Chez Panisse, the high church of local, seasonal, ingredient-driven cooking, has shepherded many acolytes into their own houses. Now, Russell Moore, a veteran of both the downstairs restaurant and the upstairs cafe, and his front-of-the-house partner, Allison Hopelain, have mounted Camino, their monastery of pure and simple eating.
They furnished an airy, brick-walled former furniture store with long refectory tables sliced from a storm-felled redwood. Culinary pilgrims sit on English church chairs under candle-like tiers of lights in iron chandeliers hanging from the lofty ceiling. The altar? A fireplace and an oven where Moore and his crew perform all the cooking over open fires.
Some eaters start at the bar in the front window of Camino with a wildly shaken house cocktail ($9) poured into a round tumbler. Four of these refreshing, impeccably balanced drinks are available each night. Forget the traditional vodka martini.
The drinks go with four bar dishes such as a slice of headcheese, a tart and vibrant terrine served with a warm toast anointed with olive oil and salty black olives ($4). The combination is a religious experience. A light meal can be taken at tiny round tables or at a stand-up bar, but bar food stays at the bar — it will not be served at the tables.
Most file into the sanctuary, stake out a place at a communal table and order from a pared-down menu. Instead of anguishing about what to order, put all the food in the middle and share. Everything goes together as if it were meant to be eaten that way.
On a recent Thursday night, a tender butter lettuce salad was dressed in light, creamy green goddess, set off by a generous avocado toast ($9.75). A pile of skinny spring-lamb sausages ($8), finely textured, garlicky and spicy, went beautifully with a side of slow-cooked, whole-peeled tomatoes in olive oil, scented with fresh mint ($7).
One of three main courses, a tomato eggplant gratin with crisp-edged roasted escarole, came with one perfect sunny-side-up egg and a spoon of firm polenta that tasted just like fresh corn ($18).
Wood-oven-roasted California white sea bass ($25) was showered with a salad of cherry tomatoes and thinly sliced cucumber in yogurt dressing, delicious with long-cooked rapini. Every bite made me happy.
I hoarded a transcendent cherry tart, whole pitted cherries baked on the thinnest, crispest butter crust ($9). I can’t stop thinking about it — so simple and so impossibly difficult to pull off.
The wine list, as spare as the menu, likewise delivers plenty of pleasure. A glass of 2005 Domaine Confuron Cotetidot, Bourgogne Rouge ($8.75), is so right with all the food.
Everything edible and drinkable at this restaurant has been lovingly sourced and tasted. Moore personally knows his producers.
My only quibble with all this heavenly cooking based on beautiful ingredients is that the menu seems caught between offering a single family-style meal, which it really wants to do, and providing cafe-style choice. As it stands now, there is a little too much repetition of ingredients and preparations — eggplant, tomatoes, toasts and eggs — for such a small menu.
I only mention this because Camino takes us so close to a realm of otherworldly perfection that with a tiny bit of rerouting, it will get us there.
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 3917 Grand Ave., Oakland
Contact: (510) 547-5035
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday; closed Tuesday
Price range: $3 and $4 at bar; $9 to $10 for starters; $17 to $25 main courses
Recommended dishes: Menu changes daily, but look for headcheese, vegetable gratins or ragouts with sunny-side-upegg; roasted sand dab with almond salsa, chicken liver toasts, cherry tart
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express