Leo’s Oyster Bar
For this week’s big review, longtime Marlowe Burger fan Michael Bauer floated into the mid-century tropical fever dream that is Leo’s Oyster Bar, the latest from the Big Night Restaurant Group team (Marlowe, Park Tavern, The Cavalier). While Bauer loves the "anti-minimalist" Dorothy Draper-inspired vibe, it’s the "always beautiful and thoroughly cold" platters of seafood and "indulgent smaller bites" that really put the wind in his sails here.
After listing out every hot oyster preparation and caviar option, Bauer reveals his strong desire for "salt on salt on salt," which he indulged in the form of house-made tater tots with brandade and tapenade. And yet, even as Bauer admits he used to lick up handfuls of salt as a kid, executive chef Jennifer Puccio "overstepped the daily sodium allotment" on dishes like the pan-seared salmon and braised short ribs.
Saltiness aside, Bauer seems to love the rock shrimp on toast ("some of the sweetest I’ve tasted"), the updated Louie salad and the ahi tuna crudo topped with tea leaf salad that pairs nicely with cocktails like Mr. Nicholas’ Liquid Lunch — a martini with a bowl of pickled veggies. All told, everything works together to become what Bauer decides is "a huge success." Three stars.
For his midweek review, Bauer returned to Huxley — which he praised last year under opening chef (and Chron Rising Star) Sara Hauman. With new chef Manfred Wrembel in the tiny kitchen, the menu has expanded but it still leaves him hungry for Hauman’s dearly departed avocado uni toast. According to Bauer, the dishes and the service are lacking some of their earlier precision as well. He was not a fan of the plating on a roasted lamb chop, and the Dungeness crab was "weighed down" by "a powerful dose of horseradish."
Since he only makes one visit when updating reviews, Bauer did not apparently find room for the impressive bacon wafer burger, which seems like an oversight. He did, however, enjoy the pecorino-dusted asparagus and the desserts, which include "a carnival guilty pleasure" funnel cake dusted with candy cap mushroom sugar and piled on top of sorbet. Two stars.
In the Weekly, Pete Kane considers "the defining characteristics of Thai cuisine" at Saap Ver, which is Thai for "over the top delicious." What he finds is some dishes that are "delicious" and some that are simply "over the top."
On the one hand: the comfort foods like salted wings, sweet-and-sour tamarind and a minced pork larb ("probably the single greatest type of salad humankind has ever devised") are impossible to argue with. On the other hand, a dish of pork belly with green beans was "off-center in the meat-to-vegetable ratio," and the Siamese sardine dish was "something of a head-scratcher" with flavorful sardines and an intense sauce that seems to fit that over-the-top category. Other Thai cuisine mainstays are likewise hit-or-miss: the pad see ew beef was "mired in murk" but the pad thai was "satiating the way an overstuffed three-egg omelet is."
Overall, the space has "an infectiousness just to being in there" and through the lens of a couple lime-filled, off-menu specialty cocktails (there’s no real cocktail list apparently) Kane finds much to love, even if he is occasionally puzzled.
In the East Bay, Luke Tsai gives his apologies to Alice Waters and finds "Cal-Italian without pretense" at Benchmark Pizzeria in Kensington. Husband and wife duo Peter and Melissa Swanson have built a homey and personal space in the quaint neighborhood and have managed to fly under the radar for four years now, mostly likely because "many East Bay residents seem to be blissfully unaware of where the heck Kensington is." While the Bay Area " has no shortage of high-quality wood-fired pizza," Tsai believes Benchmark merits special recognition.
The titular benchmark is the traditional margherita pie, but the rest of the menu "paid no mind at all to the officially sanctioned ingredient list" from the True Neapolitan Pizza Association. "What I loved most about the pizzas," Tsai writes, "was the crust itself." It’s thicker and chewier than traditional Neapolitan, making it sturdy enough to fold up like a New York slice.
For a different sort of carbs, Tsai loves the "spring-like" spaghetti carbonara with "chopped asparagus and cubes of smoky pancetta" as well as the strozzapreti Bolognese with "an extra-savory mix of Marin Sun Farm ground chuck, pancetta, tomatoes, and thin shavings of Parmesan that melted into the sauce."
Finally, Tsai is digging on the liberties that Swanson takes with that Cal-Italian palette: a spicy carrot salad sticks out with Middle Eastern flavors and Thai-style heat, while the avocado toast is the only one he’s found that uses "a thick slice of deep-fried bread." (Although it sounds a little difficult to eat.) Overall, a positive review for "warm, easy-going service" and a value you don’t often find at Oakland’s marquee restaurants these days.
Elsewhere: In the East Bay, Nick Miller finds "damn good" beers at Oakland’s Temescal Brewing, Esther Mobley finds "over-the-top Tiki" at Pagan Idol, and Mr. Bauer found "an excellent New York strip" at Maple & Ash in Chicago, even though they only use grass-fed beef.