Dead-on Delicious dopo
Lively, friendly and dependably delicious, Dopo may be Oakland’s perfect neighborhood restaurant. Although it’s been open for nearly four years now and packs crowds in every night, it still feels like a find, and I end up asking myself why I don’t come more often. Like everyday. But even among top Piedmont Avenue restaurants such as Jojo, Bay Wolf, César and newcomer Xyclo, Dopo is a standout.
The restaurant doubled in size in the fall of 2006 after taking over the nail salon next door, but Dopo is just as crowded as it was before. I almost always seem to recognize someone as I queue up for a table, standing outside with a glass of red wine in hand as I try to soak up a little warmth from the heat lamp on a cold night. Once seated inside the boisterous dining room, the real pleasure begins.
Entrees top out at about $15, so the place can’t really be called a splurge, yet when you throw in a good bottle of wine from the excellent selection of lesser-known Italian wines, and perhaps a plate of the superb pesce crudo, the experience does feel like a big night out—with the big bill to prove it. But it’s time and money well spent.
Although Dopo doesn’t wear it on its sleeve like some restaurants, it’s also a particularly green restaurant. Each morning, chef-owner Jon Smulewitz heads to Berkeley’s Monterey Market to peruse the produce and cherry-pick what’s best. The famed market supports scores of small-scale, local farms that are the heart of the Bay Area’s ingredient-driven cuisine. He also makes an early morning call to Monterey Fish Market to find out what came off the boats that morning. The seafood purveyor is known for its reverence for sustainably harvested fish. Dopo also gets twice-weekly deliveries of produce from Knoll Farm, a Contra Costa County farm that abandoned the organic label because owner Rick Knoll feels organic regulations don’t go far enough.
With fresh fish and seasonal vegetables in hand, Smulewitz and his staff create each day’s menu. Like the wine list, the menu celebrates regional Italian cooking with lesser-known, seasonally driven dishes. While you’ll always find pizzas and excellent lasagna, for me the real treats are the antipasti and housemade pasta dishes.
There’s an understated confidence to Dopo’s food, confidence that comes from expert technique and superb ingredients. You won’t find heavily sauced or cheese-laden fare, but, rather, elegantly prepared dishes that are deceptively simple and dead-on delicious. Less is almost always more here.
Take the radicchio and ricotta tortelloni ($15). Tender, pleasantly bitter braised radicchio is paired with the simple, slightly sweet flavor of ricotta cheese and enrobed in ethereal, barely-there tortelloni. A light Parmesan sauce adds a finishing note of salty richness. It’s a dish that floats above the sum of its parts.
Another seducer was the crostone of braised octopus with saffron ($10). Octopus is too often chewy and rubbery, but in this dish the meaty tentacles are slow-cooked, tender and infused with spicy, saffron-steeped tomato sauce atop slices of toasted bread.
Pesce crudo (think Italian sashimi) is a relatively new addition to the menu and a great way to start a meal. Not only is the fish bracingly fresh, but the slices of fish and diminutive salads served with them are beautiful to look at, as well. On one of my visits, the menu included yellowfin tuna with finely sliced salad of fennel, celery, pine nuts and Calabrian chiles ($10); sweet-fleshed Thai snapper counter-posed with endive and blood orange cream ($10); and a plate of briny, raw littleneck clams and Hama Hama oysters ($9). Unable to choose, my wife and I got a platter of all three ($27 for two).
Lunch is more stripped-down than dinner—usually just salads, pizzas and panini. But these are more than just salads, pizzas and sandwiches. Knoll Farm arugula ($6) is a plate of wonderfully fresh and peppery arugula in a light vinaigrette. The light, Neapolitan-style thin-crust pizza is reason enough to visit. (Along with the lasagna, it’s the only item available for takeout).
Panini change daily. I loved the thin-pressed sandwich of tuna confit, soft-boiled egg, pickled red onion and mozzarella ($7). But the chicken, tomato sauce and mozzarella sandwich ($8), with its ingredients heaped into Italian bread, missed. The abundance of sauce made the bread soggy, and the white meat chicken was unremarkable.
Desserts at mid-priced restaurants are often afterthoughts, but at Dopo they’re just as strong as the rest of the menu and carry forward the simple-but-delicious ethic. Diplomatico ($6) has become Dopo’s signature dessert. The thin, mousse-like chocolate cake is topped with a dollop of whipped cream. It’s understated, but its chocolatey richness is all you need. Order the panna cotta ($6) if it’s on the menu. It’s wonderfully silky and rich but served in a tidy portion. Ending a meal like that sends me happily out the door but eagerly plotting my return.
—By Stett Holbrook
—Photography by Lori Eanes