In recent years, the piers, warehouses, and saloons of the neighborhood just east of Jack London Square have transmogrified into condos, apartments, and loft conversions ideal for habitation and espresso-sipping. But it's still a fascinating place to sightsee. Its shining glory is the Waterfront Warehouse District, a 160-acre parcel on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the district's two-dozen old structures are onetime centers of fishing, shrimping, glassblowing, poultry-plucking, and burlap-mending, along with Safeway's former world headquarters, dating back to when the Western Pacific Railroad ran a spur line through the neighborhood and Oakland helped feed the Golden State. There's a hint of faded New Orleans glory in these old streets. One place the freights visited was the Western States Grocery Company, a warehouse built in 1926 at 247 Fourth Street. Nowadays it contains forty condominiums and a restaurant, Mono.
The sleek restaurant features lots of deep blacks and polished woods, floor-to-ceiling windows, several striking black-and-white photographs, a luxe-moderne semicircular wine bar ideal for single dining, and a big rustic set-in wine rack. One wing of the small dining room can even be converted to an "outdoor patio" when the street window — really a paned garage door — is pulled into the ceiling. Mono's clean, spare look — it's based on the interior design of the co-owners' nearby loft — is ideal in this proto-industrial setting. And general manager Eloisa Castillo and her staff of servers create a friendly and welcoming ambience.
The cuisine is your standard global-fusion, small-plate, local-purveyor razzmatazz, but there's usually enough wit and invention going on in executive chef Todd Wilson's kitchen to transcend the overfamiliar. The hamachi crudo, for instance, accented some of the most sparklingly fresh raw fish I've ever tasted — so pristine it was almost without flavor — with bits of minced blood orange, Fresno pepper, Maui onion, and cilantro. The result was a lush, sharp, crisp, sweet explosion. Other ingredients are allowed to shine; one night the seasonal soup was a simple and satiny smooth lobster bisque that evoked a particularly toothsome evening on Cape Cod. You can get it by the bowl or the "shot" — in a tall, fluted glass.
A more substantial dish was the prawns à la plancha, in which half a dozen plump, if slightly overcooked, prawns were prepared and served with garlic, tomato, white wine, plus a purée of white beans, which added a whole new dimension to this familiar dish. The red miso lamb chops, meanwhile, were perfectly grilled, with a piquant, chunky Gravenstein apple jus adding a pleasant zing. However, the garnet yams and baby bok choy that shared the platter added little to the experience.
Mono's desserts are primarily of the homey, comforting variety and offer a pleasant contrast to the streamlined surrounding milieu. The raspberry cobbler was a sweet delight: all steamy, soft, short-crusty texture spiked with fresh juicy berries and the melting presence of vanilla gelato. The butterscotch pot de crème, on the other hand, was almost toothachingly sweet, with a lumpy texture, minimal butterscotch flavor, and a disconcerting chapeau of film. But the bread pudding was exceptional, a pure and simple egg-cream-sugar evocation of Louisiana kitchencraft and warm, tender, yielding velvet. (Yet we were disappointed to discover that the chocolate bread pudding contained no chocolate at all.) There also were several cheeses available for sampling, along with crostini, almonds, dried fruit, and honey. (Shuna Lydon of Citizen Cake and French Laundry fame bears the title of Mono's consulting pastry chef.)
Mono bills itself as a wine bar as well as a restaurant, and its 100-bottle list is indeed impressive. Among the treasures at hand are a wide array of biodynamic, organic, and unwooded wines; fine examples of French, Italian, German, Australian, Portuguese, Greek, Argentine, and New Zealand viticulture; several artisanal sakes (including one sparkling variety); flights of Spanish dessert wines; and of course several boutique representatives from Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino. Two dozen wines are available by the glass, sixteen by the half bottle. (There's also Black Diamond Amber Ale on tap.)
For lunch, Mono serves up soups, salads, and an array of inventive sandwiches ranging from seared ahi, fennel and watercress on focaccia to roast beef on baguette with pickled onions, arugula, and Cambozola cheese. The chicken salad was our favorite: a tender, tangy conglomeration of crisp greens, fresh tarragon, toasted pine nuts, snarky capers, and lots of shredded chicken, sweet and piquant with balsamic vinegar, all of it crammed into a grilled Italian roll substantial enough to contain it but soft enough to absorb its myriad flavors. Another good option is the grilled cheese panini, in which oven-roasted tomatoes and three compatible varieties of formaggio — Gruyère, fontina, and a nicely aged cheddar — meet and mingle between two slices of grilled sourdough. The presentation was as sleek and as thoughtful as the setting: Each sandwich was served on a rectangular glass platter flanked by twin square white bowls, one filled with field greens dressed with a pleasantly tangy vinaigrette, the other brimming with a warm, creamy, garden-fragrant tomato soup.
There's not a lot in the area of vegetarian-friendly food on Mono's menu. At lunchtime there's the soup (a wild card) and the three-cheese panini plus two varieties of salad (the classic roasted beet-goat cheese-watercress and another made up of baby greens, pickled shallots, toy box tomatoes,, and watermelon radish). The soup and salads are available for dinner as well along with an appetizer of grilled artichoke, beet greens, and Meyer lemon aioli.
Wilson and Castillo opened Mono in mid-March after years of planning and working up impressive résumés at AsiaSF, Postrio, Myth, and other hotspots. Residents of the neighborhood themselves, the couple wanted to open a place nearby where the locals could relax and enjoy the pleasures of good food and wine and idle conversation. The neighborhood deserves no less.