A friend of mine roundly dismisses a certain type of guy as "Chicken Parm," as in, "Sure, he's cute, but he's a total Chicken Parm." The name refers to said individual's typically unimaginative order at an upscale restaurant, which C.P. often accompanies with a Coke. Things briefly looked good for Chicken Parms — what with a post-millennial backlash against metrosexuals and their dietary habits, along with the dawn of haute comfort food, a trend that just won't die. In fact, C.P., I guarantee that somewhere out there, a chef is putting the finishing touches on a stylized, artisanal version of your favorite. The bad news is, I've found your ninth circle of hell.
It looks a lot like heaven to socially and environmentally conscious epicures, and it goes by the name Camino. Not only is Russell Moore's restaurant, which opened in May on Grand Avenue in Oakland, unlikely to ever serve your gooey, starchy dish of choice, but Camino also eschews soda, vodka, tonic, cocktails with cute names, decaf coffee, fish that isn't local or caught sustainably, shrimp, lobster, nonorganic vegetables, store-bought vinegar, refined sugar, and tables made from felled trees.
Now if that list has the rest of you thinking you've got this place all figured out, think again. Because here are a few other things Camino rejects: the locavore label, the 100-mile rule, farm names on its menu. This is food by philosophy, but it's not an easy philosophy to pin down. To hear Moore tell it, there's a guiding principle behind every single aspect of the dining experience. If you need to know that the ingredients and preparation methods have passed an ethical test, you can relax here as you tuck into a simple, satisfying, wholesome, creatively prepared meal that you won't soon forget. If you're one of those people who think ethical tests don't belong at the dinner table, you'll be OK, too — one could eat here with nary a clue as to how and why the chef chose his ingredients. Even Chicken Parms could survive at Camino — but the soda thing is nonnegotiable.
Given Moore's 21 years at Chez Panisse — including 12 as the chef and produce buyer at the upstairs cafe — it's tempting to categorize Camino as yet another Alice Waters spawn. Moore begs to differ. "I think people are a little sick of Chez Panisse," he says, insisting, "This is our restaurant. This is a different thing." Certain subtle details do confirm that Camino is more quiet rebel than copycat. The differences start with the cavernous interior — an eighty-seat room that manages to be woodsy and sophisticated at the same time. Almost every seat in the house has a view of the wood-burning oven and cooking fireplace. ("Camino" means fireplace in Italian, and that's the genesis of its name, though many people assume it's the Spanish road.) With huge ornate iron chandeliers and a handful of thirty-foot-long tables made from blown-down Mendocino redwoods, this place practically screams feast.
Moore's wife, Allison Hopelain, is Camino's general manager, and she's often found at the front of the restaurant while her husband labors in the kitchen, preparing one of the menu's three main courses. Camino's menu changes daily, with the consistent themes being seasonal high-end ingredients and artful, unique preparations. A little menu monitoring reveals that duck, eggplant, and butter lettuces made frequent late-summer and early-fall appearances; the butter lettuce salad with radishes and herbs that I enjoyed on my first visit had a pleasing combination of textures and flavors. But it had nothing on the one I tried upon returning, which was all garlic and herb (we guessed thyme; it was chervil). A grilled duck entrée with figs, polenta, turnips, and red wine was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, with an almost buttery quality, while grilled California albacore with shellbeans, escarole, and slow-cooked tomato was pleasant but just a little bland.
Camino is a dream for vegetarians. Beef rarely shows up at all, and in addition to a handful of salads and other starters, one out of three of each night's entrées is fish- and fowl-free. Recent examples include eggplant gratin with roasted artichokes and baked ricotta, and roasted polenta with chanterelle mushrooms and escarole with egg. The egg made all the difference in the polenta dish, which was one of the best and most innovative entrées I've had in a long time. The polenta functioned as a base for the main event: fried egg, slightly bitter greens, and chewy, nutty chanterelles that came together to form the perfect culinary union. One constant at Camino is the service of pain epi from Acme Bread company — a braided rustic bread easily mistaken for sourdough.Camino is that rare new restaurant blessed with a liquor license, and the bar manager has created a revolving menu of exotic cocktails (a gin drink made with Spätlese Riesling, peach, and hibiscus bitters; a non-alcoholic concoction of green tea, costmary, lemon, and honey). I tried the Agricole rum, ginger, kaffir lime, and mint drink and loved its tang and complexity. At $9 or $10 each, these drinks might seem diminutive, but the size made for an interesting few slugs before sitting down to a meal best enjoyed with wine. The current wine list is only slightly longer than the food menu and has a strong European emphasis, with New World wines limited to a Sonoma Coast Syrah and a red blend from the Santa Ynez Valley. Notable among a quirky selection of spirits and beers are Occidental Road Apple Brandy and Blue Paddle Pilsner.
The only down note of our first Camino visit was the service. A red wine spill of indeterminate cause was handled with aloofness, and a replacement glass was not forthcoming. We were charged in full for the spilled glass, as well as for a mystery glass of Merlot that no one ordered (this charge was taken off the bill at our request). The whole exchange contrasted starkly with my second visit, which was pretty ideal — immediate seating, thorough explanations of every menu item, every request quickly honored. Even a dyed-in-the-wool Chicken Parm would have been content — he could have had the minestrone and a Liberty Ale. After all, Moore insists, "I'm not trying to stand on top of a mountain and say 'you must eat my way.'" Consider it more of a fireside chat.