It’s that time of year when it’s traditionally slow at restaurants, coming off the holidays when people are recovering from bills. In recent years I’d say that didn’t seem to be a problem in the San Francisco Bay Area, where people seem to love going out to eat.
But we’re coming off several days of heavy rains that kept many hunkered down at home, and we’ve had a recent spat of restaurant closures. So there is no better time to show your local restaurant some support and loving.
Enter Restaurant Week. This year San Francisco’s and Oakland’s dates are nearly identical (with Oakland just one day shorter but both ending on Sunday, Jan. 29). I like to check out participating restaurants, especially if it’s a spot I haven’t tried yet. With a fixed price, it can also be a value meal if you find the right spots offering the best prix fixed menu.
On Saturday, I ventured over to the Bernal Heights neighborhood of the city to visit the new Old Bus Tavern on Mission Street. My friend Steve joined me as we entered the brewpub that had an eclectic feel (Santa Fe-like wall hangings mixed with Victorian-like dinnerware).
For restaurant week, Old Bus Tavern is offering a $40, three-course dinner that includes a snack, starter and entree. What’s nice about Old Bus Tavern’s special menu is that you have three options in each category to choose from (although Steve pretty much followed my lead and ordered nearly the same dishes except our starters).
Our snack were mini hasselback potatoes made with fingerling potatoes and served with creme fraiche, cured egg yolk and chive. It was cute though a bit too heavy on the creme fraiche.
For the starter, Steve ordered the cauliflower soup with pickles, toasted pecans, bacon marmalade with radish. I ordered the gulf shrimp perloo, which is a Southern delicacy made with rice. Old Bus Tavern made it with brown rice with black-eye peas. There were a lot of flavor in the rice, which had the consistency of risotto, and the shrimp were meaty and cooked perfectly.
For the final dish, we both went with the grill cobia, a fish similar to swordfish. It was served with barley, hedgehog mushrooms, butternut squash and kohlrabi salad. It was a nice presentation and my first time trying cobia. The center of my the fillet was slightly raw, which meant the flesh seemed chewy, like tough meat. The barley was savory and flavorful, which counteracted the fish. (Other options on the restaurant week menu included beet spaetzle or pastrami cured short ribs.)
Old Bus Tavern offers sophisticated dishes in what seems like a casual, neighborhood pub. The three dishes we had seemed like a great deal for $40, although I would probably recommend going for the short ribs instead of the cobia. Still, I love a restaurant week menu with choices.
The deets: Old Bus Tavern, 3193 Mission St., San Francisco. PH: 415.843.1938. Open Tuesday through Saturday at 5 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.oldbustavern.com
On Wednesday I did Restaurant Week in my home base of Oakland when I visited Miss Ollie’s at the Swan Oyster Depot in Old Oakland. It was actually a suggestion from my friend Arlene, who was tempted by the oxtail soup on the restaurant’s special menu.
One of the nice thing about Oakland Restaurant Week is that it tends to be cheaper than across the bay, with dinner typically at $30. Miss Ollie’s $30 menu is even better because they throw in a cocktail, which I think is major given how most cocktails cost around $12.
Note: Miss Ollie’s menu includes four courses but don’t provide any choices.
So the night started with the cocktail, called “Corn & Oil” made of Cruzan black strap rum, falenum, lime, bitters and cherry. I enjoyed it, and since Arlene doesn’t drink, I got double the alcohol. Woo-hoo!
Next came a course of rice porridge. I generally eat this for breakfast growing up in a Chinese household, but here it’s a starter that got pimped out by a touch of uni (or sea urchin), which made the creamy porridge even more creamy. Some slivers of sliced cabbage on the bottom and drizzling of smoked pepper oil gave this bowl depth and interest.
Then came the star dish, the oxtail soup made with cassareep and ancient spices and served with roasted Cuban sweet potato and Carolina sea island peas. The oxtails were tasty, but maybe a tad under cook. There were some parts that were chewy and others that were luscious. It wasn’t even, so I had to fight to find the good parts. Arlene felt the soup was on the salty side and wanted some rice to absorb it.
The final course was dessert of Creole donuts with plaintains, served with all-spice creme and caramel. Oddly, this was a down note because the donuts were dense (and still had the taste of uncooked flour) and I didn’t get enough of the caramel flavor. (Props for the chef for making them fresh, though, because they were piping hot.)
Still, the overall dinner is a steal for $30. Miss Ollie’s is also a festive and casual environment with friendly service, so a spot worth checking out .
The deets: Miss Ollie’s, 901 Washington St., Oakland. PH: 510.285.6188. Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.realmissollilesoakland.com
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