Hybrid Food Market Coming to Grand Ave 

Plus, Chinatown's best bargain soup.

There's no easy way to categorize the new restaurant-market hybrid that Doug Washington is planning for 3265 Grand Avenue in Oakland (site of the recently shuttered Monkey Forest Road), a project that combines elements of an artisanal food market, a beer-and-wine garden, a cheesemonger/charcuterer, a takeout counter, and a coffee shop — so, Rockridge Market Hall meets Gregoire meets Local 123.

Whatever you do, just don't call it a food court, Washington joked. Still, suburban mall connotations aside, a well-curated, gourmet food court of sorts isn't a terrible way to wrap your head around the restaurateur's intentions for the place, which he's dubbed Grand Fare. In the center of the space, there will be a large prepared-foods section where customers can buy a hot meal; all along the perimeter will be the various specialized food counters — for breads, ice cream, charcuterie, cheese, coffee, and so forth. Outside there will be a large seating area that, pending city approval, will also function as a beer-and-wine garden.

"It's kind of taking a restaurant and turning it inside out," Washington said. Or, to put it another way, he'd like Grand Fare to function as "one massive kitchen serving everything that you love eating."

The project's first phase will launch next week, on Wednesday, February 5, when Washington opens Grand Fare as a casual cafe serving coffee (roasted by San Francisco's Linea Caffe) and pastries. Then, in March or April, the cafe will shut down for a few weeks' worth of construction, reopening — probably in May, Washington said — with all of the other elements of the market in place.

Washington, a partner at San Francisco's Town Hall and Salt House restaurants, said he's in talks with a chef that he'd like to hire to head up prepared-foods operation, but the goal will be to serve restaurant-quality dishes that reheat well at home. Possible entrées include sous-vide beef short ribs and olive oil-cured tuna. The idea, Washington said, is that the food would be good enough that a sneaky dinner-party host could pass off Grand Fare dishes as homemade.

As for the rest of the market's inventory, pastries will be made in house, as will some of the store's selection of jams, condiments, and vinaigrettes. But, aside from that, the market will mostly be in the business of curating. Bread will be supplied by one or two local bakeries. There will be about five different brands of coffee available. The cheeses and various packaged foods will come from all over, but with an emphasis on local purveyors.

According to Washington, the worst thing anyone could say about the market (even worse than calling it a "food court") would be say that it's overly "precious." Instead, he said he wants Grand Fare to be fun, affordable, and, above all, accessible — a bustling gathering place packed from floor to ceiling with delicious food.

"You shouldn't have to be a foodie, or have a food degree, to appreciate this place," Washington said.

Chinatown's Best Bargain Soup

The Lunar New Year is just around the corner, on January 31, and if you're like me, maybe you haven't got your act together enough to find the time and place of the nearest Chinatown street festival or lion dance parade. Maybe you've been deemed too old, or not Chinese enough, to partake in the straight-cash revelries of a red envelope exchange. Even still, the very least you can do to ring in the Year of the Horse is eat some delicious Chinese food this week, and what better place to do it than Oakland's Chinatown?

In the past year, I've written extensively about a few noteworthy newcomers — Tian Jin Dumplings, Classic Guilin Rice Noodles, and Hot Pot House. Here's one under-the-radar pick for your consideration.

Located just steps away from the Pacific Renaissance Plaza, Best Taste Restaurant (814 Franklin St., 510-444-4983) looks just like any other Cantonese-style barbecue joint — it has the same brisk service and the same tableau of ducks and chickens hanging in the window. But this tiny restaurant's specialty, listed nowhere on the menu, is its soup of the day, which, at just $1.99 a bowl, is one of the city's great, little-known bargains.

Actually, the soups at Best Taste aren't served in bowls at all, but rather in individual-portion clay jars. These are prepared according to the traditional Chinese double-boiling method, wherein the soup ingredients are sealed inside the jar, then allowed to slowly simmer inside the big steamer at the front of the restaurant. As a result, each individual portion of soup is kept hot inside of its serving vessel.

Walk in during lunchtime on a chilly day and you'll find just about every customer huddled over one of these steaming vessels. Whether it was a soup made with pork spare ribs and goji berries or another that featured free-range chicken and a starchy knob of ginseng, each of the versions I tried were clean-tasting and loaded with flavor, with a subtle sweetness to the broth from having been infused with sundry Chinese medicinal herbs.

The restaurant's other specialty is its claypot rice dishes, and although I've only started exploring that section of the menu, I will offer two pieces of advice: 1) As with the soups, this is a dish that's worth dining in for, as if you order it to go, you'll miss out on the best part — the thin layer of toasty, crunchy rice that forms on the bottom of the pot while you eat. 2) Steer clear of the "Chinese Preserved Meat with Vegetable" claypot, which is loaded with frozen-vegetable nonsense and little meat. Opt instead for the "Chinese Preserved Meat" without the vegetables, which does actually come with some Chinese greens, plus a generous helping of assorted fatty, salty sausages.

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