For this week’s review, Michael Bauer brings his decades of experience to Jonathan Waxman’s self-titled Ghirardelli Square spot, where Waxman is finally bringing his Chez Panisse-trained California cuisine back to the Bay Area after a long stint in New York. Stepping into such a "down-market" tourist spot, Bauer says, is "one of the biggest risks of Waxman’s career."
But it’s only "risky" in the same way that fellow Chez Panisse alum Jeremiah Tower taking over Tavern on the Green was "risky" — it’s not really the success of the restaurant that’s at stake here, but rather the chef’s own reputation. And while Bauer seemed to be out for blood with the Tavern review, he’s a little more forgiving with Waxman’s latest, calling it "dated" and "a quarter-step out of sync with what’s happening in Northern California today."
Case in point: many of the dishes follow a set, "one-dimensional" formula of cooked proteins and raw greens stuck to the plate with thick purees. While the proteins are all competently prepared — there’s a "beautifully fried" soft shell crab, "expertly cooked" quail and "superb" short ribs — the produce, ironically enough, seems to be distracting across the board. Despite all those distractions, Bauer seems to enjoy the New York vibe that Waxman has brought back with him and our faithful critic mostly seems hopeful that a new anchor tenant will get locals to start visiting Ghirardelli Square again. Two and a half stars for Waxman’s.
Meanwhile, Bauer was preparing himself for disappointment before he even arrived at Locanda for an updated review. His disappointment was fed by the realization that Chef Anthony Strong no longer offers the critic’s favorite Jewish-style artichokes. Luckily for Strong, however, his fried Castelvetrano olives and their "creamy cheese surprise" were enough to appease Bauer’s desire for fried green things.
Likewise, every dish that followed "continued to buoy [Bauer's] spirits," and Strong has stepped up his game in the five years since he opened the restaurant. The pastas are precisely cooked, the staff are adept, the pepper in the cacio e pepe is "hotter and more robust," and the Radiatori are appropriately "shaped like radiators." If there’s any disappointment at Locanda it’s in "one-dimensional" (there’s that phrase again) pancetta-wrapped chicken. But that’s all forgotten by the time Bauer gets to dessert. Three stars for Locanda, which is now "a fully realized restaurant."
Like it did for Bauer, Basalt’s big opening in Napa continues to inspire tortured metaphors amongst our local critics. This week, Pete Kane is attempting to dig some meaning out of the restaurant’s name, which probably has more to do with the fact that "Basalt" sounds hip and edible than it does with geology. Regardless, like its namesake rock, Kane finds the restaurant to be "a little on the bland side."
There are some losers on the menu like "stale" and "overdone" duck flautas, a confusing bowl of radishes and a bowl of chorizo and clams that needed some bread. As well as some winners like an "artfully served" avocado crab salad, or the "compelling" Monterey squid stuffed with summer squash and "oozing black mole." The entrees, unfortunately, were all "nicely presented, well-prepared, and reasonably priced," but also "weirdly alike in flavor." Apparently chef Esteban Escobar has a heavy hand with a red pepper-blend that magically makes his achiote-marinated black cod taste similar to an adobo charred pork tenderloin. Likewise, the drinks were hit-or-miss, with the "Copia-Us Martini" being the most offensive, served as it was in a rocks glass. The verdict: This place is huge and "eerily empty," but the food is competent enough to work, assuming Napa’s peak-season crowds find their way to the riverfront patio.
Over in the East Bay, Luke Tsai is happy to see one of his favorite pop-ups go legit in the form of Itani Ramen, which started as an after-hours thing at chef Kyle Itani’s celebrated classy-diner Hopscotch. Now that the ramen joint has its own rent to pay in Uptown Oakland, the place has lost some of that fast-and-loose charm and the prices have jumped a bit, but "it’s still a casual, approachable ramen restaurant… And much of the food is flat-out tasty."
There are some great ingredients here: the chashu pork is "luxuriously soft," and the "best-in-class" soft-boiled eggs are "spoonably creamy." But where Itani falls short is on the noodles and broth. While they were all "solid enough," they lacked the addictive and "deeply soulful" nature that gives the best ramen spots their cult-like following. The noodles are also a work in progress and until Itani figures out how to make them on an Italian pasta machine, diners can expect them to be a little bit on the soft side. (And, as a footnote, Itani says he’s already making his noodles with a different sort of flour, but missed out on Tsai’s review meals.)
With that in mind, every non-ramen menu item "was delicious," our critic says: crispy pig ears light up like a Japanese take on chicharrones, "sloppy" style potstickers with bonito flakes and the "Egg 3 Way" with uni, ikura and soft-boiled egg we’ve been hearing so much about is a definite shining star. Overall: it’s not the individual dishes that are the draw here, but Itani’s distinctly Japanese work ethic of constant improvement that make this a promising addition to Uptown.