Inside OMCA: Blue Oak Cafe

I spent the morning at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), a museum dedicated to California art, history, and natural sciences. As a child, I have had many memories and field trips to OMCA to view the large collection of California art. As an adult, I have visited OMCA to attend private events, Friday Nights at OMCA, and special exhibits.
Today I was there to catch the exhibit Respect: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom before it closes in another week, on August 12. From music, dance, fashion, and graffiti art, the exhibit explores the many facets of Hip-Hop culture. It was cool to see that the exhibit attracted an ethnically diverse group as well as young and old.  

I stopped to have an early lunch at the Blue Oak Cafe, OMCA’s dining option. Today, the cafe is run by Grace Street Catering. Blue Oak Cafe offers a variety of options including soups, salads, burgers, and sandwiches.  
I decided to order the BLT which is prepared with Niman Ranch Applewood smoked bacon, butter lettuce, tomato, harissa aioli on sliced sourdough bread. I was impressed by the generous sized BLT that also came with an organic mixed green salad topped with pickled vegetables. The harissa aioli spread elevated the sandwich and gave it a California twist. It was all very fresh as well.  
The Blue Oak Cafe appeared to be pretty popular. As I was heading out, the tables were filling up and the line to order was quite long. The cafe has some outdoor seating with umbrellas, so it’s definitely a nice place to enjoy lunch, an afternoon snack, or a glass of vino. The Blue Oak Cafe is open on museum days (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) and admission to OMCA is not required to eat there.

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Nyum Bai: Making Fruitvale Station a Destination

I had dinner with friends at Nyum Bai, a new Cambodian restaurant in Oakland on Friday. Nyum Bai went from restaurant pop up to restaurant stall to creating permanent residency at this brick and mortar in the Fruitvale Public Market across from the Fruitvale BART station. I was super excited because I was one of almost 300 people to fund the Nyum Bai brick and mortar project early this year via Kickstarter.

My knowledge of Cambodian food is from my fifteen years experience eating at Phnom Penh House in Oakland, which has been around for over three decades. I’ve always enjoyed eating there and it was sad when their original location in Chinatown closed.

My friends and I decided to eat family style at Nyum Bai. With four of us, that would give us a good sampling of the menu. For starters, we ordered the prahok ktiss which is ground pork belly that is stir fried and slowly simmered in coconut milk, fish paste, kroeung (a blend of Cambodian spices and herbs), and sweet palm sugar. I liken it to the Cambodian version of dip and crudités, but so much better.  


The machoo kroeung soup is made up of pork spareribs marinated in kroeung paste, water spinach, eggplants, roasted bird eye chilies, curry leaves, fish paste, and tamarind in a beef broth. The ingredients and flavors married together so well that it produced an excellent broth. This bowl brought me joy by the spoonful.


One of my favorite vegetables is water spinach. It’s known to me as ong choy which are long leafy green vegetable with hollow stems. The cha tahona-kounl is the Cambodian version that is stir fried with fermented beans and garlic. It’s still one of my favorites!


We also shared the kuy teav Phnom Penh which is a noodle soup with minced pork, shrimp, herbs, and crispy garlic cooked in a 7 hour pork broth. This is Nyum Bai’s signature comfort dish. This was very mild in flavor compared to our other dishes. I also find it similar to many other Asian noodle soup dishes where it calls my name when I’m feeling under the weather.
The most unique dish was the amok which is a fish curry steamed in banana leaves. The spices added fragrance and the egg and coconut milk provides a rich custard texture. It was delicious.


In place of the fried catfish that was not available, we ordered the beef loc lok, which is similar to the Vietnamese version of shaking beef that has a strong onion and peppercorn flavor. It comes with a perfectly cooked boiled egg on a bed of arugula. It’s a beef eater’s dream.
As we came near the ending of our dinner, we were already discussing the dishes we would try the next time. Nyum Bai brings another dimension of Cambodian food to Oakland and will make Fruitvale Station a destination!

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. 

Soba Ichi: The Soba Experience

If ramen, udon, and soba noodles were siblings, soba would be the middle child. Soba noodles don’t get a lot of attention in the United States. I can’t count the number of bowls of ramen and udon that I have consumed in my lifetime because it is too many. I can count with one hand the number of times I have eaten soba and it was probably dried soba produced in Japan. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat and there are no restaurants in the Bay Area that specializes in fresh soba until now. Soba Ichi recently opened in West Oakland giving “The Town” another thing to brag about.  

Chef Koichi Ishii is the man behind the soba. The soba is freshly prepared everyday from scratch in house, by hand by grinding buckwheat flour in a stone mill. They get their supply of buckwheat from Kitawase in Washington State. The demand has been exceeding the soba production as it seems they are consistency selling out before lunch ends.

My colleague and I went to Soba Ichi last week and we arrived twenty five minutes before they opened to ensure we were part of the first seating. I wanted to start with one of their small plates and chose the nameko oroshi-ae which was a mushroom and daikon dish. It was definitely small, but size was not an indication of flavor. The mushrooms were rich and earthy and combined well with the finely grated daikon.
Soba Ichi offers both hot and cold soba. My colleague and I both opted for the Jyuwari soba which is 100% buckwheat versus the Nihachi soba which is 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat flour. Our noodles are available cold and we ordered it with tempura. I was excited when my tray came out as it instantly transplanted me to Japan. (I haven’t been but this is what I imagine it to be like).  

I prepared my dipping sauce by adding the daikon and green onions to the soy based sauce. I opted out of the wasabi but added some chili powder instead. Using my chopsticks, I picked up a few noodles and plunged them into the sauce. The soba was light, clean, earthy, and slightly chewy. 

The shrimp and vegetable tempura came with what looked like a matcha salt to season. This was the best tempura I have ever had, especially the shrimp. I kept alternating between the soba and the tempura. It was a perfect match.  
When we were done, the server brought out a teapot filled with broth that we were supposed to add to the remaining dipping sauce to drink. It was warm and good for the soul. This actually helped fill me up.
I didn’t want my lunch to end so I ordered the dessert which was sobacha mousse. The tea flavor was nice and it had both jelly and custard topped with rice crispies.  
What appears and tastes like a simple meal at Soba Ichi is quite complicated. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and the experience. Although I was treating myself to a pretty expensive lunch, I knew I was paying for a labor of love.  

Dosa by Dosa in Oakland

It excites me to write about Dosa by Dosa, a hip new South Indian restaurant located in Uptown Oakland. The restaurant is owned by the husband and wife team, Anjan and Emily Mitra who already run two popular and successful restaurants in San Francisco by the name of Dosa. The Mitras bring a more casual menu to their Oakland location that I am loving.Let me start with the adult slushies. Dosa by Dosa have two frozen drink machines that are continuously running so that you and I can enjoy a boozie drink at the drop of a hat or rather a pull of a nozzle. One flavor is the monchichi which is made with vodka, coconut, pineapple, lime, green cardamom, and nutmeg. I’m not sure if it’s named after the toy I grew up with, but it was definitely delicious. It tasted creamy and gave me the feel of a beach.  The other flavor was shoeflower cooler which is made with rum, passionfruit, ginger, orange, lime, and lo-fi gentian amaro. This one was fruitier and sweeter. At $5 a glass during happy hour, I am elated.  If boozie slushies are not your thing, Dosa by Dosa offers a number of other innovative Indian spiced cocktails.
I never knew there was such a thing as an Indian french fry until I came to Dosa by Dosa. Called Idli fries, they are made from rice and lentil patties that are cut up into wedges and deep fried. They are served with a roasted chili garlic chutney. For some reason, eating these made me think about the Cream of Wheat that my grandmother used to make me as a child. I enjoyed these so much the first time that I ordered them again on my next visit. The serving is pretty large so it’s a dish that is easy to share.  

I also tried the Chenmai fried chicken during their happy hour. There is nothing not to like about the boneless fried chicken pieces that come out temperature hot. They have a little bit of a kick and served with raita dipping sauce to provide a ying and a yang.
Naan bread is one of my favorite things to eat when fresh. I tried two of their stuffed naan, the chicken and the cheese. For textural reasons, I preferred the cheese as it seems to blend better.  

Dosa by Dosa also includes rice bowls with your choice of Indian curries. They have chicken tikka masala, Tamil lamb, saag paneer, and butternut squash dal. You can also choose coconut, lemon, brown, or white rice. I had the excellent chicken tikka masala bowl with lemon rice.  

I believe there should be a rule that you can’t go to Dosa by Dosa and not have a dosa. A dosa is a beautiful paper thin, golden brown, savory rice and lentil crepe that is usually filled and rolled. I enjoyed both the masala potato and the habanero mango. The fillings are both potato based, but with a variation in flavors. They come with a coconut chutney, a tomato chutney, and sambar, a lentil and vegetable dipping soup. The crispy crepe with the creamy potato is pure harmony and perfection. I think I’ll stick with my rule and keep coming back for dosa!

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Mockingbird Moves Me to La La Land.

Over eighty restaurants participated in this year’s Oakland Restaurant Week (ORW). For ten days, various restaurants around the community were offering lunch and dinner menus with special pricing. I find that ORW is a great way to try out a local restaurant that I haven’t tried yet. I was super excited to try Mockingbird for the first time in Downtown Oakland.

I made reservations for a friend of mine to have dinner there last week. The Golden State Warriors were playing so we agreed to meet at 5pm to grab a drink at the bar before dinner. Mockingbird has a nice Happy Hour menu so in addition to drinks, we thought we should order some snacks to munch on as well.

Perfect to have while watching the Warriors game, we ordered the some fancy chips and dip. The House Smoked Trout Dip was made with trout, cream, scallions, and lemon oil. I could not stop eating the thin crispy potato chips.

We also ordered the deviled eggs which were topped with capers, pickled jalapeños and herbs. Deviled eggs are one of my favorite foods and Mockingbird makes me want to eat more.

Joe was our bartender but he ended up taking on the role of waiter because we were really getting into the game and didn’t want to leave the bar! We were still able to order our ORW dinner. The ORW menu was simple and each course except one had two different options so my friend and I pretty much shared everything.

For the first course, we had soup and salad. The soup of the day was a tomato soup with a dab of crème fraiche. It was creamy, tangy, and  smokey. Lucky for me my friend had been souped out from the week before so I got to enjoy most of it.

The salad offered was a winter fruit and baby kale salad with pumpkin seeds, ricotta salata, and a sherry shallot vinaigrette. This salad was dressed perfectly and really defines the season.

The second course included fried Brussels sprouts. My coworkers have been raving about these sprouts so I was pretty excited about trying them. The Brussels sprouts are tossed with a confit garlic aioli, blue cheese, thyme, and an Italian syrup called saba. After eating these, I completely understand where my coworkers were coming from.

Also part of the second course was a charcuterie plate which came with a duck liver mousse, jam, pickled vegetables, olives, and crispy bread. This was a fun dish to pick on.

The third course was the main entree and there were actually three options. Originally we ordered the chicken and pork and had decided to skip the vegetarian option. The Moroccan Spiced chicken came with roasted rainbow carrots, chickpeas, greens, and herbed buttermilk dressing. Every item on the plate was harmonious and complemented each other. The flavors were even more infused the next day when I ate the leftovers for lunch. I had a few colleagues comment on the wonderful aromatics.

We were really looking forward to the overnight pork sugo which came with crispy polenta, arugula, pickled red onion, and sheep’s milk cheese. The pork tasted really salty so we requested for a wedge of lemon to see if we could cut down the saltiness. At that time, Joe asked how everything was and the truth came out about the pork.

Joe was generous and offered us the third entree, the Winter Vegetable Tagine which was cooked in a rich sauce and topped with lemon yogurt, castelvetrano olives, and cilantro. This vegetarian dish was extraordinary and made me forgot all about the pork sugo. The vegetable tagine reminded me of the food of one of my favorite chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi.

Our fourth and final course was dessert. The first dessert was the Mockingbird Bread Pudding which is described as a traditional bread pudding with vanilla and nutmeg custard, caramel sauce, and whipped cream. To me, this was nothing but traditional and I absolutely loved it. I had more than my fair share of this one.

The other dessert was a citrus almond flour cake with chocolate ganache and candied almonds. I believe my friend preferred this dessert unless she sensed how much I was fawning over the bread pudding and was being nice. Either way, there was not a trace of sugar left on either dessert plates.

After dinner at ORW, I have decided that Mockingbird is a place that I will be adding to my repertoire. The food and staff are great. Joe even told us that he and the chef tried the pork sugo and agreed with us that it was overly salty. I really appreciated this acknowledgement. All in all, it was a perfect evening – the Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and my tummy was in la la land.

Crab Times Three at Le Cheval

Is it Dungeness crab season in the San Francisco Bay Area or is it not? I heard crab season had opened up in mid November and then I heard it was postponed until December, and then it was postponed again until January. It has been very confusing to me, especially when I heard on the news during the holidays that Dungeness crab was expensive and selling out fast. If the season was closed, how could there be local Dungeness crab available? Maybe it was fake news.

When I got invited to a private Holiday Crab Feed at Le Cheval late last year, I was intrigued. It was not only an opportunity to dine at one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in Oakland, but I could pig out on crab. I’m all in. I RSVP’d.

The crab feed was in late December and open for 50 people in tables of 10 family style. My friend and I were seated in the “Oakland” table. It was cool to meet and share a meal with new folks and discover that you had more in common than you expected.

The first course was an appetizer of spicy chicken wings which were pan fried in onions, jalapeños, and red peppers. The table seemed to love these. I thought they were good, but not the best I’ve had. However, it came with a tangy black pepper sauce that I can’t get enough of. 

 
Next we were served a prawn salad which was made up of shredded cabbage, steamed shrimp, jellyfish, lotus roots, mint leaves, and cilantro tossed in a light homemade vinegar and fish sauce dressing. It was topped with fried onions, peanuts, and giant prawn chips. The table seemed less impressed with this dish. I ended up taking seconds because it was there and it was my way of eating a little healthier.

  
It was the Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Long in San Francisco that popularized crab and garlic noodles. The garlic noodles at Le Cheval are cooked in butter, garlic, and olive oil topped with parmesan cheese. By the time the dish made its way to me on the lazy susan, it was only fair that I take a few strands so the rest of the table could have some. Luckily a second plate came around later allowing me to have a more substantial portion. But the second plate went as fast as the first. Who doesn’t love garlic noodles?


We would be served crab three ways. For each preparation, we would get four crabs meaning that our table of ten would be sharing twelve crabs. The first preparation was ginger crab which is pan fried with ginger and green onions. There was plenty to go around. I enjoyed several pieces and I didn’t need to fight for a shell. I consumed the crab innards, which is sometimes referred to as crab butter. It tasted like a cross between uni and custard and is definitely a delicacy not for everyone.  

The next preparation was the dried fried crab which is lightly battered and then dry fried with onions, bell peppers, and salt and pepper. This is actually my favorite preparation. I pretty much love anything fried, but the fact that it is dry is the reason I like it. You get to enjoy the sweet crab more naturally with the help of a little seasoning.  


The last preparation is the tamarind crab which is pan fried with tamarind sweet & sour sauce. This is the most saucy of the preparations. It had a nice flavor profile, but probably my least favorite of the three. Not surprising to me is that my friend preferred the tamarind and the ginger crabs because she generally loves sauce.


The preparation of the crab were all delicious. It was great to try all three in the same seating to discover my personal preference.

Although this crab feed was an event, the public can enjoy everything we had at Le Cheval including the three crab preparations. They charge market price so that could mean high prices if there is a shortage of crab.

I started to do a little more research about this year’s crab season on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website and it seems to make more sense to me now. It looks like in November the commercial crab season opened to the area south of Sonoma/Mendocino county, but stayed closed for the area north of Sonoma/Mendocino county which caused a shortage of availability of crab. The commercial crab season north of Sonoma/Mendocino county is scheduled to open tomorrow, so that should bring an abundance of crab available and bring down some prices. Start looking for more crab at the supermarkets and menus in the Bay Area!