Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Wrecking Ball Coffee Expands to the East Bay

It's the second location of what co-owner Nick Cho hopes will be many more.

by Katherine Hamilton
Tue, Sep 3, 2019 at 3:01 PM

Wrecking Ball Coffee might not be as big of a household name as Philz Coffee among Bay Area coffee drinkers. But those who are serious about coffee — especially industry professionals — recognize Wrecking Ball Coffee as one of the biggest names in the industry. The San Francisco coffee roaster opened its first East Bay outpost on Friday, Aug. 23, at 1600 Shattuck Ave. in North Berkeley, at the site of what used to be a Philz Coffee.

The downstairs level of the two-story cafe is full of light. Upstairs, there's a long communal table for studying, a couple of small tables, some armchairs, a couch, and a small outdoor area that'll be turned into a kids' play area. But the most striking feature is the mural by Korean artist Christian Chanyang Shim. The subject is the artist's friend, Maeva Deroche, a black woman of French-Caribbean origin who used to live in Seoul and is depicted dressed in traditional Korean clothing.

According to Nick Cho, who owns Wrecking Ball Coffee with his wife, Trish Rothgeb, the new Berkeley cafe is just the first step in Wrecking Ball's ambitious expansion plan. "Our plan is for later this year to do the Silicon Valley thing and raise a seed round of funding and try to open a bunch of cafes between the Bay Area and the Los Angeles, Southern California areas," Cho said.

But for now, Cho is focused on making his Berkeley cafe more than just a coffee shop. "We see an opportunity to take the neighborhood community cafe idea and let it be a vehicle for the sort of social change that we want to see in America, especially in American cities," Cho said.

"TV and movies have become more diverse and inclusive than ever before," he added. "[But] it's still the realm of fantasy. ... For us it's like could sort of a neighborhood community cafe setting be a good way ... to make that fantasy a reality?"

To that end, Cho said he's hired a diverse staff of baristas, managers, and trainers. He's also created a menu that he hopes will appeal to a broad audience beyond coffee drinkers. Unlike many coffee shops that'll pour customers a premade, packaged lemonade, Wrecking Ball's Berkeley location will offer a full, customizable menu of lemonades. There'll also be a bigger selection of hot chocolates.

As for the coffee, Cho said he plans to offer a more accessibly priced house blend as well as a single-origin variety every day. Light and medium roasts are available — no dark roast. Don't try to order a cold brew, though: Cho likens it to "old, expired sort of coffee," and instead uses a flash brewing method for the cafe's iced coffee.

Cho wants to try something a little different when it comes to food. When looking for a bakery that could supply pastries early in the morning, seven days a week, he found himself limited to the same two or three bakeries that supply dozens of other coffee shops in the area. So instead, he'll feature pastries from up-and-coming vendors who will each supply their wares to the cafe a couple times a week. Pop-ups are also a possibility. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Town Popup Moves Into the Former Temple Club

The new space will provide both short and long-term opportunities for local restaurateurs to showcase their creativity and culinary know-how.

by Katherine Hamilton
Tue, Aug 27, 2019 at 4:06 PM

As any aspiring restaurateur knows, starting a brick-and-mortar restaurant can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. It's also a huge financial risk — especially if you're taking on an unusual concept.

That's why places like Town Popup, which opened a month ago, can be a boon for new food entrepreneurs. Town Popup opened at the site of the former Temple Club (2307 International Blvd., Oakland), the Vietnamese restaurant from chef Geoffrey Deetz. The space has room for five long-term pop-up "residencies" lasting two years each, and it'll also offer weekend-long pop-up opportunities.

The folks behind Town Popup are business partners William Bonhorst and Silvano Hernandez, who also own Cinco TacoBar, a fast-casual Mexican restaurant with locations in San Leandro and Livermore. But Hernandez is from Oakland, and wanted to "come back eventually and do something unique in Oakland — and also bring the community together," Bonhorst said. Bonhorst said the space will showcase exclusively local food entrepreneurs, and he's looking for vendors who can bring something creative to Town Popup.

"The end goal is to have multiple brands and allow people to come in and try different concepts," Bonhorst said. "And [to] help out the local community by giving a little bit of a storefront to their dreams in the culinary space."

Town PopUp is home to one resident pop-up, Man vs. Fries. Bonhorst and his fiancée, Ghazal Sharif, started Man vs. Fries about a year ago as a pop-up out of Cinco TacoBar's Livermore location. Bonhorst describes the pop-up as "a French-fry lover's dream." Start with the fries of your choice — including curly fries or waffle fries — then add your choice of meat and toppings. Customers can even get fries inside a burrito or quesadilla. Desserts are reminiscent of the sweets you'd find at a county fair: fried cheesecake, fried cookie dough, and the "OMG Oreo," a deep-fried Oreo.

Upcoming resident vendors will include Mac & Mischief, serving creative mac 'n' cheese, and StrEat Dog, which riffs on the concept of the Mexican hot dog. Additional resident vendors will be announced soon. Town Popup is also currently looking for vendors for its weekend-long pop-ups; interested food entrepreneurs can apply on Town Popup's website.

To learn more, visit Town Popup's website at TownPopUp.com or follow Town Popup on Instagram at @townpopup.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Chop Bar Moves Into New Digs

Donut Farm takes the old spot for vegan doughnuts and more.

by Jade Yamazaki Stewart
Tue, Aug 20, 2019 at 1:45 PM


The restaurant’s new location is much larger than its original home. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CHOP BAR
  • Photo courtesy of the Chop Bar
  • The restaurant’s new location is much larger than its original home.

Chop Bar, the decade-old Jack London Warehouse District comfort food staple, moved from 247 Fourth St. across the street to 190 Fourth St. on Aug. 9. The new restaurant has a bigger kitchen, allowing owner Chris Pastena and Executive Chef Lev Delaney to serve more food options. The restaurant's role as a welcoming neighborhood hangout will remain unchanged.

Pastena said that the small kitchen in the former space forced creativity. For example, he wanted to serve an oxtail dish but didn't have space for long lengths of tail.

"So we shredded the tails and put them on top of French fries," Pastena said. "That's how our signature oxtail poutine was born."

The old kitchen had limitations, including the fryer, a cast iron pot now displayed on a wooden shelf on the wall of the new restaurant, that could only do so much. With his new deep fryers, Pastena can now serve sides of fries and cook bigger steaks more often. At the old restaurant, fries were limited to poutine, and steak was reserved for Monday nights.

Pastena, who's lived in the neighborhood for almost 15 years, opened Chop Bar as a place where he and his neighbors could hang out.

"When I'd be in the elevator in my building, I'd try to start conversation." Pastena said. "That made people really uncomfortable." Now people recognize him from Chop Bar and start talking to him in the elevator.

Brenda Mercado and Frank Hernandez have beem regulars at Chop Bar for a decade since its opening. They sat at the new bar bantering with the staff and trying a new beer on tap, the Federation Brewing Atrás, a blonde beer mixed with pineapple tepache, a Mexican fermented beverage.

"The people who work here make coming to this restaurant so special," Mercado said.

And Chop Bar still serves a damn-good burger.

No burgers will be cooked at the restaurant's old location for the foreseeable future, however. There, grilled meats have been replaced by salads, tofu scrambles, and delicious vegan doughnuts.

It's home to the newest location of Donut Farm, which owner Josh Levine proudly said were the first vegan doughnuts in the Bay Area. He opened the new spot because he was outgrowing his North Oakland joint at 6037 San Pablo Ave., where he was frying doughnuts and serving vegan breakfasts. Like Pastena, Levine is taking advantage of his new space, now home to Eternal, his new restaurant that serves salads and vegan milkshakes that weren't available at the old Donut Farm space, and the new Donut Farm. Both opened Aug. 17. Dinner and a full bar are in the works for Eternal.

"We're going to have a similar dinner offering to what you'd get at Chop Bar," Levine said. "But it's going to be vegan."

Levine is happy to be working in the Jack London area, where there's more foot traffic than at his previous location. "Business is going to be way better here," he said.

Levine left town the day before the opening and was already enjoying his 15th year at Burning Man when his new restaurant opened, confident that it would all go smoothly. He left manager Kris Lee, a longtime friend, employee, and motorcycle-riding buddy, in charge.

Lee and Levine won't change much of the décor from the old Chop Bar. But they will add a personal touch: Levine's vintage 1962 Harley Panhead and a 1951 BSA will be placed in the dining room so that you can eat vegan doughnuts in style.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Crave BBQ Opens in Richmond

The barbecue brick-and-mortar restaurant from chef and recent 'Chopped' winner Rashad Armstead opened Thursday in the Shops at Hilltop.

by Katherine Hamilton
Tue, Aug 13, 2019 at 3:43 PM


Rashad Armstead uses family recipes. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CRAVE BBQ
  • Photo courtesy of Crave BBQ
  • Rashad Armstead uses family recipes.

Barbecue lovers, take note: There's a new spot in Richmond to satisfy your barbecue cravings. Aptly named Crave BBQ, the nearly 5,000-square-foot restaurant opened last Thursday at 1207 Hilltop Mall Road.

Crave BBQ is the newest brick-and-mortar restaurant from chef Rashad Armstead. During the past few years, the Bay Area chef has made a name for himself starting with a catering company called Artistic Taste 7. In 2017, he started a Crave BBQ pop-up that took place at a former gas station in West Oakland. Crave BBQ was originally supposed to take up permanent residence at the historic California Hotel on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, but the financial costs to build out the space just weren't feasible. Undeterred, Armstead opened Grammie's Down Home Chicken & Seafood in May at 3817 Market St. in North Oakland, and the small takeout spot has already soared in popularity. And just a couple of weeks ago, Armstead gained nationwide attention after winning an episode of Chopped.

After the restaurant's first lunch service on Thursday, Armstead said the community has already come out to support the new restaurant.

"We got a lot of people who showed up who work at the mall and in the neighborhood," Armstead said. "They've been loving it."

Armstead describes his barbecue as "Southern style" — it draws from his family's roots in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. He learned to barbecue from his father and great-uncle and uses a mixture of a spicy-sweet dry rub and a vinegar-based wet marinade on his meats. They're then slowly smoked over a wood fire: chicken for two to three hours, ribs for seven, and brisket for up to 17.

His side dishes are also based on family recipes. His potato salad is a variation on his great-grandmother Sarah Rawls' recipe. Rawls was a well-known Oakland restaurateur who also wrote four cookbooks and starred in her own cooking show; she's also the namesake of Grammie's Down Home Chicken & Seafood. According to Armstead, even Congresswoman Barbara Lee gave his potato salad — made with red potatoes, mustard, and sweet relish for a sweet-savory balance — a Texan stamp of approval. "She's like, 'Wow, this tastes just like I used to have back in Texas," Armstead said.

The opening day menu was short and sweet, limited to ribs, chicken, and hot links, plus baked beans and potato salad. Armstead plans to add brisket, collard greens, mac and cheese, and blue cornbread to the menu. For dessert, there'll be grilled peach cobbler, and to drink, there'll be berry lemonade and sweet tea. A beer and wine license is in the works. Armstead also likes to keep things interesting, so keep an eye out for more unusual items that'll be added to the menu in the future, like a hot link corn dog made with blue corn.

"I'm not afraid to take those same traditional flavors that we're used to, but just throw different things in there to kind of throw everybody off," he said.

But Crave BBQ is about more than just good food. At both of his restaurants, Armstead plans to employ young people so he can teach them the skills and work ethic required to work in a restaurant. At Crave, he hopes to partner with Making Waves Academy, a local charter school, and Beyond Emancipation, an Oakland organization that supports young people emancipating from foster care.

Armstead also wants to transform Crave BBQ into a go-to place for events in the area. Starting in September, the restaurant will regularly host blues and jazz bands, as well as comedy nights and open mics.

"We're gonna make it into something great, because that area needs it right now," Armstead said.

Crave BBQ, at 1207 Hilltop Mall Road, is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. To learn more, visit ICraveBBQ.com or follow crave_bbq on Instagram.

Photo courtesy Crave BBQ

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

KONO Food Alley Brings New Lunchtime Options to the Neighborhood

The food vendor lineup includes Tacos y Chelas, Javi's Cooking, and Curbside Kitchen.

by Katherine Hamilton
Tue, Aug 6, 2019 at 4:30 PM


George Dy is the producer of KONO Food Alley. - PHOTO BY TAMMY CHUNG @YMMATAMMY
  • Photo by Tammy Chung @ymmatammy
  • George Dy is the producer of KONO Food Alley.

This Monday, a wealth of new lunchtime options arived in the Koreatown-Northgate, or KONO, neighborhood with the KONO Food Alley. The KONO Food Alley is a collection of food stands and food trucks that appear at the outdoor space in front of 3188 Telegraph Ave. in Oakland every Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. from now until October 10.

Five vendors have been confirmed so far. One is Tacos y Chelas (TacosYChelas.oak), a taco stand headed by chef-owner Gerardo Avila, who has worked at Bay Area restaurants including Nido. Another is Javier Sandes of Javi's Cooking (@javiscooking). Sandes is best known for his Argentinian empanadas, which he also sells at his brick-and-mortar in West Oakland. There's also Curbside Kitchen (@curbside.kitchen), a Filipino-American fusion pop-up from Ray Lozano that serves Filipino burgers and tocino loaded fries. Beverages are provided by Dripdash (@dripdash), which serves Kyoto drip coffee, and LaVidaBoba (@la_vidaboba), a Latinx boba vendor.

The producer of the KONO Food Alley, George Dy, created this summer pop-up as a way to "bring culinary diversity to the KONO area," he said.

"I was pretty frustrated with how traditional dining environments were created," Dy said. Dy brings years of experience with commercial real estate, design, and property management. His last food venture was a commissary kitchen called Kitchen 1014, which allowed caterers to build their businesses within a fully licensed and permitted kitchen — enabling them to bypass many expensive and time-consuming requirements of starting a new business.

When selecting vendors, Dy looked for what he calls "chef-hustlers" — food businesses serving creative, delicious food that haven't yet amassed a large following on social media.

"I'm sure we all know food trucks in the area that are very popular," Dy said. "It's just kind of hard to get your name out sometimes when you're a new food vendor."

Dy hopes that with the launch of KONO Food Alley, guests will talk to the vendors and learn more about their stories and spread the word about their businesses via social media.

"I want [guests] to learn about the vendors and where they came from," Dy said. "Each of these vendors has a really cool background and cool story."

"And I want people to understand that it's not just the food that they're eating, but the people that they're supporting," he added.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Restore Oakland Opens in the Fruitvale District

The job training facility and community resource center brings together several nonprofits, including La Cocina and Restaurant Opportunities Center United.

by Katherine Hamilton
Wed, Jul 31, 2019 at 1:00 AM


Fekkak Mamdouh is the co-founder and CEO of ROC United. - PHOTO BY BROOKE ANDERSON
  • Photo by Brooke Anderson
  • Fekkak Mamdouh is the co-founder and CEO of ROC United.

Last Tuesday, approximately 200 community leaders, organizers, restaurant workers, and community members gathered to celebrate the opening of Restore Oakland, a long-awaited job training facility and community resource center in the Fruitvale district.

Restore Oakland is a first-of-its-kind, multi-story hub that houses several social justice-oriented nonprofits. It was created after hosting several community meetings to find out what resources were most wanted and needed in the neighborhood. It's now the permanent home of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit aimed at reducing incarceration rates and improving resources for communities of color. It's also home to Causa Justa/Just Cause, a grassroots organization that builds Brown-Black unity, combats unjust housing policies, and fights the criminalization of immigrants. Other partners include Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth and Community Works.

The space is also home to a number of resources for restaurant workers and food entrepreneurs. Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which purchased the building along with the Ella Baker Center, will offer a variety of resources. ROC, which was founded in New York City in 2001 by Fekkak Mamdouh and Saru Jayaraman, is aimed at improving working conditions and wages for people working in the restaurant industry — particularly for women and people of color. It's something that's especially needed in the Bay Area: A 2016 ROC study found that the Bay Area has the largest race wage gap in the country, with workers of color making an average of $6.12 less per hour than their white counterparts.

The ground floor will be home to ROC's COLORS Restaurant, a full-service restaurant that offers hands-on job training, hires from the community, and pays a livable wage. The restaurant, which has locations in New York and Detroit, is expected to open in the fall.

Meanwhile, ROC will continue to offer its Culinary and Hospitality Opportunities for Workers program, which provides free bartending and service classes for those who are just getting started in the restaurant industry or who are looking for a pathway into higher-paying front-of-house positions. "Even though I have been serving for over eight years, I definitely feel like because I'm a brown woman with an accent ... I run into a lot of ... 'where have you served; what experience do you have; do you know about wine,'" said Carolina Santos, an experienced cook, server, and food business owner who has completed CHOW's bartending and serving classes.

"It's like a bridge," she said. "It helps folks transition from the back of the house to the front, if that's what they are willing to do."

Food incubator La Cocina, based in San Francisco, has opened its first East Bay workspace at Restore Oakland. Geetika Agrawal, program director at La Cocina, said there's plenty of demand for La Cocina's services in the East Bay, particularly in the Fruitvale district.

"A lot of the lower working-class communities, and especially immigrant communities and Latin communities, were moving to the East Bay," Agrawal said. "There was room for doing more effective outreach and connecting in with other communities that maybe we don't have the same established relationship with." As of January, 42 percent of La Cocina's active businesses in incubation and 50 percent of all businesses La Cocina serves (including graduates) come from the East Bay.

Oakland's La Cocina will focus on community outreach. There'll be orientations offered in English and Spanish for those interested in starting their own food businesses. (The next orientation will be 6-8 p.m. Wed., Oct. 6.) It'll also serve as the space for La Cocina's drop-in market, allowing budding food entrepreneurs to offer samples of their products and pitch their business ideas to small business partners.

"The Bay Area is changing so much, and it feels really exciting to know there's an anchor building in the Fruitvale, really meant to serve the Fruitvale," said Agrawal.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Chef Nora Haron Is Back in Oakland as a Pop-Up

Her new Fuck-You-Up-Bakery (aka FYUB) debuts Saturday at Orbit Coffee and Doughnuts.

by Katherine Hamilton
Fri, Jul 19, 2019 at 4:00 AM

Ever since Drip Line closed last summer, my weekends have been spent mourning the absence of chef Nora Haron’s cooking in the East Bay. At the West Oakland cafe, Haron, who was born in Singapore and is of Indian and Indonesian descent, served up California-infused dishes inspired by her upbringing, such as Singapore chicken rice, coconut cream shrimp and grits, and koji fried chicken and waffles.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment, but for East Bay fans of Haron’s food, there’s good news: Haron is returning to Oakland in pop-up bakery form. The pop-up is entitled FYUB (Fuck-You-Up-Bakery) and will feature a range of mainly Southeast Asian-inspired baked goods, many with tongue-in-cheek or profanity-filled names.

This Saturday’s menu will include “Karen from Finances” Kaya Buns (baked buns stuffed with caramel kaya, a coconut butter), “No Bullshit” Banana Nut Bread (gluten-free and vegan), chicken curry turnovers (made using her grandfather’s curry recipe), chocolate mini loaves, moringa cloud cake, and “Conscienceless” pandan-coconut-butterscotch cookies with Maldon sea salt. Prices range from $3 to $9. “It’s something different — I guess it’s another side of me,” Haron said. “I’m kinda funny sometimes like that.”

The inaugural pop-up will take place at Orbit Coffee and Doughnuts (1225 Seventh St., Suite C) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday, July 20. The newcomer West Oakland specialty coffee and doughnut shop, which has only been open for three months, will be serving “Drano Drip” coffee from Red Planet Roasters, along with a selection of teas. Free RSVPs on Eventbrite are suggested but not required.

Future pop-up dates will take place approximately every other week, with locations likely alternating between Oakland and San Francisco. For future FYUB pop-up locations, dates, and hours, follow FYUB on Facebook @theFYUB or on Instagram @the_fyub.

Meanwhile, Haron is also back in the kitchen serving up some of the savory dishes she was known for at Drip Line — but for now, you’ll have to cross the Bay in order to get a taste. In May, she became executive chef at Local Kitchen in SoMa (330 First St., #1, San Francisco) where she’s serving favorites from the Drip Line menu like Singapore chicken rice, gado gado salad, and her shiitake-beef blended burger.

Soon, though, Haron plans to open another restaurant in Oakland. Haron told the Express that her new restaurant will be named Bijan, which translates to sesame. The menu will be a scaled-down version of the Southeast Asian-inspired fare she’s serving right now at Local Kitchen, along with baked goods.

“I love Oakland, and I live in West Oakland. This opportunity [in] San Francisco came first, which is why I left,” Haron said. “But I’m back.”

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

At The Damel, A Chef Tells the Story of His Life in Senegal, Argentina, and Brazil

The new Uptown Oakland restaurant serves Afro-Brazilian cuisine.

by Katherine Hamilton
Wed, Jul 17, 2019 at 1:00 AM

Chef Oumar Diouf has led a pretty interesting life. And at The Damel, his new Uptown Oakland restaurant that opened in June, he wants to tell his story through Afro-Brazilian cuisine.

Diouf was born in Senegal. He got his start cooking at age 13, when his father passed away. His mother had seven children, and watching her struggle to work and take care of household duties on her own, Diouf asked her to teach him to cook.

He helped his mother out in the kitchen until he went to college. After college, he headed to Argentina to pursue a career in soccer. When an injury sidelined his career, Diouf decided to attend culinary school. He went on to own restaurants in Argentina — his first was selling pizza and empanadas — then moved to Brazil, where he worked in hotels and catering businesses. As a caterer in Brazil, he served thousands of people at the World Cup and the Olympics.

During his time in Brazil, Diouf was struck by the similarities between Brazilian cuisine and the food he ate growing up. "In Bahia, which is the north of Brazil ... about 80 percent of their food was actually brought by slaves 500 years ago," Diouf said. "So those cooking style techniques, even the name[s are] very close from Africa — especially West Africa."

Those similarities, along with an Anthony Bourdain episode about the Bahia region, inspired Diouf to pursue an Afro-Brazilian style of cooking. In 2016, Diouf moved to the Bay Area, and soon after started a catering company called Afro-Brazilian Cuisine, or ABC. In addition to Afro-Brazilian Cuisine, he now runs The Damel, a casual, counter-service, permanent pop-up located inside 25th Street Taproom (2507 Broadway).

At The Damel, the menu reflects Diouf's lived experience in Senegal, Argentina, and Brazil. A section of the menu is devoted to baked Argentinian empanadas, most of which follow traditional recipes. But some empanadas, like the beef, chicken, and lamb, get a West African treatment by spicing them with ginger and garlic. Others, like the palmito (heart of palm) are inspired by Brazilian flavors and ingredients. The empanada-like fataya, meanwhile, is actually Senegalese — it's fried and stuffed with tuna and shrimp.

Diouf also draws from a range of influences when it comes to the appetizers. Coxinhas, or cone-shape deep-fried chicken croquettes, are a must-have in Brazil. Acarajé, or black-eyed pea fritters, are commonly found both in West Africa and Brazil. Sandwiches and salads are also on the menu, along with dibi, a Senegalese dish of grilled meat served with mustard and grilled onions. Diouf also plans to serve two daily specials, one from Senegal and one from Brazil, featuring dishes like ceebu jen (Senegalese jollof rice with fish) and feijoada (Brazilian meat and bean stew).

Above all, Diouf's goal is to demonstrate the influence of African cuisine — not just in Brazil, but all over the world.

"A lot of dance has African background, a lot of fashion has African background, but food, too, has an African background," Diouf said. "And that's what I want to stand for — to try to take back what's from us and have people that want to find more about their ancestors ... eating the same food their ancestors brought from Africa to here."

The Damel is currently open for dinner and is experimenting with lunch hours. Late-night empanadas are also available on Fridays and Saturdays until 2 a.m., and weekend brunch is coming soon. To learn more, visit TheDamel.com.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Free Range Flower Winery Celebrates Its First Anniversary

The Oakland winery is holding three celebratory events this week at alaMar, Revival Bar & Kitchen, and Wine & Design.

by Katherine Hamilton
Tue, Jul 9, 2019 at 2:56 PM


Say cheers to first anniversary for Free Range Flower Winery. - PHOTO BY LOUISA SPIER
  • Photo by Louisa Spier
  • Say cheers to first anniversary for Free Range Flower Winery.

This week, Free Range Flower Winery in Oakland is celebrating its first anniversary in business with events at alaMar, Revival, and Wine & Design. It's one of the few flower wineries in the country — and the only in California, according to Free Range Flower Winery's owner and winemaker Aaliyah Nitoto, who founded the business along with former Express contributor Sam Prestianni.

For the uninitiated, flower wine is made entirely from flowers rather than grapes. Though many people today have never tried flower wine, it's actually part of a longstanding tradition of garden wines that were made in many parts of the world — often by women. According to Nitoto, flower wines were actually the earliest wines made in the United States. In the past hundred years or so, flower wines have become virtually unknown, and Nitoto is part of the movement to bring them back.

Free Range Flower Winery currently offers three types of flower wines. "L" Lavender Wine, which was the first wine Free Range Flower Winery produced, is a dry, lightly effervescent wine made of lavender flowers, with notes of licorice and juniper. There's also a Sunset International Wine Competition Silver Award-winning wine called RoseHybiscus, made of a blend of rose petals and hibiscus flowers for a flavor that's earthy, rounded, fruity, and herbal. For the anniversary, Flower Winery will also be offering tastes of the newest "R" Rose Petal wine, which Nitoto describes as having a "spicy flavor that's more on the smoky side." A marigold wine is also in the works and is expected to be released in time for the holiday season.

Nitoto said that after a year in business, the community has received her flower wines even better than she expected. At the very first pop-up, she sold out of lavender wine. Ever since then, the small-batch winery has "just been trying to play catch up with the momentum," she said. Part of the appeal, Nitoto said, is that flower wines are such a unique experience for many customers.

"When I serve it to people, I preface it by saying, what I want you to do is take any expectation that you have about wine out of your mind and just let the experience tell you what it is. Let the wine tell you what it is. When they drink it, they're like, 'Oh my god, you're right, this is like nothing I've ever had before."

To celebrate the winery's anniversary, three events will take place in Oakland and Berkeley. The first is a dinner on Thursday, July 11, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at alaMar in Oakland (100 Grand Ave., Suite No. 111). Chef Nelson German has created a special menu of dishes like charred heirloom carrots and braised oxtails, which are designed to pair with each of the three wines. There's also a dinner on Friday, July 12, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Revival Bar & Kitchen in Berkeley (2102 Shattuck Ave.) featuring dishes from Chef Amy Murray like trout roe deviled eggs and beet and burrata salad. Lastly, there'll be a tasting event on Sunday, July 14, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Wine & Design in Oakland (204 Broadway) where guests can taste flights of wine accompanied by cheese and charcuterie plates from Piece & Love Meals, and even paint their own wine glasses for an extra fee. Reservations are recommended; to reserve, visit FreeRangeFlowerWinery.com.

Photo by Louisa Spier

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Matcha, Shaved Ice, and Taro Balls, Oh My!

Amausaan Uji Matcha in Berkeley and Meet Fresh in Oakland offer two new ways to get your frozen dessert on.

by Katherine Hamilton
Tue, Jul 2, 2019 at 3:06 PM

The pudding and Q mochi shaved ice at Meet Fresh — yummy­. - PHOTO BY KATHERINE HAMILTON
  • Photo by Katherine Hamilton
  • The pudding and Q mochi shaved ice at Meet Fresh — yummy­.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I've never needed an excuse to eat dessert. But here are two, in case you needed them: Two new dessert shops have opened in the East Bay in recent weeks, and both offer desserts that are rarely found elsewhere in the East Bay.

Meet Fresh (362 8th St., Unit C, Oakland), a Taiwan-based dessert chain, recently opened its first Oakland location in Chinatown after months of anticipation. There's a massive selection of desserts on offer, ranging from shaved ice, taro balls served hot or cold, grass jelly served hot or cold, tofu pudding, red bean soup, purple rice desserts, and small bites like mochi and mung bean cakes. You'll also find a full menu of drinks, ranging from wintermelon tea to milk tea to herbal tea and "fluffy" tea.

One hot afternoon, I went for the pudding and Q mochi shaved ice, which is listed as one of Meet Fresh's five most popular desserts. What I received was an impressively tall shaved ice — too big even for two ambitious eaters to finish — with a scoop of ice cream precariously balanced on top. The shaved ice comes drizzled with brown sugar syrup and condensed milk, giving it a refreshing creamy, caramelized flavor. Toppings surround the mountain of ice, including entire rounds of egg pudding and almond pudding, jelly noodles, white and black logs of mochi, and mini purple and orange taro balls. True to its name, the toppings — especially the jelly noodles and mochi — have that satisfying "Q" texture, meaning they're springy and chewy like boba. Flakes of coconut on top, meanwhile, add a hint of crispy texture and toasty flavor. At nearly $10, it's not a cheap treat, but the portion size and taste justify the price if you bring along a couple of friends to help you finish it.

Meanwhile, over in downtown Berkeley, Amausaan Uji Matcha (1950 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley), a Chinese chain, specializes in all things matcha — think crepe cakes, hot and cold drinks, matcha ice, parfaits, and soft-serve ice cream. Guests are greeted at the door by a statue of a rabbit wearing a red kimono and holding a matcha parfait. It's primarily a table service spot, and you'll find adorable rabbit-themed decor throughout the restaurant.

I tried the uji matcha soft serve, which comes in your choice of a regular cone or an Instagram-worthy black cone. The black cone earns more style points than flavor points. My server informed me it was colored with charcoal, though the charcoal wasn't intended to add any flavor. Still, the cone was crisp and slightly sweet, with a hint of vanilla flavor. It's a good complement to the matcha soft serve, which was packed with grassy, slightly bitter, toasty matcha flavor. The soft serve definitely leans toward light and refreshing rather than rich and heavy, making it perfect for a summer treat.

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