Restaurant Review: Camino ~ The Garden of Eating - a sinfully good blog about food

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Restaurant Review: Camino

The New York Times does not usually review Oakland's new restaurants. But they made an exception for Camino, a new Lake Merritt restaurant that opened for business on May 18th. Camino has impressive parentage -- it is the baby of Russell Moore, a fomer Chez Panisse chef and produce buyer, and his wife Allison Hopelain, a former Zuni Cafe and Bar Tartine hostess.

Camino Restaurant on Grand Ave

The restaurant occupies a large brick building that was once a furniture showroom and now bears a pleasingly rustic resemblance to a medieval castle dining hall. Iron chandeliers hang from the ceiling and long wooden tables stretch nearly the length of the restaurant. These long tables are accompanied by adorable antique wooden chairs that have small wooden pockets on the back to hold a hymnal (see the photo below.)

Camino Interior

Open fireplaceI was really taken with the chairs and actually asked Allison about them. She told me that they are originally from a church in England -- she bought them on eBay. The chairs are just one of many carefully thought-out, unique touches throughout the restaurant.

The focus of the restaurant is the open kitchen and waist-high brick fireplace in the back. You can watch Russell and the other chefs roast your dinner by hanging hunks of meat from strings to roast in front of an open fire (every once in a while, they wind up the string which then unspins and spins for a good long while, turning the meat for even cooking in the process.) The chefs also rake the coals out from the bottom of their traditional Uruguayan brazier to heat several cazuelas and pots of beans and vegetables that sit and stew slowly in the fireplace, slightly apart from the main action.

Although the menu is very small (only 8 items total!), the food is incredibly high quality and prepared with great skill and attention. You can tell that Russell takes food very seriously. For example, the restaurant has made an executive decision not to serve decaffeinated coffee because they feel that the process ruins the taste of the beans. Although some diners (especially those who've given up caffeine but are still hooked on coffee) may find that inconvenient, I took it as just one of many signs of Russell and Allison's devotion to good food. The whole place is basically a labor of love.

Without further ado, here are some photos and comments on our meal (which was delicious).

The bread was served on cedar planks with two big pats of butter - a presentation I found strangely delightful.

bread is served on a rustic cedar plank

We began with two salads: Grilled Pork Salad With Beets Cabbage & Mustard ($10)

pork salad with beets

And the Arugala, Herb and Fennel Salad With Avocado Toast ($10)

avocado toast and salad

Followed by the Eggplant Gratin With Roasted Escarole, Tomato Confit & Roasted Olives ($17) The eggplant was amazingly tender and sweet!

Eggplant Gratin

And the New Potatoes Cooked In Duck Fat ($6) (note to self, if you ever need something to taste good, just cook it in duck fat, you really can't go wrong!)

Potatoes in duck fat

I also ordered the most delicious drink (non-alcoholic) I've ever had - a little tumbler filled with a sublime combination of grapefruit, tea, and thyme. Although I did practically have a heart attack when I noticed that it cost $6, it was so tasty that I was actually inspired. And I don't think that 6 bucks is really too dear a price to pay for inspiration.

Dessert was an incredibly yummy collection of little homemade cookies - three round dark chocolate hazelnut shortbread cookies and two small hunks of honey almond nougat. Though small, they were absolutely amazing! I'd never appreciated nougat before but this was like food for the gods.

Dessert Cookies

Camino also offers a swanky new "rustic modern" bathroom with the most powerful hand drier (the "XLERATOR") I had ever experienced. I could not resist a picture.

Bathroom via self portrait in mirror

Although the prices will probably keep me from becoming a regular diner, I would definitely recommend checking out Camino a toute de suite. And be prepared to worship your meal.

Camino is located at:

3917 Grand Ave
Oakland, CA 94620
(510) 547-5035

Camino Restaurant on Urbanspoon


patrick kane said...

The food at Camino is excellent, but the kitchen and the service are incredibly slow.

I've been twice and both times dishes took forever to come up and our server was MIA for 10-15 minutes at a time.

I couldn't tell if they were just getting the kinks out, if the restaurant is too large for the kitchen or if they need to hire more/better waitstaff. But it was enough to turn me off the place.

Deborah said...

I really wanted to love this place as I live in the neighborhood and have watched with anxiousness for us to finally get a destination restaurant. Alas, while I liked it, I wouldn't rush back. The food was good but really a little too much like a home cooked meal. The confit chicken was amazing and for that I was happy but the side dishes were ordinary - polenta and greens - and bland. The salad course again was good but no better than you can do at home if you buy fresh greens at the farmers market. I REALLY wish they'd try for a little more inspiration - and by the way, I love simple foods -- a plate of homemade charcuterie can be a revelation as can a simple pasta made perfectly or even a simple roast but for the price, I would expect each dish to be at least interesting...also, I agree the service was only so - so.