On Food

Net Wait

This article appeared in the February 9, 2001, issue of the East Bay Express.

5478 College Avenue, Oakland

By Eve Kushner

Last week I reviewed Grasshopper, a terrific new tapas joint on College that serves pan-Asian fare. Oddly enough, Grasshopper has lots in common with À Côté, another Rockridge newcomer specializing in French- and Italian-inspired tapas. Both places have pushed traditional cuisines into new territory by blurring national borders and downsizing dishes into tapas portions. And crowds are flocking to each restaurant—especially À Côté.

The Eiffel Tower

Arif and I first made our way to À Côté in early January, less than a week after it opened. Since it was Wednesday, we figured we’d have no trouble getting in. Imagine our surprise to find a large mob at the door; the owner’s repeated assurances that we stood a good chance of securing seats in the not-too-distant future weren’t very comforting.

We thought the crowds were a fluke, perhaps reflecting the supportive presence of friends and family on the restaurant’s first week. We also guessed that the novelty would have worn off when we returned on the following Tuesday evening. Wrong again. That time we sat at the extremely cramped bar, waiting 45 minutes for a table.

What’s going on? I asked general manager Jeff Berlin, who offered several theories. Passersby watched with interest as Nava became first a construction site and then À Côté. The bistro also benefits from being next door (hence the name) to Citron, both owned by Chris Rossi. À Côté draws customers from Citron’s faithful clientele to such an extent that business at Citron has slowed, and this was all part of the plan.

In fact, the plan seems to have been extensive. The Citron staff apparently found time to inquire into customers’ well-being and determined that what people most wanted was a nearby place to eat and drink till midnight. César has been one of the only East Bay spots to offer that sort of late-night scene. The À Côté owners actually kept César’s design and offerings in mind as they built their new venue but tried to outdo César in both arenas. They aimed for a happy medium between a casual, elegant café and a fine dining establishment—something like a Parisian café a hundred years ago. Customers have commented that À Côté does indeed feel Parisian.

It’s cramped, loud, pricey, and doesn’t take reservations—but the little dishes at À Côté are drawing a crowd.

Although the place might seem fully established, there are changes yet to come. This month À Côté will begin serving brunch and lunch, and by summertime the owners will open the back patio, which will be usable year-round, due to floor heating and an awning. The owners have visions of decorating the outdoor space with grapevines, an herb garden, a fountain, and soft white lights.

The extra seating might shorten the wait but probably won’t eliminate it altogether, especially because À Côté takes reservations only for parties of ten or more. General manager Berlin hopes there will always be a wait, because that’ll mean the restaurant is doing well. He wants people to factor the delay into their evening plans, putting their names on the list and then taking a stroll, seeing a movie, or even returning home for a spell.

Hmm…. Maybe some folks will go for that, but I’d rather see À Côté ramp up its service. On our first visit, the server was cordial but terribly slow to take our order (and not very knowledgeable about the menu). The second visit took two hours, and it wasn’t that we lingered. The server bolted from table to table; in fact, all the servers rushed around like mad. The kitchen staff looked to be in fine form, twirling dough for flatbread and slicing and dicing. We couldn’t pinpoint the glitches, but Berlin says there are still kinks to work out and feels optimistic that the whole process will improve. The menu doesn’t have a lot of sauces, he says, and the presentation isn’t complicated, so each dish should take only five to eight minutes to prepare. Indeed, once we were seated and had ordered, dishes came one after the other.

Before that, though, we suffered, not least because the place feels cramped when you’re standing in a mob. People must constantly step aside to let others pass. Obtaining a bar seat isn’t much of a relief because you’re still in the center of the hubbub, and the barstools are so close together that it’s a challenge to hop up onto one without disturbing your neighbor. À Côté can also become quite loud, and although it’s entirely appropriate for a convivial bar, it can add to the stress level.

Aix-en-Provence, France.
Aix-en-Provence, France.

Fortunately, the endlessly stimulating visuals take some of the sting out of the delay. Elegant alcoves set off with rococo arches create private dining spaces for a handful of lucky patrons. Other nice touches include ironwork that twists around a post like a vine, charming windows, wine and cheese cabinets with leaded-glass fronts, and a cheery wood-fired oven. Elevated sconces cast shadows just as medieval torches might have done, and muted olive and red-orange paint hues contribute to the not-quite-illuminated look. Further bringing to mind a medieval banquet, a massive oak “community” table seats twelve to fourteen people. Community tables are not uncommon in Europe, but Rockridge patrons have been slow to warm to the idea, preferring to wait for private seating.

Arif and I sat at the group table our first time and discovered unexpected benefits. We had enough space for all our dishes (which wouldn’t have been true at many of the other tables). And it truly fostered a community feeling because our tablemates were friendly beyond belief. They received an extra heap of wonderful pommes frites (compliments of the chef, whom they knew) and urged us to help them out.

The same group also was kind enough to bestow on us a free appetizer that they initially mistook for their own. We enjoyed the deliciously seasoned chick-peas that had become crunchy in the wood-fired oven, and we mistakenly assumed that À Côté regularly serves gratis starters. In truth the management is still toying with the idea and hasn’t made it a permanent feature.

As we munched away, we pored over the twenty-item menu and extensive wine list. Certain dishes (like French onion soup) are standard French fare, whereas others originated in Italy. This makes sense because owner Rossi comes from a French background and spent time in Tuscany. Some offerings also reflect Greek and North African influences. The choices will change every four to five weeks, especially according to seasonality, but not all at once. À Côté would be wise to annotate the menu with descriptions and translations. That way diners wouldn’t feel as frustrated, and servers wouldn’t waste valuable time in explaining “suppli al telefono” and “bouquerones” over and over.

We started with the suppli al telefono ($7), which translates from Italian as “telephone lines.” When broken open, the lightly breaded and fried balls of risotto, shallots, and veal stock did resemble telephone wires because of the stringy taleggio cheese binding the mixture together. Three to an order, the risotto balls provided a fascinating blend of flavors and textures, as well as a comforting warmth. They came on a tasty bed of celery that had been cut into flat crescents and doused with a vinaigrette.

The arugula salad ($7) consisted of a hefty mound of bitter leaves with Parmesan shavings and a healthy sprinkling of toasted hazelnuts. Well-dressed with a sherry vinaigrette, the salad struck us as refreshing and light.

The swordfish wrapped in pancetta ($8) turned out to be the winner of the evening. Six skewered chunks of fish would have been yummy enough, but the pancetta added an irresistible taste. We devoured it all, and I wanted more.

This unsmoked bacon also played a role in the pancetta-egg flatbread ($8), which made for the strangest-looking pizza I’ve ever seen. Charred from the wood oven, the puffy oblong rim deflated with the first bite. Toppings included an intact fried egg, crisscrosses of crispy pancetta, and melted mozzarella and Parmesan. In essence, this could have been breakfast food—eggs, ham, and bread—but it tasted like a sophisticated, perfectly executed dinner dish. À Côté currently offers three flatbreads and will likely continue to do so as its staff makes the most of that great oven.

We enjoyed the quail ($9), which comes two pieces to a plate. The surprisingly flaccid skin derives abundant flavor simply from being salted and peppered before the quail is pan-seared in the wood oven. This method of cooking also does wonders for the meat, which comes out pink and incredibly tender. The accompanying brown sauce is yet another revelation, bursting with the flavor of a hard-to-pin-down fruit. Of all things, golden raisins are responsible for the fabulous taste, along with white wine, reduced chicken stock, and pine nuts.

Feeling too full to indulge in dessert, we passed up the offerings, which included profiteroles, a cookie assortment, a cheese plate, s’mores (shockingly enough!), and a wide range of dessert wines. We treated ourselves to coffee and ended up paying $65 after the tip.

On the next visit, we again sampled the arugula salad, not because we hankered for a repeat experience but because we wanted a salad and didn’t have a lot of choices. It was as good as before, if not better.

Still on the prowl for veggies, we tried the butternut squash and cauliflower gratin ($6), a comforting, warming dish with a lovely breading. Arif traded all his squash for all my cauliflower, both of us finding happiness in our Jack Sprat–type arrangement.

The light, scrumptious country pâté ($7) afforded another pleasant surprise. The pork-based blend included dried apricots, toasted pistachios, and duck liver and came with several slices of French bread and cornichons. One wonderful aspect of À Côté’s presentation is that almost every dish comes with its own decorative and edible bonus.

Caper berries serve as the extra for the Croque Monsieur ($6), a grilled sandwich with flavorful layers of Gruyère cheese and smoky roasted French ham. I was impressed that a hot ham-and cheese sandwich could be so good, but Arif turned his nose up at the glorified deli food and donated his portion to me.

What attracted us both was the grilled calamari ($8). Perfectly tender, the seafood rested in a light Romesco sauce made of toasted almonds, red peppers, smoky paprika, lemon, and sherry vinegar, all of which made for compulsive eating.

So did the chunks of lamb on skewers ($9) with their wonderful charbroiled taste. Surprisingly light, the lamb worked especially well with a tapenade made from niçoise olives, anchovies, and capers.

At the end we indulged in coffee and a chocolate port truffle tart ($6). Made with a cocoa crust and accompanied by a small mound of vanilla ice cream, the dense dessert struck us as decadent beyond belief. We were blissed out until the $69 bill arrived. Ouch.

As good as À Côté’s offerings were, Arif and I couldn’t shake the thought that for only $45 we’d had an equally good dinner at Grasshopper—without the painful wait. Plus, the light Asian fare appealed to us more, simply because that’s our natural inclination, not through any fault of À Côté’s. Francophiles and those craving a late-night scene might fall in love with À Côté, and we will undoubtedly return. But for now, Grasshopper has stolen our hearts.