bay has to offer. In his search were a couple of new places as well as some that have made the area a culinary gold mine for years.

Ike's sandwich shop, chop shop and even Michael Chiarello's new spot, Coquette, in San Fran.

Ike Shehadeh opened Ike's Place sandwich shop Halloween 2007 and has yet to look back. With 9 locations now, Ike's key to success is ensuring the happiness of his customers and really good sandwiches, of course. The clever names are a hit too, from Tony Soprano (ham, Italian dressing, provolone, salami, turkey) to Sometime's I'm a Vegetarian (grilled mushrooms, marinated artichoke hearts, pesto, provolone).

Chop Bar, in a West African manner of speaking, is a roadside restaurant and bar that also serves as a community gathering center. When Chris and Lev opened Chop Bar, this notion is exactly what they had in mind. Their cuisine is comfort with a worldly twist. Looking to serve a whole roasted pig at your next shindig? Not to fret! The guys over at Chop Bar cater to your needs. They proudly serve roast coffee and their brunch menu spans from Housemade Gravlax, Corned Beef HashChallah French Toast with caramelized apples, and Huevos Rancheros. The cherry on top? Their unfailing dedication to giving back to their community and supporting local vendors.

Michael Chiarello's new spot, Coqueta, Spanish for flirt or infatuation, in San Francisco was another must for Marcus. Chef Chiarello flirts with the flavors of Spain while adding his own unique and highly modern twists (e.g. White Gazpacho with marcona almonds, grapes, cabernet syrup and grapeseed oil, Sunny Side-Up Egg with shrimp, crispy potato, and chorizo dressing, and Grilled Ibérico Secreto spanish butchers' secret cut of pork, with "tximi-txurri" and watercress). 

Spices restaurant: rich with both culture and flavor.

But probably the most memorable place for Marcus was Spices 3, suggested to him by modern Chinese wunderkind Danny Bowien, which started in San Fran as Spices!. This Oakland branch of this highly popular Chinese Szechuan Fusion Cuisine serves a combination of various Szechuan cuisines under one roof: Taiwanese, Chung Ching, Chen Du, and Shanghai. Their dishes include things like  Numbing! Spicy Ma Po Tofu, Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken, and Chef Wang's Sizzling Beef with Basil. Loads of flavor, loads of spices, loads of love... But prepare yourself for the heat!

The next time you're in the Bay Area, make sure to make the extra trip across the bridge to discover these fantastic and iconic Oakland spots.

For more City Recommendations:

The Awesome Diversity of Street Food in NYC

Wanderlust: New Orleans

California Meets France at Jardinière

Chicago and its Southern Roots

Weekly Travel Guide with Alison: Napa Valley for Wine Experts

As my palate has matured, I have acquired an interest in learning more about wine, the traditional compliment to a fabulous meal.  When people ask me if I have an extensive wine knowledge, my current response is often the charming, "I know a decent amount...or at least I pretend to..."  Well, in my defense, I am working towards this goal.

In last week's column, I described my San Francisco journey, but that was only half of my Northern California vacation.  I also voyaged an hour outside of the city to sample the exciting gourmet cuisine and New World wines of the Napa Valley region.  My first evening in the beautiful countryside began in Yountville, the culinary capital of the area.  Renowned chefs such as Thomas Keller and Michael Chiarello have put this tiny town on the map with their delicious menu offerings and regional ingredients.  Though I did not make reservations at the celebrated French Laundry, I did have brunch at Chef Keller's unique and casual establishment, Ad Hoc.  The concept behind this restaurant is basically putting yourself at the mercy of the chef, arriving to a pre-planned meal courtesy of his daily ambition.  My three-course brunch menu revolved around the amusing Southern alliance of fried chicken and waffles.  With imaginative notions like that, you can expect to be awed with a unique experience on each visit, because even this leading global chef needs to get in touch with his playful side every now and again.

While I enjoyed my hearty brunch, nothing could top my dinner at Chef Chiarello's Bottega.  His garganelli with Sonoma rabbit ragu was the most amazing pasta I have ever had the pleasure to eat, and the dish has become my answer to the famous foodie question of, "What would you choose as your last meal?"  The noodles were perfectly cooked - not too mushy nor overly al dente.  The moist rabbit meat was encased in a divine savory broth that came alive with an earthy mushroom essence.  The rustic dish defined Italian comfort food.

Also, who could forget what brought me to the region in the first place - the wineries.  While the larger, more mainstream vineyards, such as Robert Mondavi, offered longer visiting hours, they tended to provide less personal experiences.  Luckily, my stay at the fabulous Napa Valley Lodge came complete with an accommodating staff that scheduled private appointments and recommended the most efficient itineraries.  We enjoyed excursions such as a one-on-one instructional tasting at the Honig Vineyard & Winery; an extensive sampling atop the picturesque hills of the Joseph Phelps Vineyards; and many more.  However, our most pleasing experience was shockingly at a small shop called Jessup Cellars on the non-descript main drag in Yountville.  The relaxed tasting room presented me with my first rewarding sips of merlot and chardonnay, two grapes I seldom prefer.  I literally loved each of the five varietals that I sampled.  Plus, since their wines were produced in limited quantities and could only be purchased directly through their wine club, I appreciated the experience even more.

Whether you decide to build your entire vacation around Napa Valley or you simply incorporate it into a San Francisco itinerary, visiting this beautiful region is a must for foodies, winos, or even those just searching for an introduction to that lifestyle.  The air is fresh, the cuisine is inspired, and the wine is plentiful - How could you go wrong...!