Friday, August 10, 2012

Vitus, 1015 Clay Chef Re-emerges at Alameda’s Cafe Q

By Luke Tsai
Fri, Aug 10, 2012 at 5:04 PM

Another day, and another promising restaurant opens up in one of the East Bay’s new culinary hotspots: Alameda. The latest contender? An unassuming spot called Café Q (2302 Encinal Ave.), which recently landed an Oakland chef with real culinary street cred: Jesse Branstetter, who, among other ventures, was a founding partner at Chop Bar.

When we last heard from Branstetter, the chef was toiling away at Vitus, the recently-shuttered (and now nomadic) Jack London Square club. Express critic Jesse Hirsch had filed a glowing review of Branstetter’s food, but was less impressed with the service and atmosphere at a venue that never felt like it was intended to be a dining establishment.

The disconnect caused Hirsch to speculate (presciently, it turned out) that Branstetter’s tenure at Vitus might not be long for this world — that Branstetter was too serious a chef “to cook in a place where food plays third- or fourth-string.”

In March of this year, that prophecy came true: With little fanfare, Branstetter left Vitus and dropped off the map for a while. Only recently did I find out what he’s been up to: a consulting gig at Café Q that eventually turned into a partnership.

Jesse Branstetter
  • Jesse Branstetter
Branstetter told me that he had been frustrated at Vitus for quite some time, despite the good reception his food was getting — he said he suggested a number of minor aesthetic improvements to make the venue a more attractive dining destination, but that the ownership wasn’t willing to put up the money.

Branstetter explained that he found out about Café Q through his friend Alex Roberts, who runs the Oakland-based coffee roastery, RoastCo, and whose coffee is sold at the cafe. In March, Café Q’s owners, siblings Minh and Thuhuong Nguyen, hired Branstatter to consult — to help them turn around a business that had already been open for a couple months, but was struggling at the time.

According to Branstetter, when he first came on, the restaurant had a panoply of problems straight out of an episode of Restaurant Stakeout: The previous chef was buying low-quality ingredients from Costco; members of the staff were stealing drinks all the time and smoking weed when they were supposed to be working. To make things worse, the cafe’s proximity to Alameda High School meant that a swarm of teenagers would take over the entire dining area during lunch hour — not a problem in itself, but Branstetter said about three-quarters of the students would hog up table space without making a single purchase.

All that said, Branstetter only had positive things to say about the Nguyens and their willingness to work with him to turn the operation around. Since Branstetter came on board, he’s hired a brand new staff, rearranged the dining area to discourage freeloaders, and slowly revamped the menu. He got rid of all the commercial sauces and dressings and started sourcing high-quality local ingredients, many of them organic.

About a month ago, the Nguyens offered Branstetter a partnership and the title of Executive Chef. Now, he says, all the food on the menu is his — either his own original recipes or dishes that he’s tweaked and refined.

The food isn’t fancy. Most of it falls in the general category of classic American comfort food, with Latin-American accents. As Branstetter put it, “You can do good food, but it doesn’t work to make it pretentious.”

So there are breakfast burritos and French toast in the mornings and lots of sandwiches for lunch — the “yam and cheese” (with grilled yams, goat cheese, and a roasted poblano aioli) is a signature dish Branstetter had put on the menu at Vitus as well. A couple weeks ago, Café Q launched dinner service, and the evening menu includes things like turkey meatloaf and baby back ribs with fennel slaw.

Once the school year starts, Branstetter says he’ll sell $5 bag lunches to cater to the high school crowd, but that the kids — like everyone else — will have to place an order if they want to hang out in the dining room during their lunch break.

Aesthetic improvements are also in the works, including a possible outdoor beer garden and artwork from Branstetter’s father, the sculptor John Branstetter.

Meanwhile, Branstetter has developed something of a cult following on Chowhound, where his thoughtfully-conceived, often meat-centric sandwiches have garnered raves. I think some of the buzz has to do with the fact that Branstetter has been so elusive: He was at Vitus for about half a year; his last project before that, 1015 Clay (also a sandwich-heavy enterprise), lasted all of two months. There seemed to have been a bit of drama surrounding both of those ventures.

Branstetter said those collaborations were deeply flawed — the owners ultimately didn’t share his vision, or weren’t willing (or able) to put in the money to make that vision a reality. In fact, Branstetter said his friend at Roast Co. pitched the Café Q project by saying, “You keep running into these bad partnerships. Well, these people are pretty good.”

But when I asked Branstetter if he’d be settling down at this new venture for the long haul, he hedged, saying he’d still like to open a restaurant in Oakland someday.

“My heart lies in Oakland,” he said.

Nevertheless, Branstetter said that for at least the next six months he’ll be devoting all of his energy to get Café Q off the ground. And so long as he’s there, it’s a good bet that loyal customers from Branstetter’s Vitus and 1015 Clay days will find a way to swing over to Alameda whenever they have a chance.

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