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A Rant and a Rave

Pappo is a delicious rebuttal to those who would assail California cuisine as conformist.

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Daniel Patterson meant to shock Bay Area foodies, and he did. The San Francisco chef wrote a rant about California cuisine for the November 6 issue of T, the style magazine of The New York Times, titled "To the Moon, Alice?" Patterson is a brilliant cook who made his name at Elisabeth Daniel and published his first cookbook, Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food & Fragrance, last year. His essay lauded Alice Waters' "beautiful revolution" but then argued that it had resulted in a junta. "So deeply embedded is the mythology of Chez Panisse in the DNA of local food culture," Patterson writes, "that it threatens to smother stylistic diversity and extinguish the creativity that it originally sought to spark."

Local foodies foamed at the mouth. I even got a few calls asking, in hushed tones, had I read this, and was I okay with it? The thing is, I mostly agree with Patterson. His core argument is that diners here brook no departure from our simple, seasonal cuisine, which he considers gussied-up home cooking. Patterson speaks from experience: He cut short his latest stint as executive chef at hotspot Frisson not long after my SF counterpart, Meredith Brody, noticed that the menu had been mysteriously dumbed down.

The world is arguably going through one of its most marvelous periods of culinary innovation. Some call the millennial style of cooking molecular gastronomy; others call it science-fair experiments. It's risky and kinda cool: In New York, WD-50's Wylie Dufresne tops a square of pureed oysters with olives and apples, and to their surprise, the critics rave. In Chicago, Alinea's Grant Achatz pairs bison with blueberries and the smoke of burning cinnamon sticks, and gastro-geeks sigh in delight. While at this moment in Berkeley, three dozen chefs are getting ready to serve watercress salad with roasted beets and goat cheese.

All Patterson is really asking is that Bay Area diners support some of this wild invention. Coincidentally enough, he's got a new restaurant opening up soon, and anyone who's heard me grumble that I haven't gotten to write about a single foam, vegetable sorbet, or freeze-dried anything should know I'll be making a reservation.

But several things did rankle me about his essay. One was that he issued his charge in the Times, not a local publication, and you could just smell the New Yorkers' self-satisfaction. The other quibble revealed itself as I finished up my first meal at Pappo, the best restaurant to open in Alameda this year. I dined there on simple dishes such as mixed greens with apples and walnuts, and leg of lamb with wild-mushroom bread pudding. It was a meal with no surprises, but many delights -- and you probably wouldn't eat this sort of food prepared this well anywhere else in the country.

Like it or not, the Bay Area has a style, which is becoming as distinct as Southern or New England cuisines. Like theirs, ours is a pastiche of other culinary traditions. But unlike older regions, ours is a top-down cuisine, incubated in restaurant kitchens and spread through cookbooks and markets into homes. The spread is hardly complete, as you'll increasingly observe as you drive inland. And down-to-earth cities like Alameda still need places like Pappo, where they can get unstinting, true California cuisine.

Though Pappo is only two months old, locals filled its dining room on both my visits. This is gratifying to chef and owner John Thiel, who opened the restaurant with sweat, labor, and credit cards. A CCA-trained chef who has cooked at Bay Wolf, Thiel managed the front of house at Delfina and ran his own catering company. When his parents moved from Oakland to Alameda, he noted that the island lacked for bistros. He eventually took over the old Skylight Cafe and took ten weeks to update the building. In the East Bay right now, that means pulling down the drywall to expose the brick, and installing sturdy wooden chairs and banquettes. Pappo now looks like a former stable or machine shop, casually attractive, with overhead lighting that's clean, albeit a few shades too bright for romance.

Thiel pares down Californian cuisine to a few elements on each plate, but because he does it thoughtfully, he puts out some thoroughly enjoyable food. Take the crispy blue-nose bass, a hunk of fish with a brown crust seared onto the top and bottom and glistening at the core. A thin line of black-olive tapenade stretches across its surface. The pile of baby spinach next to the fish seems overdressed until you pick up a couple leaves with your fish. Then bang! The dish comes together -- the vinegar on the leaves, the salt on the olives, the nutty crust on the fish -- in a bigger way than you could have predicted.

The food is not always perfect. A grilled pork loin dabbed with a cippolini onion jam, was sliced too thin, drying out on the grill. That said, it came with grilled broccoli rabe, the steak of green vegetables, and a beautiful pumpkin risotto, subtle and sweet. A pair of roasted duck legs were propped up on a bed of chunky polenta with the texture of mortar, but the duck was cooked so it was all skin and moist meat, not fat, and the escarole on the side was braised with two of the world's best ingredients, cured pork and sherry vinegar.

Desserts weren't Pappo's strong suit -- the pastry on two tarts was tough, the lime-curd and raspberry-frangipane fillings not refined. Our favorite, the Pappogato, played off the classic Italian dessert of a scoop of ice cream and a shot of espresso (an "affogato") by substituting Thomas Kemper root beer, a brand with enough herbal complexity to replace the bitter shock of the coffee.

But in general, Pappo's kitchen was remarkably consistent. A salad of mixed greens with crisp sliced apples, walnuts, and blue cheese was dressed in a perfect French vinaigrette -- delicately tart and grounded by the aroma of shallots. Thiel's Caesar salad was confident, not fussy or concerned with being healthful, and his fried calamari came dipped in a frilly, crisp batter. A velvety pumpkin-apple soup with sage, a dollop of crème fraîche, and ground pecans tasted as good as a crisp fall wind. Just as evocative of the season were pink slices of leg of lamb, served with a fragrant mushroom bread pudding that had the consistency of a soufflé, its richness cut by the spare vegetal crunch of sautéed Brussels sprouts. God, I love fall.

Still in its infancy, Pappo hasn't quite hammered out all the kinks in the service. On one night we stood at the door for several minutes until the host could make it back from the bar. One of our waiters had the moves, but not the finesse, and set off a couple of my pet peeves (leaving the check with the dessert). But they all had the meal's timing down, and our server on the second night had the gift of appearing just as we thought we might want something, then fading away in between.

I'd pay good money to taste what Patterson's rant might inspire. But I'm also grateful that places like Pappo keep opening. You could pooh-pooh its food as gussied-up home cooking if you prefer, or, like me, joyfully dig in.

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