By Stett Holbrook
Photography by Lara Hata
I made a trip to Spain a few years back, and I quickly became a convert to the Spanish way of life. I fell in love with the Spanish way of eating, which really is a way of life.
For breakfast I’d have café con leche and eat a pastry or tomatoes and olive oil on toast. Lunch was the big meal of the day and generally served midafternoon. All over Spain restaurants advertise their lunch specials—bargain-priced, multi-course meals that typically include dessert and a bottle of cheap but good wine—on sidewalk chalkboards. After lunch, it was siesta time, a late afternoon break to take a nap, read the paper and properly digest lunch. Very civilized.
After a siesta, Spaniards presumably went back to work. I went about the work of planning where to eat dinner, my favorite meal of the day. Restaurants didn’t open until 9 p.m. or so, but once they did, the streets came alive with couples and families leaving their small apartments and homes to socialize and eat. And what they ate weren’t three-course meals but tapas, little dishes made to go with beer and wine and to encourage light eating and lively conversation.
Back in the states, I told myself I was going to keep on eating like a Spaniard, but my plans soon unraveled. The first problem I encountered was the siesta. It was hard to find employers sympathetic to my need to sleep off a big meal and half a bottle of wine. Parental duties and a small dining budget also stifled my efforts to live la vida España. I could always go back to Spain, but until then I’ve thankfully got César to tide me over.
The always-crowded north Berkeley restaurant comes as close to a Madrid tapas bar as any place I’ve been. The eclectic wine and spirits menu alone is worth the trip, but the studiously authentic tapas menu is the star. It would be hard to improve on the concept but the owners have: César has opened a second location on Piedmont Avenue, bringing my Spanish fantasy a little closer to home.
The intensely anticipated restaurant opened in early August in a space on lower Piedmont Avenue. The space has been gorgeously transformed. There’s a handsome bar that dominates the heart of the restaurant. The walls are decorated in beautiful mosaic tile. The rest of the cavernous dining room is given over to wood tables and benches. Doors slide open to a patio for warm-weather dining.
Because the Oakland César has a bigger kitchen, the menu is slightly larger than the Berkeley restaurant. There’s also a small retail shop with cheese, cured meats, wine and other Spanish comestibles. Although César can be quite noisy, it’s an airy, inviting space. My only complaint is the two- and four-tops are too small, at least for the amount of food I order.
After looking over the great drink menu (which includes not only great Spanish wines and sherries, but also hard-to-find wines like an excellent Austrian Blaufränkisch and French-made hard cider), it’s time to get down to business. Although it’s made up of mostly tapas, there are several sub-categories on the menu—cured meats and cheese, sandwiches and larger plates. A great start is the tabla pequeña ($18), a sampling of cured meats and pâtés. On my visits, that included two kinds of jamón serrano, duck bacon, chorizo and butifarra (a Catalonian pork sausage). In case you don’t know, jamón serrano is the world’s greatest cured pork product. Richer and far less salty than prosciutto, jamón serrano is only now becoming appreciated in the United States because of changing import laws.
Another standby is patatas bravas ($6.75), roasted potatoes tossed in spicy, vinegary sauce. If there’s a dish that’s better suited to cold beer, I haven’t found it. Boquerones and crab profiteroles ($10.75) are an adaptation of a classic Spanish dish that has become a César favorite. Fresh anchovies with a light vinegary bite are tossed with crab in a creamy dressing and stuffed into a small croissant-like pastry. It’s a rich yet refreshing dish. The menu changes regularly, but these three items appear to be fixtures.
If it’s on the menu, seek out the trucha la Navarra ($9), velvety strips of rainbow trout paired with a few ribbons of sliced jamón serrano. On a warm fall night, the cucumber gazpacho with piquillo pepper relish ($7.75) was superb. The chilled, pale green soup was rich and creamy, and the chili pepper relish gave it an additional depth of flavor.
César’s menu is large, and there are a few duds. My biggest disappointment was the fried oysters and petrale sole ($10.75). The seafood was heavily battered, leaden and steeped in oil. Two of the platos grandes, larger tapas that could almost pass for entrees, also flopped. Suquet de gambas con papas ($18.75) sounded good on paper, but the Catalonian shrimp and potato stew suffered because the shrimp were dry and rubbery. It was only the hazelnut and basil sauce that saved the dish. And besugo a la Bilbaina ($18.75), a whole grilled tai snapper topped with guindilla peppers, garlic and sherry vinegar, also suffered from the same problem: It was overcooked and dry.
But hits far outweigh misses. The César sundae ($6.75), chocolate cinnamon ice cream, chocolate sauce and chocolate churros, is the star of the dessert menu.
The crowds of people that pack the place are what have made César such an instant success. Oaklanders are here in all their diversity, and the place feels at once trendy and welcoming. If you can ignore the fact that English is the dominant language, it’s not hard to pretend you’re dining out a happening spot in Madrid or Barcelona. For a frustrated Spaniard like me, that makes César special.
CÉSAR. Tapas. Serves lunch and dinner daily. 4039 Piedmont Ave., (510) 883-0222 (also 1515 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley). CC$-$$