Oliveto co-owner Bob Klein may run one of the East Bay's most celebrated restaurants, but he has never been interested in doing mundane wine dinners. The restaurant, which opened in 1986, has hosted regional dinners for several years, including one that focuses on the top dishes of Puglia, Italy, where Klein travels every year with chefs and select farmers.
One of Klein’s big interests is the integrity of the sources of his food. The restaurant has a local grain project for pastas, using grains native to California sourced from local makers. Klein, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Maggie, also has the restaurant using a unique polenta — red flint corn as oppose to a yellow — which grows from seeds sourced in Italy. (“Right now the pasta on the shelves is made with commodity wheat,” he said. “We know it’s from Yolo or Sacramento County but we don’t know what farm.”)
And now, for the last four days, the restaurant has been honoring sustainable and local seafood with its 11th Annual Oceanic Dinner series. The meals have included historic San Francisco seafood recipes like cioppino made from local fish and shellfish, Crab Louie, Hog Island Oyster po’boys, and salt-roasted black sea bass with Romano beans — and the menu is transparent, listing where every fish was caught and how.
Among the items on the menu of the Oceanic series, which ends tonight, is a swordfish involtini, a traditional Italian dish with a twist, in which the swordfish loins are salted for two days — just long enough to take out some of the moisture. Partially cured and then cold-smoked, the swordfish is then sliced very thin to pair with marinated shaved summer squash. The slices of swordfish are then wrapped around the squash and served on a dollop of horseradish crème fraîche with Sausalito watercress.
Other dishes incorporate the restaurant’s exclusive ingredients. The local oyster po’ boy with fennel slaw is marinated in buttermilk, seasoned with coriander, chili flakes, black pepper, and fennel, then dredged in a mixture of flour and the red flint corn polenta. “We have access to this great polenta from Community Grains,” the local grains project Klein started a year ago, said chef Jonah Rhodehamel. “It has a lot more flavor then your typical polenta has — a nice nuttiness. It just really adds something to the dish.”
The Oceanic Dinner comes at a time of great concern about the overfishing of certain aquatic species. While there have been reports of some species of fish, particularly salmon, returning to the Bay Area after a recent population crash, environmentalists and fisheries experts urge caution. There are regulations on how many animals fishermen can catch, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which houses thousands of sea plants and animals, puts out an extensive list of fish people should not eat because of sustainability concerns.
“We have a global economic circumstance, which is an industrial structure pillaging the public seas,” Klein said of the challenges facing the seafood industry during a sit-down interview on Monday. “It’s creating havoc and distress. But then you have local fishermen who are doing a good job and have always done a good job — they’re the fourth generation doing a good job.”
Klein said he is using these local fishermen to supply Oliveto. “The fish they get are different from fish farming industries,” he said. “There are circumstances where fish are thought not to be healthy or you should to stay away from them, according to the Monterey Bay list. But it’s a broad stroke and the answer is always more complicated.”
The independent fishermen Klein buys from are distributors for the Monterey Fish Market, where his fish vendor, Tom Worthington, is a partner. The methods these fishermen use, Klein said, include using Scottish seine, a more environmentally friendly form of the rope typically used to collect fish (it was granted an exemption in California from federal trawl closure areas in 2005) and using longline circle hooks to catch swordfish, which reduces the risk that the fishermen will accidentally catch turtles.
None of the fish that will be served on the Oceanic Dinner menu were caught through dredging — a practice in which a device is towed along the bottom of the sea by a fishing boat to collect edible bottom-dwelling species — or were sourced from fish farming, Klein said. The menu does include some farmed shellfish (Manila clams and mussels from Tomales Bay) as well as sea scallops, which are harvested through dredging.
Freshness and local sourcing are also primary concerns at Oliveto. Hundreds of live Dungeness crab, a species that inhabits eelgrass beds and water bottoms on the West Coast and were trapped near San Francisco, are being used during the Oceanic event. “I thought if we’re going to do something as easy as crab cakes that 50 percent of the restaurants in downtown San Francisco offer, we have to do it a bit differently,” Rhodehamel said. “We’re bringing in these crabs and hand-picking them. It’s time-consuming and crab cakes sell, which will make it really tough.”
Not every dish will be as easily identifiable. “One of the more fun ones on there is the sausage of hen and bay shrimp,” Rhodehamel said. “It’s similar to a boudin blanc [a particular style of sausage] but its not completely emulsified.” The charcoal-grilled sausage will be crusted with a little tarragon, chervil, chive, and a hint of Pernod, an anise-flavored liqueur. “The hen doesn’t really come across,” Rhodehamel said. “You’ll think its 100 percent shrimp. It’s hard to get that snap that comes with a good sausage just using shrimp. The hen takes the place of that. It’s a soft enough player that it won’t overpower the shrimp.”
Desserts won’t veer away from the Oceanic palate, either. The Georgia white shrimp crema fritta with roasted apricots “will taste like a pastry crème with shrimp,” Rhodehamel said, “the shrimp is not at all overpowering. There are hints of the shrimp, but it seems almost like a Chinese dish — how they can really incorporate those flavors and make them work with desserts.”
Klein said he has recently noticed a change in fine dining in that people are coming to focus more on the food itself. “What’s happened in recent years,” he said, “is the show part, the façade, becomes part of the irrelevance. To me, fine dining is about what you are really going to do. What are people really getting.” At Oliveto, “We don’t have fine china,” Klein said, “but we put our effort into the food and the quality of the food and communications and our staff. We have always done that; it’s not a switch for us. But it is much easier having no façade. It’s really cool.”
“We want people to have a real world experience, really good food. Be clear on what we’re doing and attentive to what they want,” he continued. “It becomes more inclusive and that’s a good thing.”
The final night of the 11th Annual Oceanic Dinner at Oliveto Café and Restaurant is tonight. Call 510-547-5356 or make reservations online here.
A version of this piece originally appeared on OaklandNorth.net.