Neumanali's name sounds like a class of invertebrates or one of the minor potentates in an archangel's heavenly cabinet, but it's actually a play on words: the hundred-year-old Victorian that houses Hayward's newest bistro was once owned by Manuel Newman, and co-owners Julie McKillop and Helga Grayson tested out "Newman Towers" (its former name) and "Newman Alley" before settling on Neumanali. The "Established CA. 1897" printed at the top of the menu doesn't refer to the restaurant -- established February 2004, more like it -- but to the date of the building, an architectural landmark that started out as a boardinghouse on the lot next door and took three years of toil to restore.
Plus, it's haunted. "They're friendly, playful spirits," Grayson tells us one night, sounding like she isn't ordering up an exorcism any time soon. "They like to take my things." In fact, one of her photos documenting the renovation process captures a tall, spectral figure standing in one of the doorways; you can apparently find a print in the art gallery on the second floor. The ghosts must inhabit the upper stories, because you won't feel cold blasts from the crypt in the ground-level restaurant -- all warm woods, creams, and olives -- unless you're sitting next to the front door.
But the food that comes from Neumanali's kitchen is full of spirit. It's been a long time since I've eaten such a fault-free meal at a restaurant, either for pay or play. And the food isn't just free of faults, it's beautifully simple. Neumanali is the kind of place you emerge from flushed and cosseted, feeling like the world has given you a short break from its ills.
Part of the welcome comes from the fact that everybody wants to talk to you: At first, used to more standoffish service up north, my friends and I were a little taken aback when all five waiters and busers greeted us and the front-of-house manager leaned over to compliment us on the bottle of wine we chose. Then the table across the room wove by us just as our crème brûlée arrived just to tell us how much they'd loved theirs. When I arrived for visit two, and the previous week's server hailed me across the room, I thought, Damn, I know a half-dozen high-end bistros in Berkeley (not you, Lalime's) who should send their waitstaff south for a lesson in how to build this kind of warmth. This may be McKillop and Grayson's first restaurant, but they've sidestepped most of the awkwardness that plagues new restaurateurs.
Part of the reason for such surefootedness is that they've hired chef Cara Miller, whose experience includes the aforementioned Lalime's, Pearl's Cafe in Fremont, Livermore's Wente Winery, and five years at some of the high-roller restaurants in Las Vegas. Miller and her sous-chef Michelle Colavitti, last of Farallon, work in straightforward, generous flavors, creating big food without blowing out your taste buds with a wall of flavor. For example, pan juices run off their mammoth-sized ribeye steak, mixing with the blue-cheese butter melting across its surface, to pool among the season's first fava beans. The toothsome green beans bask in the beefy essence, tasting like the perfect marriage between animal and vegetable. Better still, the steak is stacked up against a big square of potato gratin that's so infused with cream that you forget you're eating spuds.
Equally big was a triple-thick pork chop, beautifully seasoned and pink at the core, with a straightforward port-wine reduction sauce. On the side were end-of-season beet greens, sautéed with a little garlic, and homey mashed potatoes sparked up by a spoonful of wholegrain mustard. A whole-leaf Caesar salad, thoroughly coated in a garlicky, lemony mayonnaise, hit the palate with the force of a slug in the arm. And the chef had stuffed a layer of fresh herbs under the skin of a chicken breast and pan-roasted it until crisp-edged and juicy, then served the meat with lemon rice, surrounded by a meaty au jus sauce of reduced roasted-chicken-bone stock enriched with a big dollop of butter.
But Miller doesn't just appeal to meat-and-potatoes sensibilities. A snappily dressed baby arugula salad with apples, lightly candied pecans, and a slice of blue cheese was a reminder that winter has its sunny days. Neumanali's standout appetizer, which every one of the five waiters recommended to our table, pressed a trio of seared scallops on a small mound of smashed potatoes with truffle oil folded in. It felt, and smelled, as luxurious as foie gras.
And the two fish specials I tried were as subtle as an Andre Tarkovsky film. Many cooks roast halibut -- classic to the point of boring, the Calvin Klein of fish -- and pair it with something puckery or pungent to give it some gumption. Here, Miller celebrated its mildness, bathing it in a mousselike mango beurre blanc whose delicate sweetness was echoed in the black forbidden rice and just-blanched baby carrots that accompanied the fish. On another night, she restrained from fancifying up a fillet of sole baked in parchment. Instead, she contented herself with a splash of wine, a dab of butter, and a handful of baby carrots, and let the paper-wrapped fish steam itself to the texture of Egyptian cotton. All you could taste was the natural almond-crab flavor of the sole.
The restaurant's one misstep was more of a venial sin. A saucy wild mushroom risotto was cooked with a mushroom stock that had all the meatiness of veal demi-glace. The cooks liberally seeded the rice with silky sautéed leeks and meaty chunks of portobello, oyster, and porcini mushroom, yet garnished the bowl with only a few shavings of Parmesan. The risotto needed a shock of salt and acid to vibrate on the palate, which happened only when we captured a little of the cheese on the spoon.
Recognizing that it occupies a rare niche in the Hayward dining scene, Neumanali doesn't just content itself with good food. The restaurant doubles as wine bar and wine shop. Taking their cue from PlumpJack in San Francisco, the wine-centered restaurant once co-owned by new Mayor Gavin Newsom, McKillop and Grayson have assembled a moderately sized wine list that doubles as inventory for the tiny store at the restaurant's entrance. Neumanali's brief list ranges all over the world, morphs frequently, and sells bottles for only $5 more than the store's retail price. I jumped at the chance to order a $32 bottle of Rosenblum Cellars' exquisite 2002 Carla's Vineyard Zinfandel, which has won so many awards this year that it deserves its own star on Sunset Boulevard.
I would be delighted to find Neumanali on any corner in Berkeley. That somebody finally brought a top-notch neighborhood bistro to the gastronomic hinterlands of southern Alameda County -- at least as far as California cuisine is concerned -- is a blessing indeed. Neumanali's spirits, blithe or not, should be appeased.
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