The best and most beautiful sandwiches are those whose contents stick out along the sides. But the contents don't merely peek out: They slop out. They flop out. They ooze out, because they should never be secretive. They should not be neat. They should be generous and proud. This is true at your favorite corner deli, and it's true at Encuentro, Oakland's new warehouse-district vegetarian winebar, which looks and feels the way winebars might in 2040, where everyone's a black-clad hipster; where interior spaces look like architects' sketches, recycled materials abutting shiny sheet glass; where ubiquitous dance beats throb softly; and where eating meat is obsolete.
Encuentro's creators include Eric Tucker, executive chef at San Francisco's acclaimed vegetarian restaurant Millennium, and Lacey Sher, former owner of New Jersey's vegan restaurant Down to Earth. They attended the same cooking school, New York City's National Gourmet Institute for Food and Health; he's the coauthor of The Artful Vegan and The Millennium Cookbook, and she's the coauthor of Down to Earth Cookbook and You Won't Believe It's Vegan! Veteran home chef and longtime commercial real-estate agent Linda Braz is the third partner.
Encuentro's sandwiches, the closest thing to entrées on a dinner-only menu that is big on small plates, include peppered portobello mushroom on a whole-wheat sourdough roll with caramelized onions, caramelized fennel, smoked hazelnut/almond vegan "cheese," and caper aioli. Yes, it passes the acid test: Mushroom swatches and melted-"cheese" bunting lap over the edges of the roll, which matches a Subway six-incher in size — but all comparisons end there. This is a very dressy, savvy sandwich indeed, a nine-dollar opus composed by those who know. Its "relish" is its caramelized confetti. For non-meat-eaters, its portobello is a flamboyant paean to what vegetables can attain at their best. To meat eaters, or non-meat-eaters who miss meat, the mushroom slyly evokes chewy squid or juicy skate.
And it's organic, as is all produce used here — from the beets in the beet-and-burrata bruschetta to the fruit in the blood-orange salad with hazelnuts, vanilla oil, and Banyuls vinaigrette. On the mushroom sandwich, as on many other dishes here, diners can choose between vegan "cheese" and actual cheese.
Before opening last December, "we decided we wanted to be a vegetarian rather than vegan restaurant because so many people feel that cheese is really important to have with wine," Braz said. And wine is king in this tiny, breezy hideaway that used to be the sales office of the building's condo complex, whose dollhouse tables, colorful mosaics, and exposed ceiling pipes lend Encuentro the look of a pocket-sized Pompidou Centre. All wines served here are organic-certified and/or organically farmed; many cannot be bought at retail, Braz said, because they come from such small producers as 29-year-old Andrew Jones, whose Jurassic Park Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley has produced only 200 cases of the reds and whites he calls Field Recordings.
From food to services, sourcing means a lot to the three owners, who all live in the East Bay. The architect who fashioned the space lives in the building, while the interior designer lives around the corner. Berkeley's Metro Lighting created the lamps. "We like to keep it local," said Braz.
We started with starters. Does knowing that the main ingredient in Uncle Eddie's Wild Hen Deviled Eggs came from a cage-free farm in Petaluma make the eggs themselves taste better, richer, more nuanced — or is that just wishful thinking? Whatever it is, it works, with a mustardy, garlicky, chivey devilization as a worthy foil. Four fat dates stuffed with macadamia-nut paté (the non-vegan option is goat cheese) proved soft, fluffy-chewy, and so luxuriant that some may deem it dessert. Those of us who welcome sweetness at any possible point in any meal would simply gloat.
A trio of bruschetta topped with thick avocado slabs at the peak of ripeness, scattered with cilantro, black salt, and lashings of chili jam was a clever riff on contrast: creamy-sharp, crisp, and satin-smooth.
A party in a plate was a generous heap of farro, an early, pearly form of wheat that was cultivated in the ancient world and was a staple for the Roman Legions, but is little used and difficult to find in American stores today. Lightly dressed, it was tossed with tiny chunks of carrot, fennel, sun-dried tomato, and two kinds of cheese, all artfully occupying one half of the plate. (When Encuentro's chefs can't get farro, they use barley for this dish instead.) Served with yummy aioli and evoking pemmican, in a good way, Crispy Smashed Potatoes comprised three firm, savory disks flavored and burnished with smoked pimentón, the Spanish paprika that pays homage to that land whose tapas tradition made small plates yesterday's next big thing.
Encuentro's menu reflects the seasons, so the tomato jam now adorning the tempeh-bacon sandwich — whose tangy, smoky fermented-soybean-cake slabs could have been a teensy bit thicker or more numerous — will be replaced by fresh organic tomatoes in summer. Like its portobello cousin, this six-incher arrived with a serving of probiotic-rich pickled cauliflower, fennel, and French-cut carrot, flecked with mustard seeds and peppercorns. And a black-lentil stew ascended to greatness, thanks largely to hunks of smoked-apple-sage "sausage" created by one of the country's most skilful seitan-makers, Seattle's Field Roast Grain Meat company.
"Some people out there still think that if a dish is vegetarian, it has to be steamed vegetables with soy sauce and rice," Braz laughed. "We want to prove them wrong."