Friday, March 10, 2006

HFF Quickie: À Côté - Oakland, Ca

À Côté has been on my list of "places to try" for a while now--from those who've been reviews have always been mixed. It's also one of the restaurants that seems to have the "pricey" or "overpriced" tag slapped on it as if it were an ancient Greek epithet. Grey-Eyed Oliveto cockslapped Overpriced À Côté last Tuesday would be how Homer would've written it.

Point is, Cesar was busy, I was hungry, and À Côté serves until 11PM.

Went with my friend Serra and we were both impressed with the space--stylish yet homey with beautiful thick wooden tables, warm dark accents, nice big bar, and great lighting. There was some weird optical illusion working as to how the various sections of the restaurant were terraced, making the bartenders appear about eight-feet tall from our vantage in the pit area near the front of the restaurant. The nearly-full restaurant was at an easily manageable conversation volume.

We opted for a half-order of pomme frites, the prawn and serrano ham croquettes, the duck confit flatbread and a side of de ciccio broccoli, and the Garratxa cheese. The frites were good but unremarkable--fresh thin fries with an excellent garlicky (but not sickeningly so) aioli. It was an enormous portion for a half-order. Next to arrive were the croquettes--four dolma-sized cylinders dusted in pankow. These were incredibly rich--just made of prawn pieces, ham, and bechamel. The bites consisting of prawn and ham were great, but the bechamel was simply overwhelming. I would've preferred a drier croquette with more textural substance. Or perhaps some sort of citrus, herb and oil-based dipping sauce might've balanced the richness of the croquettes themselves.

The duck confit flatbread was ridiculous. Essentially a sauceless pizza, as opposed to more Mediterranean-style flatbreads you find and other restaurants, the warm slightly sweet crust was loaded with incredibly flavorful duck. The mild fontina cheese let the gamey richness of the duck--some of the most flavorful duck I've ever had--showcase. There wasn't enough of the pink lady apples (we barely noticed they were there), which was too bad because it was a great complimenting flavor in the one or two bites where it was detected.

The side of "de ciccio broccoli with crispy shallots" should've been listed as "cauliflower with de ciccio broccoli and crispy shallot." Cauliflower was easily two-thirds of the volume of the dish with maybe three or (at most four) thin pieces of de ciccio broccoli. In the bites that I had I detected crispy shallot once--Serra didn't taste any at all. Everything was cooked very nicely and was very fresh and flavorful, but if I'm ordering something listed as de ciccio broccoli I'd expect that to be the primary ingredient.

And then there was the cheese plate. This is what a cheese plate should be. Generous piles of toasted almonds, (not very) candied walnuts, poached figs, walnut levain toast, and a few pieces of fresh sweet apple accompanied a perfect sized portion of cheese served on a thick slab of tile. The Garratxa, a "firm" ash-rind goat cheese, was nice and goaty, creamier than I expected, and not too salty. A sliver of cheese, a slice of apple, a fig and an almond in one bite was absolutely heaven.

The wines that I had--a mineraly 2003 Hungarian Furmint from Bodegas Oremus in Tokay-Hegyalja was very nice, a touch oaky, and complex. The dry 2002 Slovenian Ribolla Gialla from Movia in Girska Brda was very light to the point of being watery. Great globe-spanning wine list with 38 wines by glass.

The food was all pretty good, with only the flatbread being a standout. I found the prices just barely on the higher end of the comparable small-plates restaurants out there, but the portions are also a bit larger than at Fonda or Cesar. In fact I would question even calling what À Côté serves as small-plates in the traditional tapas sense--a flatbread and a side of veggies could easily make a meal for one.

With a great space, good hours, a full bar, and that fucking ridiculous cheese plate, I'll be back at least once more, even if it didn't come close to unseating Cesar as my small-plates favorite.

À Côté
Cuisine: French & Spanish small-plates
Price range: $4-$15
HFF's cost for two (three small plates, one side, one cheese, three glasses of wine, tax, and generous tip): $85
Reservations: 510-655-6469 or (very limited early and late time slots--mostly walk-ups).
5478 College Ave.
Oakland, Ca 94618

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