Chef Reem Assil Highlights Arab Food in Oakland 

If you haven’t heard of Chef Reem Assil, you really should as she is successfully putting Arab food on the map in Oakland. Her Arab street food started in the farmers markets before she opened her bakery, Reem’s in the Fruitvale Public Market over a year ago. She recently opened her second outpost, Dyafa, a full service restaurant in Jack London Square.

Chef Assil specializes in mana’eesh which is a middle eastern flatbread. My favorite is having it topped with oil and za’atar, a herb and spice mixture of wild thyme, sesame, sumac, and salt. I’ve noticed the growing popularity of za’atar all around the country. You can get the mana’eesh at either the bakery or the restaurant. The bread is more like pizza than pita, but much thinner and crispier. The brushed on oil keeps the herbs, spices, and flavors intact.

Reem’s offers a nice mezze combination platter which come with four spreads to dip the freshly baked pita bread. My top dips were the labneh, a thick tangy yogurt that tastes like the most delicious cream cheese and the muhammara, which is made with roasted red peppers and walnuts.  
Brunch is available on weekends at Reem’s and that provided me with the opportunity to try their shakshuka, eggs poached in spiced red pepper tomato sauce, topped with feta and parsley. The sauce was rich and smokey and I was happy it was served with pita bread.
Another special item they offer is cardamom ice coffee. I just love the flavor of cardamom. This is the perfect summer morning beverage that I should consider worthy of a short detour on my way to work.
I was really excited about the opening of Dyafa. I was a bit nervous about dining there because I was taking my best friend there for her birthday and I got some mixed reviews. Nonetheless I knew we had to form our own opinions.

We ordered some dips to go with our order of mana’eesh. The cold one was the muttabbal which is charred eggplant, lemon, and tahini. It was a nice simple starter.
The warm dip we selected was the hummus kawarma which is hummus with spiced lamb, dried lime, and cured sumac. The unique flavors and the warmth of it made this hummus stand out.
We also shared a fresh salad of arugula, little gem lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and radish. This tasted fine, but we probably could have done without it.
We shared the maklouba as our main course which was layered rice, roasted eggplant, cauliflower, charred tomato, and topped with potato chips. I enjoyed this vegetarian dish very much. Each ingredient is formed and packed tightly and together the components offered wonderful rich bites.  
For dessert, we wanted something light so we shared the booza, which is an orange blossom ice cream with crispy phyllo and candied orange. The orange flavor was nice to end a meal with and the phyllo nest provided a fun crispy texture.  
My opinion is that Chef Reem Assil makes Oakland a better place by bringing delicious Arab food to the community. I would recommend Reem’s for a casual lunch and Dyafa if you are looking to enjoy a nice dinner. 

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Starbread: Queen of “Señorita Bread”

A friend of mine introduced me to a Filipino bun called “señorita bread.” She gave me a sampling of the rolls and my first reaction was “it’s alright.” It wasn’t very memorable. I didn’t understand her excitement about them.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend and I were at a strip mall in Newark where Starbread Bakery is located. Starbread Bakery specializes in “señorita bread.” My friend wanted to stop in to pick up some. I followed her into the bakery where the aroma of baking aroused me. I could smell the melting of butter and sugar. 

I decided to buy a box to share with my family. For $10, I could get 25 pieces of “señorita bread.” I waited as the Filipino woman went to the back to box them up. She handed me a box filled with piping hot “señorita bread.”
The drive back to Oakland would take a good thirty minutes, so I pulled one roll out of the box to try. I bit into it and happiness quickly entered my body. The pillowy, sweet and buttery rolls are heavenly. Luckily for me, I just ate lunch or I would have easily devoured half a dozen. The rolls will obviously cool down, but the trick is to reheat them in the microwave a few at a time when you are ready to eat them. It is the warmth of the buns that is essential. Ten seconds in the microwave worked for me. The butter and sugar gets infused into the rolls all over again.  
There are several Starbread Bakeries in the Bay Area. Locations include San Pablo, Pleasant Hill, South San Francisco, Newark, Pittsburg, and Vallejo. I’m not sure if Starbread Bakery invented the “señorita bread,” but they are definitely the queen of them.

Celebrating a Year in Oakland: La Parisienne

La Parisienne is a cute, bright French bakery located on Grand Avenue in Oakland. It celebrated a one-year anniversary this weekend. 

When you walk into La Parisienne, you are confronted with a display of artful desserts. When you follow the window display down the side, you will find many other French baked goods. Part patisserie and part boulangerie, the founders and chef comes directly from Paris, France.
The first visit I made to La Parisienne was shortly after they opened. I had coffee and was introduced to chouquettes. Chouquettes are made from light pastry dough and topped with pearl sugar. The sugar doesn’t melt and stays in form. When you bite into a chouquette, you start out with a little crunch and then the texture becomes slightly soft, airy, and eggy where it is hollow inside. These are bite sized deliciousness.

I have tried three types of croissants at La Parisienne – regular, chocolate, and almond. I found the almond croissant to be quite special. I usually get them warm because they make small batches and sell out fairly quickly.  
Today I picked up one of the beautiful individual desserts to bring to visit my sister. She enjoys fruit, so I selected the berry tart. I had a bite and thought the custard filling was deliciously creamy and light.  
I am happy that La Parisienne is celebrating a successful year. With prices a bit higher, I wasn’t sure it could stay afloat. It’s not a place I would frequent all the time, but I like to support the small businesses in Oakland. There are plenty more variety of desserts to try.

Exploring Fournée Bakery in Berkeley

Located on Domingo Avenue in Berkeley across from the historical Claremont Hotel, is a small business community of food and shops. Tucked in this neighborhood is a French bakery serving some of the best croissants. It was about a year ago when my friend introduced me to Fournée Bakery when she brought me two croissants – the ham and egg croissant and a traditional croissant.

A true test of a good French bakery is to examine the traditional croissant. The croissant at Fournée was perfect – light, flakey, and buttery. It transported me back to Paris. The ham and egg croissant is a best seller that I enjoyed. The ham is cut thick and cooked to a crisp giving you the impression that you’re eating bacon. With the egg in the center, you have a full breakfast in your hand. A medium cooked egg would be my preference.  


Since the introduction, I have been back to Fournée a few times. I normally enjoy savory items, but I have a weakness for chocolate croissants. The pain au chocolat at Fournée are to die for. It has the right amount of chocolate in the center of the flakey, buttery exterior.  


Fournée also serves two kinds of pizza – one vegetarian option and a Pepperoni. I had a slice of the pepperoni pizza. Although I had to pat down the pizza with a napkin to remove some of the excess oil, I still enjoyed it. A good bakery can definitely make a good crust.


Aside from traditional items, I appreciate the fact that Fournée also makes seasonal items. Recently, I had a delicious pastry filled with asparagus and scallions. I did not leave a crumb as I took delight in cleaning up the bottom of my bag which was filled with sunflower seeds and crispy pastry flakes.


There is so much more to explore at Fournée that I feel like I have just begun. My tip is to go early because they do run out of items. At the same time, don’t fret as whatever you are left with is another chance to explore something you may not have tried.  

Touring Oakland’s Rockridge Neighborhood

Last Thursday I attended the Rockridge Food Tour. It was a tour for “media only.” There were a couple of us that have non-media related jobs and do this on the side for fun. I was in awe that most of these people get paid to eat, but I was happy to be able to participate and eat for free.

The Rockridge Food Tour is run by a woman named Lauren who has a very bubbly personality and is passionate about this Oakland neighborhood. Our first stop on the tour was A16 which I dined at last year on my birthday. A16 is best known for their Neopolitan style pizza from their wood fired oven. The Executive Chef Rocky was there to tell us about the restaurant. The wood fired oven was imported from Naples, Italy and burns almond wood. The pizza crust is simply made with 00 flour, water, salt, and yeast.
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Isaiah made us a potato and onion pizza with smoked mozzarella. To me it doesn’t matter what toppings are on the pizza, it’s the crust that matters most. Taking ninety seconds to make, this one was perfectly crisp and chewy. A16 is beginning a brunch menu that includes a potato leek frittata we also tasted.
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Our next stop was Market Hall. I learned that this market was built in 1986 by the Wilson Family from New Zealand. Juliana gave us a little history including her personal story. She was one of the first employees and started working there after graduating high school.
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Now she is a cheese monger and gets to travel the world to find the best foods. We tried two things. I most enjoyed a burrata with Seka Hills olive oil.
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We continued our tour to Ver Brugge Foods which is a meat market. I actually never have stepped foot in there, but I have seen lines out the door on big holidays. They recently began to sell prepared foods and we tried a sample of a salmon with fennel dish. It was very moist and tasty. If you brought this sous-vide dish home, it can be prepared in 6 – 10 minutes.
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Right next door, we walked into La Farine where we enjoyed a mini morning bun. I’m not sure if the quality failed for me because it was the afternoon and had been sitting around or whether it was the size of the bun. Either way, I recommend the regular sized morning bun because they are always consistently delicious.
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Our fifth stop was Zachary’s Chicago Pizza. In 1983, a Wisconsin couple opened up this original pizzeria. After twenty years in business, they sold the pizzeria to their employees to best preserve their vision. We tried the spinach and mushroom stuffed pizza, the customer favorite and the pizza blanca, a thin style pizza with a garlic, fresh herb and olive oil base topped with mozzarella and ricotta de latte cheeses, garnished with fresh lemon. For us Bay Area natives, we all know Zachary’s is authentic Chicago style pizza and not surprised when it wins numerous awards year after year.
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We ended the tour on a sweet note, at Dreyer’s Ice Cream. I was not disappointed that we didn’t go to a gourmet or artisan ice cream shop. I learned a lot. I didn’t know this was the only retail shop. I didn’t know Dreyer’s invented Rocky Road ice cream. We were fortunate to be one of the first people to try their new line of frozen custards. My favorite was the salted caramel pretzel flavor.
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Although I knew Rockridge pretty well, I never really considered going on this tour. I was pleasantly surprised with the history, the personal stories, and the linkages with the community. I highly recommend the Rockridge Food Tour for visitors or locals.

Stateside Bakery: For Nostalgia Sake

Stateside Bakery recently opened in Berkeley reinventing old school cookies and snack cakes using quality ingredients and cutting out anything artificial. The innovator behind this bakery is Kate of CupKates, the first mobile truck serving up delicious cupcakes in the East Bay.
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I decided to get a variety of goodies to serve at Christmas dinner. When I arrived to Stateside Bakery on Christmas Eve morning, I was lucky enough to get some “Twinkies,” “Nutter Butters,” “Oreo’s,” and “MoonPies.” I wasn’t familiar with Little Debbie “Oatmeal Cream Pies” so I skipped them and didn’t think “Pop Tarts” served as a dessert.
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I first noticed that these treats were pricey, but figured Christmas was a reason to splurge on calories and the pocketbook.

The gourmet “Twinkies” known at Stateside as “Twinkles” is a soft vanilla bean cake filled with whipped cream. The cake and cream were delicious and lighter than the original. They do come in pairs just like the famous Hostess snack.
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I got miniature “Peanut Butter Nutter Cookies” to try and they were tasty. These crispy peanut butter cookies sandwiched with a peanut butter filling, didn’t give me the nostalgia of the original. I was also missing the peanut shape famous in the Nabisco cookie.
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The “Valrhona Oreoh!” were hands down my favorite. Stateside does a great job of reinventing the cookie but making it much more upscale by using fine chocolate. The giant cookie and filling brought me back to a good place. However, I didn’t eat them like I remember eating them as a kid, twisting the cookies open and eating the cream filling first.
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The “Original Marshmallow Sandwich MoonPie” is made up of two graham cracker cookies filled with marshmallow cream and coated with chocolate. Stateside’s “Moon Pies” are dipped in dark chocolate. These were probably my least favorite because I’m not a fan of the texture of marshmallow.
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I had a lot of fun sampling all the different treats. The bakery is continuing to reinvent new treats as well. I’m waiting for their version of the “Ding Dong.” If you are looking for some nostalgia and a delicious treat, Stateside Bakery is calling.
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Arizmendi: Great No Matter Which Way You Slice It

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Arizmendi Bakery on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland is one of six worker owned co-operatives of bakeries that are part of the Arizmendi Association. The other bakeries are located in Berkeley, Emeryville, (two in) San Francisco, and San Rafael. I have been frequenting Arizmendi since I returned to Oakland in 2001. Arizmendi is a place where I can grab quality baked goods such as scones, breads, and cookies.
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Most people including myself go to Arizmendi for their pizza. Their gourmet pizzas are thin, have a sourdough crust, and made with fresh seasonal vegetables. Their pizzas change daily, but one thing that doesn’t change is that they are always meatless.
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Today’s pizza was a combination of spinach, roasted yellow onions, mozarella, green onion, goat cheese, and olive tapenade. I ordered a slice of pizza and a small soup. The benefit of getting a slice of pizza is that it always comes with an extra sliver. The pizza was crisp and delicious. I especially liked the tartness of the tapenade on the pizza. The soup of the day was a Mediterranean lentil rice stew. This was a rich hearty soup. I enjoyed the flavors of the cumin and the coriander.
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I found out that the bakery in Emeryville will be selling King’s Cake this Tuesday for Mardi Gras. They are $20 and if you want one, you should place your order.
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