There are certain guidelines every chronic restaurant-goer follows when choosing a place to spend the dinner hour. A Chinese restaurant with a heavily Chinese clientele is a good sign. So is a barbecue joint that you can smell (in a good way) from a few blocks off. A guy in an apron standing forlornly in the doorway with his arms crossed is not a good sign. Ditto a place with a packed bar and a lot of empty tables, or a chain that serves sushi and enchiladas and fish and chips, or practically any place with a really terrific view. But if you can't judge a book by its cover, then you can't judge a restaurant by its setting.
Farmers' Market Bistro looks like a chain taqueria or a big suburban sports bar with a busted satellite dish and no clientele. On one side of the long, narrow, bare-bones dining room are plain wooden tables and floor tiles straight out of TGIFridays; on the other is an open kitchen more reminiscent of the Kaiser Permanente cafeteria than Commis. At the end of the room is a lounge where concert footage and the Discovery Channel burble and squeak from a flat-screen TV. High ceilings give the place an echo-y quality, and despite the decorative arches and the cocoa-and-apricot color scheme and the tree branches hanging from the walls, the place has a chilly, lonesome feeling to it. The initial impression is that the place was inherited by someone who'd never seen the inside of a restaurant in his life.
Which is why it's so surprising how good the food is. Chef Remy Bernabe, a veteran of Masa's, Aqua, and Jack London Square's Silk Room, takes the name of his restaurant seriously, sourcing all of his produce from the Friday Old Oakland Farmers' Market around the corner and farmers' markets in San Francisco the rest of the week. All-natural and organically raised beef, pork, and poultry come from the esteemed Golden Gate Meat Company, and most of the seafood on the menu is sustainably fished or farmed. Bernabe transforms these raw materials into dishes that are not only wholesome and satisfying, but that bring out the ingredients' rich flavors and individual textures in attractive, colorful mosaics worthy of any Union Square Michelin bait. What's more, the stipend is surprisingly low (most entrées cost under $12) while the portions are absolutely substantial.
The restaurant is located among the boutiques, lofts, and 1870s Victorians of Old Oakland, with perpetually packed Le Cheval on one side and the hipsters of Arsimona Lounge on the other. The space previously hosted a Mexican grill, a pasta joint, a sushi bar, and Kuwa, a Caribbean soul food restaurant also headed up by Bernabe and his team; they changed the name and switched to a California-based menu this past summer.
A typical starter is the vegetable soup of the day, which in our case meant a thick, tangy tomato-based bisque ribboned with sweet peppers and okra remarkable for its crunchy, non-slimy texture. Shrimp scampi — plump, tender prawns draped with herbs and peppers — had a brisk, fresh Mediterranean flavor to them. And the ahi salad (beautifully presented on a rectangular white platter with the greens and the fish artfully arranged side by side) featured English cucumbers; vine-ripened tomatoes; a light, bracing vinaigrette; and several thick filets of rare, luscious seared tuna crusted with sesame seeds.
Among Farmers' Market Bistro's specialties are burgers in great variety (Kobe with onion marmalade, chicken with fresh mozzarella, crab with Persian cucumbers, tuna with avocado salsa, and so on). The wild king salmon burger was delectable, a moist, delicate patty of minced seafood served on a house-made rosemary bun with a schmear of sweet tomato relish. Another entrée, braised Muscovy duck, was off-the-bone tender without being the least bit greasy, with a subtly sweet/spicy glaze and a (surprisingly so-so) bed of sweet potatoes, squash, okra, eggplant, broccoli, and red onion. A meatier option is the Kobe sirloin, an un-tender yet juicy filet of pure protein served perfectly medium rare with a yummy teriyaki glaze, the same squash/eggplant/potato roughage, and lots of beefy flavor.
The menu offers two dessert options. The house-made peach ice cream tasted like it was made from tart, tough, unripe peaches, and had an icy freezer-burn consistency to boot. The flourless chocolate cake also had texture issues (too dry), but its flavor was wonderfully rich and fudgy.
Despite all the farm-fresh produce, the menu doesn't overtly favor the vegetarian segment. Meat-free starters include the vegetable soup and a salad with greens, goat cheese, and a balsamic vinaigrette. Among the burger options is a veggie varietal made of roasted peppers, tomato, and eggplant. There are polenta cakes with mozzarella and roasted mushrooms as well.
The very brief wine list features four reds and four whites, all but two (Washington's Hogue Genesis riesling and Argentina's Argento malbec) locally grown. Prices range from $25 to $40 per bottle, and all are available by the glass. There are also three beers on hand (Anchor, Sierra Nevada, and Heineken), plus Spain's Segura Viudas cava, house-made lemonade, and Izze's sparkling blackberry, grapefruit, and Clementine juice.
Farmers' Market Bistro serves tasty, attractive food at reasonable prices; the service is fast and friendly; and if something interesting is happening on the high-def flat screen, the lounge is a comfy place to perch. All the place needs are some drapes, a few pictures, a throw rug or two, and a bunch more customers.