If you're a food lover, good things are happening in sleepy Alameda. Not that it's been the Land of the Lost, gastronomically speaking -- Rosenblum Cellars (and friends), Asena, Angel Fish, and a few other local favorites have been doing well for years -- but the pace of gourmetification has begun to accelerate. Last year brought Speisekammer and Picante, and the new Alameda Marketplace has been adding new stores at a steady clip.
This year, two new American bistros have come along, and while neither of them are perfect restaurants, they're both welcome additions to the Park Street dining scene.
Rick's Grill arrived in May, the dream of two neighbors who had been talking about opening a place together for a while. Rick Powell and Chuck Carlise had been out of the restaurant biz for years, but when Powell, a real-estate broker, spotted the vacant space on Park and Encinal the pair decided to jump back in. Now open for lunch and dinner, Rick's specializes in American classics: Lunch brings soup and sandwiches, dinner steaks, pork chops, and pastas. Not to sound like a New York fashionista, but it's all a little 1987 -- Rick's even serves shrimp scampi -- but at least it's done well.
When I visited, though, my friend Mary and I got off to a bad start with the fried calamari, normally a crowd-pleaser. There's only one trick to calamari: You have to pull it out of the fryer before it turns into shrunken, dried-out nubbins. A squeeze of lemon and a pleasant, chunky marinara can't salvage it if you don't.
After that, though, our meal improved. The Napa salad proved that the simple combination of pears, blue cheese, and candied walnuts has become a California classic for all time -- the sweet knocking boots with the pungent, the crunchy rubbing against the creamy, everything locked in together by the tasteful vinaigrette.
Entrées come with your choice of pastas or potatoes. I went for the fries, which fared better in the fryer than the calamari had. Two boneless, skinless chicken breasts, their grill marks a perfect plaid, were propped on a stack of fries and flanked by a few grilled asparagus spears. A thick, smooth chipotle sauce -- a little tart, a little smoky, with a thirty-yard kick -- that tasted like it could have been pureed canned chipotles in adobo, complemented the moist chicken well. Mary selected the roasted garlic mashed potatoes to accompany her gigantic grilled rib eye. The steak got full marks for big, juicy flavor.
The big surprise on the dessert menu (Cheesecake? Check. Crème brûlée? Check.) was the key lime pie, made by a baker friend of the duo, which was pretty superlative. Not too sweet, all fluff and pucker, the pie went down fast.
The datedness of the food wasn't eased by the decor, which borders on sterile -- white walls, tile floor, wobbly plastic-topped tables, and some kind of palm tree motif. On warm nights, you'd enjoy your experience more on the semi-enclosed sidewalk seating -- we couldn't get a seat there on our visit. Once we got used to our fast-talking server -- give her a stick of gum and she'd have the part down perfect -- she performed her waiterly duties without faltering. The jovial owners were on hand, too, chatting up patrons before settling in at the bar with a glass of wine.
Alameda needs a place like Kelly's. San Francisco has 'em, and in recent years Berkeley and Oakland have acquired a couple, too. The kind of restaurant where you can teeter in on your Manolo Blahniks and not feel overdressed. Where you can wear a suit and not look like, well, a suit. The secret, my friends, is big cocktail glasses.
Kelly's has them -- large-capacity bowls with zigzag stems that fit in the hand more comfortably than you'd expect -- and good lighting to enhance your glamour. From the outside, in fact, the restaurant looks impossibly dim. But when your eyes adjust, and you settle into your banquette surrounded by midnight-blue and burgundy walls, white tablecloths, and a discreet direct light making you glow, you're ready for romance.
The piano helps the mood. The Kelly of Kelly's, Kelly Park, has played piano around San Francisco's tonier bars and cabarets for years, and finally decided to go it on his own. He's built the room around his six-foot grand piano, and sits down to play most evenings, bringing in an ever-changing rotation of Alameda and Bay Area musicians. The piano, the Manhattan, the votive candles all work. So do the quiet, pleasant servers, who slip to and from the table without raising a ruckus.
The food, however, still needs finessing. Chef Edward Hoffman, most recently of the UC Berkeley Faculty Club, has good ideas, but he doesn't always put in the work to make them come together on the plate.
That doesn't apply to the appetizers. There are two ends to the Caesar spectrum: lemony (dressed with a light, tart vinaigrette) or creamy (coated in a garlic-anchovy mayonnaise). Hoffman aimed for the former, and on a warm summer night the bright, crunchy salad hit the right note. I also enjoyed the prosciutto skin wrapped around pan-roasted prawns, which crisped up, giving the crustaceans a salty crunch. I wasn't quite clear on the purpose of the pool of beurre fondu (basically butter emulsified into stock) around the plate, because the prawns didn't need any more richness, but I scooped up the bits of bacon, tomato, and herbs to add a little extra flash to the prawns.
Then we got our entrées. Every millimeter of my grilled rib eye had turned a uniform, deep pink, a show that the steak had been allowed to rest after it came off the grill so that the juices had time to flow back to the edges. (Ever gotten a medium-rare steak that looks medium-well along the edges and almost raw in the center? It didn't get to rest.) On top was a hunk of a sharp blue cheese mixed with chopped walnuts. A little butter to mollify its sharp edges or a little toasting to bring out the character of the nuts would have brought it together with the steak. It came with a large pile of halved baby sunburst squash, their sides browned by the roasting pan. They hadn't yet given up the crunch, which was good, but they, too, lacked seasoning.
I also didn't go for the mahimahi with a summer-fruit salsa. The melon, cucumber, and onion in the relish needed a bolder dash of citrus and salt to stand up to the already mild white flesh of the fish. It just tasted like fruit salad. The risotto cake had an ideal texture: Outside, a crisp, golden panko crust. Inside, chewy arborio, barely held together by its own starch. But where was the flavor? Luckily, the meal ended well, with a simple Boniere Bakery brownie-turned-sundae with a scoop of ice cream and a whole lotta chocolate sauce.
The crowds at Rick's and Kelly's prove that there's still room for upscale restaurants on the island. With a community-oriented, affluent clientele itching for more high-end restaurants, Park Street is the restaurateur's equivalent of Coloma, California, circa 1848. Bring on the rush.
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