Rockridge's Restaurant Row Broadens Its Footprint

Saturday, January 10, 2015

If 2013 was the banner year for the opening of new restaurants along College Avenue in Rockridge - 10, count them, 10 - 2014 might be characterized as the year of planned expansions, completed remodeling and increased hours.

New: Just one new restaurant, opened as High Peaks Kitchen at the southern end of College, moved seamlessly into the digs of what was Currylicious, improving the outdoor patio and serving up better Indian food, by way of Tibet. Tsultrim Dorjee told me that he and his fellow owners are Tibetan exiles who grew up in India.

And for those who like sweets, what could be called "Confectionery Corner" sprang up at College and Birch Court where See's Candies, founded in 1921 in Los Angeles, and Smitten, the high-tech ice cream shop founded in San Francisco, now reside. On a related note, Bittersweet Cafe has added meat and veggie pot pies as occasional items, and more salads to its lunch menu. A "chocolate curator" now selects its candies.

Expanding: It's pure luck if you can walk into tiny Enoteca Molinari without a reservation and be seated immediately. So owner Joe Madison will spread out into what was Bellisimo Salon, doubling the size of the Italian bistro he opened four years ago, from its current size of eight tables plus bar. "We're kind of making a mirror of our restaurant," Madison tells me. "I'm excited and a little nervous too." Construction is expected to take several months.

The Ramen Shop is also enlarging its footprint by taking over the space left empty when Rockridge Luggage moved to the Dimond District. "Next door will be a kind of waiting area with a cocktail bar and some snacks," says Sam White, one of the three Chez Panisse graduates who opened the eatery in early 2013. "We won't do ramen over there." Aiming to reduce the often hour-long wait for a table (reservations aren't accepted), they will open up 15-20 more seats for full dinner service in the current bar area once the new space is ready - likely in April. On a recent trip to Japan, "We also bought a new noodle machine that will accomplish in one hour what now takes us six," White told me.

Remodeled: Newcomer Sukho Thai, which opened just about a year ago, closed for six weeks and reopened November 8 "on my birthday," Ann Subsuvan, co-owner and manager, confided as we sat in a window seat and sipped a cup of delicious Thai tea. The renovation has resulted in a brighter, sleeker restaurant with added windows, sophisticated lighting and banquette seating. "Our strong point is an organic menu with gluten-free options," she says.

The owners of well-regarded Oliveto took to heart criticism from diners in the 2014 Zagat survey that the noise level in their upscale, upstairs restaurant was taking away from the dining experience, according to their website. A state-of-the-art acoustical system that relies on enhancing table conversation while muting external noise is the result. New sound absorption panels are disguised by the work of Bay Area photographer Deborah O'Grady, adding to the updated setting.

Extended hours: Last year, a criticism of the bevy of new restaurants was that several were dark during the day, discouraging pedestrian traffic. Indeed, A16 in San Francisco opened its Rockridge spin-off in 2013 as a dinner-only restaurant. But, as of last October, you can now have its distinctive appetizers, pizzas and desserts from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday for lunch. Sunday brunch offers a slightly different array that includes a frittata.

A16's pocket-sized neighbor across the street, Pucquio, has also added lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday though Friday. You might find a pulled pork sandwich with fries or salad or a pulled chicken stir fry on the abbreviated lunch menu of this intimate restaurant known for its high-end Peruvian street food - not an oxymoron.

Unfinished business: A year ago I confessed to failing to fulfill my resolution of eating at every restaurant along Rockridge's stretch of College Avenue. I didn't get to the long-established Barclay's, which as most readers already knew and I have since found out, has good pub food and a great vibe.

And because they opened very late in the year, I hadn't sampled The Barrel Room Oakland and Sukho Thai. My husband and I have now eaten at both a couple of times. The Barrel Room, unlike its San Francisco version, is a wine bar and restaurant. I love that the wine dictates the offerings, rather than the other way around, and that they change wine regions every couple of months so, voilˆ!, a whole new menu.

Meanwhile, Sukho Thai's food is so fresh-tasting that even my husband, who doesn't like spicy food, enjoys it.
2015 Michelin Bib Awards: Both the Ramen Shop and Wood Tavern, the California-style bistro that consistently lives up to its motto "Bold flavors, Welcoming vibe," repeated as Bib Award winners. That's the designation honoring the best restaurants offering two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less, as determined by the Michelin judges. And since A16 in San Francisco was also a repeat Bib winner, that should rub off on A16 Rockridge, preferred by friends who have eaten at each location. It was sad that Restaurant Chu lost its ranking, but it has good company; so did the iconic Slanted Door in San Francisco. Both still ring my culinary bell.

I feel privileged to live within a walk of so many diverse and delicious restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, pubs and bars - both long-standing and relatively new to College Avenue. Here's a toast to them all and a wish for even more success in 2015.
Your comments and ideas for columns are welcome: e-mail judyberne@att.net.