Meat Comes First at Belcampo
The Jack London Square restaurant and butcher shop is pricey, but the portions suit serious meat-loving eaters.
Photo by Lori Eanes
The menu subheading “Meaty Salads” tells you what you need to know about Belcampo’s priorities. Meat comes first at the latest restaurant and butcher shop in the farm-to-fork empire co-founded by Slow Food movement veteran and Eat Real Festival originator Anya Fernald. It’s in those salads — crispy-skinned chicken in the baby greens with mango; belly bacon in the Caesar; eye of round roast beef in the mix of radicchio, endive, Stilton cheese, and green beans; mortadella and bacon in the chopped salad. There’s pork pibil in the tacos, duck confit in the poutine, lamb shoulder in the shawarma, three kinds of tartare (two beef, one lamb), skewers of beef heart, leg of lamb, chicken thigh, and pork sirloin, and side dishes of belly bacon, lamb meatballs, sweet Italian sausage, beef chili, and Moroccan lamb stew. And we haven’t even gotten to the entrées yet. Or dessert. Yes, there’s a tallow shortbread custard tart.
Your server will likely ask you if this is your first visit to a Belcampo restaurant — there are branches in San Francisco, Larkspur, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles — and then, as did our waiter, Sammy, give you the lowdown on the operation’s 25,000-acre farm near Mount Shasta, how the animals are 100 percent organic, pasture raised, grass fed, and grass finished, with no middlemen in the vertically integrated chain. The full Belcampo story is available on the website, which emphasizes sustainability, traceability, transparency, and compassionate, low-stress handling practices, right down to the slaughterhouse designed in consultation with animal-welfare luminary Temple Grandin.
All those anti-industrial measures come at a cost, as did the prime Jack London Square real estate and the muted-hues makeover of the airy, if somewhat stark and noisy, 7,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor space — accommodating 230 diners, a huge two-sided bar, a meat market, and a mercantile area — previously occupied by Bocanova. This is where you will pay $26 for half a chicken (dry-aged seven days, brined, and air dried) and $18 for a half-pound cheeseburger with fries — unless you want the 100-day dry-aged version, which will set you back $32. The Argentinian grilled lamb is priced at $32 for a half rack, $52 for a full, the 28-day dry-aged Korean BBQ beef rib carries a $38 tariff, and for $20 plus the retail price, you can choose any cut from the butcher case and have the kitchen cook it to order, served with fries.
photo by lori eanes
But if Belcampo is for the well off, it is also for the serious eater. The smallest meat portions among the main dishes are 8 ounces (the burgers and the beef in the steak frites); others run 12 to 32 ounces. Sides of fries, either Kennebec ($6) or tallow-fried ($13/$18) come in enormous heaps. And embellishments of duck gravy, fried chicken skins, melted cheese, “dijonaise,” béarnaise butter, and bordelaise sauce elevate the richness of many dishes.
It would take numerous meals to appreciate the full range of chef Brett Halfpap’s lunch, brunch, and dinner menus. Robin and I ate as much as we could during two evening visits, about two-and-half months after Belcampo’s early July opening. Starting off with a Talent Scout cocktail ($13) was a great idea. Josh Goldman, of Soigné Group, came up with the eight seasonally changing drinks, and this one, on the rocks, was a fine balance of Buffalo Trace bourbon, dry curacao, Angostura bitters, and orange oil. Starting off with an order of tallow fries, however, may not have been the smartest move. The beef-fat flavor was exquisite, but even a “small” order — most crisp, a few limp — gave us that “I’m-already-getting-full” feeling.
Then came my 12-ounce New York strip steak ($42), aged 50-plus days in tallow, hay, and rosemary, bedded unsliced on potato puree and a pond of bordelaise as dark brown as the meat’s scored surface. Grass-fed beef is a different animal — leaner, a bit tougher, and more resistant to char — with a taste unlike that with which most of us were familiar growing up in the 20th-century United States. Ordered medium rare, my steak arrived very rare, purplish in the middle. But I didn’t mind. Tenderer than I expected, every chewy bite exuded complex beefy, herbaceous flavors. I should have taken half of it home but couldn’t stop swirling chunks through the silken potatoes and super-rich bordelaise.
At our second dinner, we arrived early enough to take advantage of the weekday happy hour (4-6 p.m.), and sipped $5 glasses of a light Cabernet and shared an order of lamb larb ($16) — beautifully browned minced lamb shoulder, made intensely spicy with Thai chilies, intended to be squirted with lime and rolled in big, gorgeous leaves of butter lettuce. Not as complicated as you get at just about any Thai restaurant, it nonetheless packed a wonderful, addictive wallop, and demonstrated chef Halfpap’s willingness to tap multiple cultural influences — Mexican, Middle Eastern, French, Italian, Korean, Japanese, South American, North African — to give Belcampo’s meaty dishes diverse flavor profiles. You’ll come across salsa verde, togarashi, gochujang sauce, gremolata, and chimichurri in various preparations. I resisted the temptation of the 16-ounce bone-in Hungarian pork chop ($32) and stuffed myself with sides of mac ’n’ cheese ($9) topped with long, lean shreds of delicious short rib, and crispy brocollini ($7). The former’s al dente cavatappi pasta swam in a runny pool of cheddar and Emmental and was dusted with Parmesan and green onions. The latter had a nice scorch and a kick of lemon, sage, and chili.
Fernald told The New Yorker’s Dana Goodyear that ex-vegetarians are Belcampo’s target audience, and purely vegetarian options are indeed few and far between: salads of baby lettuces or grilled vegetables, a couple of sides, and most of the desserts, including an amazing dense, almost black, chocolate brioche bread pudding with spiced rum caramel and crème anglaise ($12). There is a cauliflower steak ($18), but who would order that at such a meat-centric restaurant, other than my wife? She lived to regret it. The jumble of warm farro, greens, weirdly warm radishes, salsa verde, and romesco atop a small head (not a “steak”) of cauliflower was rendered inedible by an overdose of acrid fermented harissa that scorched the insides of our mouths. (The kitchen made us a harissa-free version, and the manager took it off our bill.)
That was on our first visit, and Robin, playing the role of ex-vegetarian, came to her senses a week later, and munched down a “damned good,” well-done Belcampo burger — half price during happy hour — built with an excellent balance of cheddar, house sauce, and butter lettuce (Robin opted for fresh rather than caramelized onions) on a perfect brioche bun. It came with a mountain of crisp Kennebec fries. That’s more the Belcampo way.
Belcampo Restaurant and Butcher Shop
American. 55 Webster St., Oakland, 510-281-0998. Serves lunch and dinner Mon.-Thu. 11a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., brunch, lunch, and dinner Sat. 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Belcampo.com, $$$-$$$$