Postcard from Tom: San Francisco Bay Area

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Bay Area in Northern California continues to produce some of the most interesting places to eat in the country, but visitors who limit themselves to dining in San Francisco should know what they're missing. Here's what impressed me most on a recent tour of the region:

CAMINO (3917 Grand Ave., Oakland; 510-547-5035): The spare menu, the pristine ingredients, the warm-but-underdressed room -- there's much about this East Bay restaurant that will resonate with anyone who has ever dined at the foodie temple known as Chez Panisse in Berkeley. And with good reason: The chef here, Russell Moore, 44, spent more than 20 years at Chez Panisse, where in addition to cooking he wrote the menu and managed the growers. Eyes are immediately drawn to the rear and a glowing hearth ("camino" means "fireplace" in Italian), from which springs some of the best eating, perhaps whole petrale sole, duck or goat. Moore shops farm markets three times a week for his changing menu and butchers whole animals himself. Four long, neat rows of seating and an endless ceiling give the space the air of a sanctuary, and, in fact, some of the furniture came from a church in England, via eBay. A tad precious? Club music and distinctive cocktails (the margarita is swirled with house-made curacao) add spirit to the equation. Entrees $15-$25.

LA MAR CEBICHERIA PERUANA (Pier 1 1/2 , The Embarcadero, San Francisco; 415-397-8880): Frothy pisco sours and a stir-fry of beef, potatoes and cilantro let you imagine you're in Lima, but the vista from the airy dining room is pure San Francisco: the boat-filled bay, to be exact. Meals are off to a delicious start with a basket of thin potato, yam and plantain chips served with a trio of sauces that run from mild to wild. The fun continues with cilantro-green corn tamales lined with fresh cheese; grilled octopus atop herbed potatoes; and the obvious (seviche). There are no bad seats. A stool at the turquoise bar up front is as engaging as a pillow-strewn banquette in the back. Despite the restaurant's youth (La Mar opened in September), the service is tops. Entrees $17-$29.

NICK'S COVE (23240 Hwy. 1, Marshall; 415-663-1033): Pat Kuleto, the ace San Francisco restaurant designer with more than 200 interiors to his credit, sank $10 million into restoring this local landmark to its proper 1930s look. From the rope-draped mahogany bar to the mounted animal heads to the vintage condom dispenser in the men's restroom, no detail escaped his attention, which extends to a long dock on Tomales Bay and a dozen guest houses to the side of the charmingly scruffy seafood restaurant. Oysters make a great launch; I'm a fool for the grilled variety, slicked with a tangy barbecue sauce. But Dungeness crab is enticing, too, whether it's featured cold atop a classic Louis salad with creamy pink dressing or hot, along with slices of pork belly and tomato confit, in a gussied-up po' boy. Part of the pleasure of a visit to Nick's, about an hour removed from San Francisco, is the ride out and back, an adventure that takes in redwoods and (hold on!) narrow roads hugging cliffs overlooking the ocean. Entrees $14-$42.

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