Friday, June 15, 2007

Oliveto Oceanic Dinners 2007 - Oakland, Ca

Complacency's a bitch. When the dollars keep coming and you can keep yay up your nose and Thai hookers on your junk, what's the incentive to even maintain your standards, let alone push the boundaries of your creative thought? You have a nice restaurant, people keep coming, and you can charge whatever the fuck you want for whatever you want to serve--even if it means that two bowls of the exact same soup served at the exact same time taste completely different. Why would you pay attention to such a detail? You have sex slaves to traffic!

History is riddled with brilliant creative thinkers who couldn't maintain for very long. Hemingway blew his load with his first four novels. J.D. Sallinger barely wrote a second one. Coppola hasn't made a good movie since 1980.

Basically David Bowie, Martin Scorsese, and Dr. Dre are it for decades-long enduring creative thinking.

And enduring creative thinking is definitely not present in California Cuisine. It all began thirty years ago when someone came up with the brilliant idea that, "Hey, seasonal ingredients that aren't shipped from halfway around and are cooked properly are tasty."

Fucking genius right there. Brilliant. Took some real critical thinking to come up with that one.

The problem? While other parts of the country (and even the Bay Area) have been moving forward with that idea--combining freshness and seasonality with a rewnewed sense of innovation in preparation and presentation--the Berkeley/Oakland greater Gourmet Ghetto is still stuck in 1979.

But when the same wealthy ex-hippies keep clamoring to spend their ill-gotten gains at your restaurants at exorbitant prices, why would you need to offer an exciting product or anything new? What's the incentive (besides your integrity, of course)?

What will you do when those hippies die? What happens?

It's simple. You stop being relevant because you've surrendered your self-respect for complacency and a comfortable income. That's the upper middle-class American way.

What does this have to do with Oliveto? Everything.

I went with a large group which afforded me the benefit of being able to try things I wouldn't necessarily have ordered and the disadvantage of not getting things that I would've ordered.

I'll admit that Oliveto is pretty. Very pretty. Big dark dining room. Scene-y downstairs cafe. Nice bars. Sharp place-settings. Casually elegant servers. It's a pretty place.

First round was the "Grande Aioli" fish, shellfish, and vegetable platter and the platter of salted, marinated, and smoked fish.

The fish platter was remarkable in its ability to make king salmon, skate, tombo, swordfish, sea scallops, and bluefish all taste pretty much the same. The smoked sea scallops tasted like inexpensive canned smoked oysters. The marinated skate was the highlight inasmuch as it actually tasted like something other than salt and smoke.

Hard to judge the Grand Aioli since the chicks at the other end of the table had pretty much picked it clean. The crayfish I had was nicely cooked and the veggies were pretty fucking tasty. The aioli was sharp and garlicky almost to the point of oppressiveness.

Next up, crostoni topped with monkfish liver pate and served with arugula. Here the monkfish lacked the soft creamy texture and almost vegetal flavor of ankimo-style preparations. The monkfish was basically pureed, salted, and mixed with oil to the point of tasting nothing at all like monkfish. Yay! The arugula was good but on the bitter side, even for arugula.

The fritto misto of softshell, anchovies, salt cod, and grass shrimp was pretty damn good though once again picked through by the attractive but voracious women at the other end of the table leaving behind little more than a smattering of tasty fried grass shrimp.

What does it mean when one of the best things in a $150 dinner are tiny shrimp (which you can buy at a bait shop for pennies) served deep-fried and salted?

Next round, two servings of the Maine Lobster bisque, two orders of spelt pasta with dried swordfish belly, and an order of cuttlefish canneloni.

The bisque tasted like lobster, cream, and cognac. Which I guess makes it good if you like those things. I'm relatively ambivalent. What was odd here was that the two servings of bisque tasted markedly different, one tasting strongly of cognac, the other tasting mildly of cream. Inattentive plating or what? Weird.

Spelt pasta was nice and al dente and pretty damn good once you got used to the texture. The shaved swordfish belly (used similarly to bottarga or mojama) added a welcome fishy salty dimension to the otherwise one-dimensional pasta.

I really liked the cuttlefish canneloni, though others at the table were less impressed. I thought the ink-colored pasta was cooked perfectly and the contents were fishy and flavorful--one of the only deeply flavorful dishes we were served.

Entrees came and went with little fanfare. I was personally offended by the cioppino, which consisted of a large garlic and crab covered crostone, a small ladleful of tomato broth, maybe a half-dozen clams and a chunk of overcooked rockfish. I'm not one to bitch about prices, but $30 for that dish was an unconscionable mark-up and also wasn't a damn thing like what cioppino should be. Who did Paul Bertolli blow to be able to get away with serving a dish like that at his restaurant? Oh right, Alice Waters. I hear she's an uncut eight inches.

I will admit that the tomato broth was pretty good--rich and focused.

The whole sea bream was the entree highlight with the sweet old balsamic complementing the light buttery flesh. The fish itself was expertly deboned.

Grilled Boston mackerel was a disappointment only because it was overcooked to the point of dryness, a rare feat in cooking for such an oily fish.

Fava bean puree side dish was pretty tasty--sort of like aromatic Italian refritos.

Lastly a round of desserts and digestifs. My rosewater, saffron, and pistachio "bombe" was a disappointing plate of three milky (as opposed to creamy) tasting and very lightly flavored ice creams. No fruit. No cake. No mold. No sauce. It wasn't even shaped into anything unusal. Just a square. It looked like a piece of neapolitan ice cream sliced out of a rectangular ice cream box. And like I said it tasted like sweet milk. The souffle was much better, though surprisingly eggy tasting.

The highlights of our dinner was the alcohol. 2006 Bandol Rose was excellent, as was the 2006 Vieux Telegramme white. A glass of 1988 Malvasia was rich and sherry-ish. A second rose de pinot noir was decent but a bit sweet. We had a nice moscato d'asti that tasted of pear and sweet apples. We also enjoyed a rich oak-aged moscato grappa that was deep, complex, sweet, and caramelly. Probably the best distilled spirit I've ever consumed.

A few of the other attendees at the dinner were Oliveto regulars and they acknowledged the sub-standard nature of this dinner. So I should probably give Oliveto a second chance. But here's my thing--if you're going to do such a highly publicized dinner that is the source of much celebration every year it should be a showcase for your kitchen's cooking. This dinner felt like an obligatory after-thought. Like the Tony Awards.

I don't care if you don't specialize in fish. If you're going to make the decision to serve it, it'd better be good. This food was competent with flashes of exceptionality and a few instances of mediocrity.

One last note. Much of Oliveto's fish was not sustainably harvested despite the assertions of "conscientiously harvested fish" on their website. The scallops are trawl caught and the harvesting of scallops by trawl is one of the most destructive fishing methods around. The skate, triglia, and (most surprisingly) King Salmon are also trawl caught. All of Oliveto's tuna, swordfish, and rockfish are longline caught which is also of questionable sustainability and results in significant bycatch, particularly in overseas fisheries.

Given the availability of hook-and-line caught, diver harvested, and sustainably farmed versions of many of these fish and Oliveto's super-premium prices I question why such a major player in the California Cuisine world wouldn't use the most sustainable sources for these fish.

Seems lazy and complacent, just like Oliveto.

Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant
5655 College Ave
Oakland, Ca 94618
Reservations: 510-547-5356


Heather said...

Ouch! Guess I'm not going there.

Really enjoying your reviews, by the way. (I'm a friend of Charlie's, surfed over here from her LJ.)

David J.D. said...

Awesome. Glad you like it.

Dinner wasn't bad, just lazy....=^)

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

"Oh right, Alice Waters. I hear she's an uncut eight inches." In the face of such wit, it's tempting to respond with another ad hominem attack.

You're an idiot.

But I think I can do better.

Unlike you ("I should probably give Oliveto a second chance") I can judge Oliveto on the basis of more than one visit. I've had a few bad meals there. Many good ones. And a few excellent ones. I've eaten at enough restaurants to know that it deserves the praise it gets. It balances excellent cuisine with appropriate prices. It's impressive and imaginative without being pretentious and exclusive.

To be fair, Oliveto might not be the best fish restaurant in the Bay Area. But that's my point. It's not a fish restaurant. From your description (more than 50% of your comments are positive) it sounds like most of the food was at least OK. And that's despite the fact that Oliveto is a meat restaurant. You know that, right? They are one of the world's greatest meat restaurants. So, again, to spew up so much vitriol based on one unrepresentative experience is more than unfair, it's rude.

You claim that "David Bowie, Martin Scorsese, and Dr. Dre are it for decades-long enduring creative thinking." It's hard to continue reading your review after that. I mean, have you heard of Miles Davis? Prokofiev? Graham Greene? And I think that Paul Bertolli continues to be pretty creative. I've had stuff at Oliveto that I've never had anywhere else, cooked with consummate skill. Can you ask for much more?

Oh, this isn't much fun. Let's go ad hominem again:

"The bisque tasted like lobster, cream, and cognac. Which I guess makes it good if you like those things." Idiot.

"I was personally offended by the cioppino." Pretentious boob.

To be honest, I enjoyed reading your review. I think you write reasonably well. But I think you want to show off more than you want to be thoughtful. I suggest you visit a restaurant at least twice before reviewing it. And tone down the wild generalizations and pronouncements. They're just silly.

David J.D. said...

"To be honest, I enjoyed reading your review. I think you write reasonably well. But I think you want to show off more than you want to be thoughtful. I suggest you visit a restaurant at least twice before reviewing it. And tone down the wild generalizations and pronouncements. They're just silly."