Swan's Market feels sad these days, but not tonight. The historic food hall in Old Oakland has seen a string of businesses unravel in recent years: Jesso's, J&S Deli — even the Rio de Parras produce stand, which stirred modest hopes for a reversal in the district's sliding fortunes but lasted only weeks. This evening, though, as Swan's metal roll-down door lurches open before a dozen of us gathered on the sidewalk, hopes for Old Oakland seem to be rising, too.
It's the second-ever Saturday supper at Cosecha, Dominica Rice's rambling, tiled and turquoise-walled cafe stall that opened in early July (it's currently open on weekdays, with brunch and a fixed-price dinner on Saturdays). Tonight, it feels like a family party has invaded a pop-up, as diners take their places at communal tables spread out in the otherwise naked food hall. There are enough photos snapped to rival documentation at a party of the Yelp elite, and though the three-course dinner is scheduled to begin at 7:30, we wait thirty minutes for Rice's mom and mother-in-law to arrive (one or both are driving up from LA) before the chef can start the first course. Nobody seems to mind.
In fact, at some point a man with white hair and a red face rises to offer a toast, a tribute heartfelt enough to make a wedding party reach for the Kleenex. Through the emotion of a couple of red wines, he says something about Cosecha having the power to redeem the whole neighborhood, drawing its pendulum back from the outer reaches of nowhere.
No pressure or anything, Cosecha, just save Old Oakland. Also: Serve delicious food.
Rice seems more than psyched to do just that — the food part, I mean, though there are times (say, tonight) when Cosecha's drumming energy does seem capable of triggering urban revival. It's a feeling you get sometimes at Hawker Fare, another place where excitement builds across a limited dashboard of ingredients, and where the whole experience feels ground-wired to the street.
The dashboard at Cosecha (Spanish for "harvest") is calibrated for Mexico, filtered through the Northern California of farmers' markets and pastured meats. Though nearby Tamarindo puts out some lovely and delicious food, nobody else I know in the Bay Area is doing quite what Rice is attempting here, a style somebody sooner or later will call farm-to-table Mexican (hell, I think I just did). The tall, willowy chef grew up in a Latino family in LA, and while she's cooked both in Mexico City and at Berkeley's shuttered Eccolo, her affiliation, clearly, is Chez Panisse, with all the careful sourcing and restrained seasoning that implies.
Cosecha's best dishes have a simplicity that seems to glow from the inside. Take the pork belly taco, two perfect cubes from a Berkshire-breed pig, a thick dice of striated meat beautifully seared. The texture was crisp before yielding to chewiness, and a sensation like the gush of liquefied fat from otoro sashimi. Rice knew not to distract from that drama, and kept the taco's other elements minimal (a bit of pickled onion and chile, a few cilantro leaves, and Mexican lime wedge for squeezing) in a house-made tortilla where the thickness served as textural counterweight to the meat.
The temptation with grilled chicken — especially grilled chicken breast — is to jack up mild flavor with the structure of a fruit-laced salsa. Here again, Rice kept it simple, seasoning with a Yucatan-style recado where the vaguely pine-resin taste of achiote and flecks of char on the skin lent a complexity the bird couldn't have managed on its own, and without stepping all over its chicken-y mildness.
As you'd expect from a cook trained in Berkeley's mesclun greens zone, Rice has a feeling for produce. One day a salad of fat cherry tomatoes and cucumbers shiny with olive oil seemed saturated with the solar intensity of a farm field in midsummer. Sanded with chile powder over a scattering of Cotija cheese, pushcart-style grilled corn rang with a lovely gilded sweetness. The pico de gallo that comes with the chips has a musky ripeness right now, and even the cooked tomato salsa accompanying a quesadilla smoldered with the kush-grade intensity of toasted Mexican oregano.
But a strategy of letting ingredients speak for themselves can yield disappointments when those ingredients don't have much to say. That quesadilla with the delicious salsa — its filling of Oaxacan cheese, zucchini, and epazote was too timid to register anything but mild cheesiness, its thick tortilla a bit too doughy. At brunch, a dish of chilaquiles was technically perfect, a mass of chips sautéed with salsa ranchera, under a shaggy cap of softly scrambled egg. Trouble is, the salsa was way too delicate to give the dish the snarl it needed. It all needed to be rougher, ruder, especially considering Cosecha's setting in a garagelike market open to the Oakland street.
(Best thing at brunch, though: stretchy-soft buttermilk pancakes studded with a disc of nubbly, house-made pork cake the menu calls "Spam.")
Back at the Saturday supper, a woman named Norma Listman finished up a quick talk on Pierde Almas, an artisanal mezcal from Oaxaca (the smell: smoke-stained leather), as servers began delivering a meal inspired mostly by New Mexico: carne adovada, a fat slice of braised pork shoulder in a sauce glowing with dried chiles, frybread (sopapillas) with honey for drizzling, waxy-textured hominy, and crisp young okra.
Soon, Rice's smiling mom would begin to make her rounds, greeting diners at the long tables as if she were the mother of the bride, and we'd all assembled to toast the restaurant her daughter was still in the process of showing off, with the roll-down door still half open to the street. Damn if it didn't feel like something new was stirring in Old Oakland.