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. 


Dashe Cellars: Urban Winery

Where there is good food, there is good wine. I can honestly say that about Oakland, a City that doesn’t get enough recognition for its urban wineries. Our perfectly moderate temperature in Oakland doesn’t allow for the growing of grapes here, but grapes can be harvested from some of the best vineyards within 100 miles distance and then transported here to produce some fine wine.  

One of the oldest winemakers in Oakland and my favorite is Dashe Cellars, which is celebrating 20 years. A good friend of mine and a long time supporter of Dashe introduced me to their single vineyard wines about ten years ago. Dashe specializes in Zinfandels.
The owners, Michael and Anne Dashe started their winemaking venture in 2006 with the production of a Dry Creek Zinfandel and has carried on a successful Oakland business to be proud of.  
I was lucky enough to be a plus one to attend the 20 year anniversary party at the Dashe Cellars in Jack London Square last weekend, an evening of food and wine. The highlights were drinking wine, meeting many of the Dashe team members, drinking wine, eating BBQ, and drinking wine.

Me and a Jeroboam aka Double Magnum

Here are some photo highlights:

My favorite wine of the evening was the Dashe Cellars’ 2007 Zinfandel Florence Vineyard from Dry Creek Valley. It had intense fruity flavors and was very smooth. It’s hard to believe the first grapes planted on this vineyard by Jack Florence was in 2002.

I counted at least a dozen wineries in Oakland. The City of Oakland offers an urban wine trail map to visit many of them. Enjoy!

Jack’s in Jack London Square

As we near the end of summer, it’s best to take advantage of the perfect weather we have in Oakland. I love to eat outside and my favorite place to do that is in Jack London Square. When it’s warm, you may also be looking to eat something on the lighter side. Jack’s Oyster Bar & Fish House fits the bill. Jack’s offers fresh, quality, and sustainable seafood. Eating here actually makes me feel like I am on vacation.

Jacks offers oysters on the half shell. Their daily featured oysters are $2.50 a piece, but during 3-6pm, it’s $1.50 a piece. With a mignonette sauce and a squeeze of lemon, raw oysters can be delightful.  I’ll take a dozen oysters, please. A nice beverage to wash those oysters down with is a rosé. 
 Another fresh offering from Jack’s is their peel and eat gulf prawns with cocktail sauce. These are large and meaty with a natural sweetness.
 I heard and saw so many pictures of the octopus at Jack’s that the last time I visited, I had to order it. The charred octopus with squash, rainbow carrot, potato, and pimento is a beautiful sight. You need a steak knife to get through this delicious chewy creature. The charring of the octopus not only puts a nice color on it, but it adds a great grill flavor.
 For dessert, I highly recommend their croissant bread pudding. It is a warm dessert with a crispy flakey texture mixed with a creamy custard and topped with ice cream. It’s absolutely scrumptious!  

Jack’s Oyster Bar & Fish House is a fun place where you can enjoy the scenery and have a small snack or enjoy a larger meal.  Reservations can be made at Opentable.

If I were a Vegetarian…Encuentro

I started my food blog about five and a half years ago and my very first post was a recipe for farro salad. It was influenced by a dish I had at the vegan/vegetarian restaurant, Encuentro in Jack London Square. A lot has changed since then, including the restaurant moving to a new location less than a mile away from the old location. I was super excited to try Encuentro again because of their social media presence, particularly Instagram followers posting and raving about dishes there.

I met a friend on a weekday evening after work. It was after 5pm, so we started with some hard cider. I had apple and my friend had pear. It was light and refreshing for this warm summer night.  
There were a lot of dishes that were recommended to me, but unfortunately with only two of us we were somewhat limited. We started with a vegan appetizer of marinated mushroom and smoked pecan pate which came with crostini, cornichon, house made fig chutney, and mustard. This dish was spectacular. The flavor of the vegan pate was wonderful and very satisfying to my palette. 
 The macadamia ricotta with heirloom tomato, summer herbs, grilled corn, and balsamic was highly recommended to me. The ricotta is a vegan option, so I chose to replace it with burrata cheese so I could get a little fat. The dish amazed me with its beautiful color. My mind is actually blown because I am now realizing the balsamic on top was freeze dried. I don’t recall a crunch from the balsamic, but I also don’t remember dressing spilling on my hand while eating this. How interesting! This appetizer is served on a toasted baguette and was fresh and delicious. I felt like I was eating pizza bread.  
 We were getting quite full already so we shared one entree. I was curious to try the Korean BBQ tempeh. It came with sautéed bok choy, sesame roasted white turnips, kimchee, and rice. Tempeh is a soy product that is used as a meat substitute. This dish reinforced to me that I don’t like meat substitutes. I really enjoyed the flavors of the dish and all the vegetables that came with it. Instead of tempeh, I would have preferred the use of tofu. Another idea I would present to Encuentro would be a vegetarian bibimbap.  

 We couldn’t leave Encuentro without trying a vegan dessert. Our waiter told us that people in the surrounding Bay Area come to Encuentro specifically for their desserts. We were both intrigued by the chocolate zucchini brownie with vanilla and chocolate coconut ice cream, caramel and chocolate sauce, coconut whipped cream, and candied walnuts. The brownie was delicious, but it was everything else on top that I could not get enough of. This was a light version of a brownie sundae that was rich in flavor.  
 I left Encuentro very pleased. The kitchen does a great job using vegetables to create unique and innovative dishes that make you feel happy and satisfied. One of the best vegetarian meals I have had, I highly recommend Encuentro.  


The One and Only Country Bar in Oakland: Overland

The entire Bay Area is cheering on the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. After all, it’s been forty years. I’ve been catching the games anywhere I can, but my favorite place to watch has been the new Overland Country Bar and Grill in Jack London Square in Oakland. It’s located in what my BFF calls the “cursed corner” on Broadway and Embarcadero. We have seen numerous places come and go.  

In order to be a good place to watch sports, there has got to be plenty of televisions. Overland has got that and an area in the back with a large projector screen. Another requirement is a full bar with drink specials. Overland has got bartenders in cowboy hats with plenty of drink specials. I’ve seen $4 Jack Daniels and they’ve got a frozen margarita machine pouring out $6 cocktails. When you are watching a game for roughly three hours, you have got to have good bar food. So here I am to review their food.
I’ve been to Overland twice and here are some of the various items I have eaten with friends. Hank style fries are french fries topped with pulled pork and ghost pepper jack cheese. I was a bit intimidated by these fries, but then pleasantly surprised. The flavor of the barbecue pulled pork, the french fries, and the cheese was well balanced with sweet, salty, and a kick of spicy. I was amazed how the fries remained crispy even with the pile of goodies on top. This is a great appetizer to share.
 I enjoyed some fried pickles which are cut, battered, and fried. I had these on my last visit to Texas and wanted to give them a shot. These were not quite as good as the ones in Texas. I think a lot of it has to do with the cut of the pickle. The ones in Texas were sliced about an inch thick. These were cut lengthwise in spears.  
 Overland serves a few different pizzas. They are made in the style of St. Louis which means it is cracker thin. We shared a pepperoni pizza. Personally I was not a big fan. To me it tasted like cardboard.  
 New on the menu are their stuffed burgers. One of my friends had one on the last visit, but preferred the regular cheeseburger he had the time before. I really enjoyed the regular cheeseburger I had. It was moist, juicy, and comes with delicious fries.  
 The second time I was at Overland it was Game 1 of the finals and the place was packed. I ordered a sausage sandwich which is a beef hot link served on a sweet corn hoagie. The link had been sliced in half and grilled. It came out completely burnt on the inside, but was turned over. I don’t know why I didn’t send it back. Maybe because it was so busy. I put some ketchup on it and it was definitely crispy, but surprisingly it was really tasty. I gave my BFF a bite without telling her and she really liked it.  
 I mentioned that Overland has a frozen margarita maker. It wasn’t functioning on my first visit, but I tried some on my second visit. They are served in cute mason jars and were delicious. 
 So when there are no sports to watch, Overland is a real country western bar and even has line dancing. My understanding is that on Wednesdays, it’s “wingo night” which is the night they serve chicken wings and customers can play bingo. Sounds like a good match for me. I hope Overland can stick around. If they continue improving and developing their menu, I am hopeful it might finally do away with the curse.  

Nido: Adding Color and Flavor to Jack London Square

I love Mexican food. I love sustainable food. There aren’t too many restaurants that do both. My favorites for both have been Tamarindo and Cosecha in Oakland and Nopalito in San Francisco. I now have another to add to the list. Nido opened the latter part of 2012 in Jack London Square.

Nido in Spanish means nest. With a cute logo and a neon painted building, I have been anxious to try this newcomer. A group of four of us had dinner there on Friday. We started with some $5 margaritas before sharing a couple of appetizers.

The chicken taquitos were a perfect starter. The meat filling fried in the rolled tortillas were tasty, but was extra tasty thanks to all the goodies that topped it.

The salad we shared included many fresh vegetables including butter lettuce, blood oranges, avocado, cucumber, and jicama. The salad was tossed with a light vinaigrette and pepitos.

One of my friends ordered the ollita de pobre. A cute tin pot arrived filled with rice, beans, salsa, avocado, and braised beef. It came with house made tortillas. Although it may have ranked least favorite of the evening, it was still very good.

Two of my friends ordered the special of the evening which was al pastor (marinated pork). This is one of my favorite meats, so I was looking forward to a taste. I have never had it cooked on a skewer. It seems like everyone knew how tasty this dish would be because this special sold out before 7pm. Nido hit it out of the ballpark with the al pastor. I would definitely look out for this item again. One reason I “liked” Nido on Facebook is so that I can keep track of this special as it is not on their permanent menu.

Based on a recommendation, I ordered the pork chop. It lay on a toasted almond & chile mole and diced squash. I have never ordered a pork chop at a Mexican restaurant, but trusted the referral. The grilled chop had perfect sear marks and was delicious. It’s nice to be able to count on a place to serve a great pork chop.

Dessert was going to be pie. Sharing the space at Nido is a business called the Pietisserie. I love the name.

With only beet pie and spiced apple pie left, we decided to try a slice of each. The beet pie was interesting and tasted a little like pumpkin pie. The apple had a nice flavor and crumble. It was a bit of a disappointment after such an amazing meal. I would have probably enjoyed them a lot more if it came with a scoop of ice cream. They sold out of many of their other pies so it may be worth another try.

Nido is definitely adding a lot of color and flavor to Jack London Square.

The Forge Pizza Works For Me

The Forge Pizza located in Jack London Square in Oakland opened this past Tuesday. It was highly anticipated for me because I love pizza and I love Jack London Square.

I checked it out on Friday after work with a group of friends. We got their early and got a nice comfortable booth to sit in. With lots of local beers to choose from, I had Oakland’s Linden Street Town Lager while one of my friends had Mendocino’s Scrimshaw Pilsner. I had a tough week at work so guess who had the 20 oz?

We started with a couple appetizers, crispy cheese curds and potato skins. Both were excellent. The cheese curds were battered and deep fried and came with tomato sauce to dip. It tasted like a lighter version of mozzarella sticks. The potato skins were wood oven baked topped with guanciale and taleggio cheese whiz. I would describe it as mini versions of twice baked potatoes. They were delish!

We also ordered a salad. Sometimes ordering a salad makes you feel like your meal is a little healthier. The arugula salad came with citrus, frisee, pecorino, parsnip ribbons, and honey vinaigrette. It was an interesting combination that worked well.

The first pizza we had was the margherita which had fresh pulled mozzarella, tomato sauce, and grana. I always like to have a simple pizza to start so you can assess the pizza and its crust. Thin crust pizza in Forge’s wood iron oven is a winner.

Our second pizza needed some meat so we went with the pepperoni. When it came out we thought we had the wrong pizza because it looked like it was topped with sausage. The waitress said it was correct as it was homemade pepperoni. I am glad it was not sent back because the flavor of the pepperoni was so good.

For dessert, we had two items. The first one was the butterscotch pudding with salted caramel. We had some mixed reviews. Not everyone liked it, but I did. There was a sweet, salty, and smokey flavor that I found intriguing.

The second item was the root beer float. I only had a taste because if I wanted a root beer float, I would’ve ordered it a little earlier in my meal. This would have been a great compliment together with the pizza.

The Forge Pizza was highly anticipated for me and it met all my expectations. I will definitely be back as frequently as I can.