I’ll admit it– when I moved to the Bay Area in 2007, I was scared. Scared to have just left my friends in Los Angeles; a family I’d invested seven years of my life developing into an ironclad network of support. No matter what was going on in my life, I knew I had someone to party with as a distraction, or a shoulder to cry on when I needed to vent, or just a ear to confide in when I needed someone to listen. “You’re only a phone call away,” my friends said trying to comfort me as I slowly packed up my life into a stack of ten or so U-Haul cardboard boxes. “It’s only a six-hour drive, or an hour flight, and you’re back in LA.” Then they reminded me of the fact that they would be coming to visit too, having heard how wonderful San Francisco is when it’s not colder than Whistler in the summer.
But what can you do? You’re an adult, and this is an adult problem to have. People grow up, and their lives change, and sometimes it’s your career, and sometimes it’s your zip code– but we make do. It might seem hard at first, but the voice of some old faceless sage in the back of our mind says, “Man up kid! Being scared of something isn’t reason enough to avoid it!” And then you take your first step forward– baby or giant—and you take the challenge head on, suppressing that childlike fear of being outside your comfort zone until it’s gone.
So I drove up the 405 Freeway, crying halfway, and eventually caught the 5 Freeway, until I suddenly found myself driving across the Bay Bridge with the Transamerica building off in the distance. After about eight hours of driving through what smelled like a cow’s anus (aka the cattle country of central Cali) I said to myself, there’s no turning back now. [Which for the record, was literally the case, since once you’ve paid your tolls and are on the Bay Bridge, you can’t turn around until you get to either Treasure Island or San Francisco. I know, it seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people don't know that.]
It took me a few weeks to feel like I was making progress and making friends. I spent a lot of time at the gym, because that’s a totally acceptable activity to do by yourself for hours. That led to a smaller waist size (albeit short-lived), which in turn caused me to go shopping for new clothes; an equally acceptable activity for one to do by one’s self for hours on end.
Things seemed to be going well and then I hit that three-month bump in the road every blossoming romance has, and then, like a screaming train out of nowhere, my love affair with San Francisco was on shaky ground. I’d been reminiscing about life in La La land and realized I wasn’t really in touch with any of the old gang. They didn’t call me, and yet, I hadn’t really gone out of my way to call them either; only making the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles feel more impossible to bridge. People in the Bay Area were just different. They didn’t all work in film and only talk about their hair removal ladies and tanning salon packages. Politics seemed to come up in conversation no matter where I was, and the radio stations were horrible compared to LA, which is probably why everyone listens to KQED (NPR). People actually discussed the weather, because guess what, it’s not always 75 and sunny in Bay Area like it is in La. Maybe I’d made a huge mistake? Maybe I did belong in LA and all of this tree-hugging clean technology and cloud computing Silicon Valley bullshit should be left to someone else. Maybe I should just embrace the vapid self I’d worked so hard to sculpt and mold in my last few years in Los Angeles working in film? Maybe I should just move back and just call it a day?
And then my besties from LA came to visit, which was exactly the kind of emotional support I needed. And together, we did what we’ve always done best; soothe our souls with deliciously familiar foods and in the largest quantities we can find. Because then, and only then, will we be so stuffed and satiated that we have no energy left to waste on whatever drama or fear we’d been struggling with.
And the first Bay Area restaurant we ate at; which to this day I tell people was my saving grace and the reason why I didn’t just hop on the next plane back to West Hollywood; was A Coté, which is French for “at side” or “next to.”
This Bay Area institution has been serving a seasonal menu for over 12 years now and it’s always in flux (menus can change daily). The small tapas-style plates are reminiscent of French cuisine done with a very fresh locavore bend. The restaurant itself is tiny and unassuming from the street; you’d almost miss it if you weren’t paying attention. They do take reservations, but leave a good chunk of tables open for walk-ins, because let’s be honest, A Coté is a neighborhood joint, and it’s what most people think about when you talk about Oakland’s Rockridge District or good East Bay restaurants in general. The sumptuous décor of dark natural woods, slate tiles, and bronze clad light fixtures feel very high-end Berkeley or Piedmont, which are the residents they’re serving the most. I wasn’t food blogging and photographing my every meal back in 2007 when I first moved to the Bay Area, but since then I’ve paid homage to A Coté, and here’s a sampling of what we ordered on a more recent food adventure for the soul.
A Coté in Oakland’s Rockridge District
Spring onion and green garlic soup with fromage blanc crouton. If you like garlic, this soup would have been right up your alley. The pungent garlic was softened with a splash of fresh lemon, and the entire bowl was decorated with a sprinkle of edible flowers.
Then we ordered the romaine salad with asparagus, Parmesan, sieved egg and a roasted garlic dressing. I know this just looks like a Caesar salad that’s been spiced up with some sliced asparagus, but it’s so much more than that. I don’t know what Chef Michael Cook does with his vinaigrettes, but they’re always the perfect balance of tart and sweet; the perfect highlight to a mound of fresh earthy bitter greens. There’s always a salad similar to this on the A Coté menu, the veggie selection will just be dependent on what’s in season and fresh.
Venison terrine with Cumberland sauce, frisée and crostini. This was delicious! So good in fact, we inhaled it before I had a chance to photograph the plate. I can tell you this though…. this terrine was all about the sauce, which was served at room temperature so our tongues could really register every musical note from the currants and cinnamon.
Mussels from the wood oven are another A Coté staple that we always get. This time it was served with Pernod (an anise-flavored liquor) and a slice of some delicious white French bread. Between bites of rich creamy mussel morsels, we sopped up the peppery broth with the bread like a sponge, which softened so quickly it nearly fell apart between our fingers.
The lightly seasoned with herbs pommes frites and garlic aioli were a necessary accompaniment with the mussels. The aioli, like a rouille, added a creamy richness to the clear seafood Pernod flavored broth, making the entire bowl slurpable.
The duck bolognese with whole-wheat spaghetti pasta and sage was our transition of choice from appetizers to mains. I was concerned that the wheat pasta would be a little too hearty and mealy, like I often find whole-wheat pastas to be, but that wasn’t at all the case here. The spaghetti was soft like an Asian egg noodle almost, and the ground duck meat and cheese made this a very gentle dish.
The seared sea bass with grilled asparagus, spring onions and Meyer lemon-blood orange relish. The fish was cooked perfectly, almost a little translucent in the very center of the filet with a nice “Maillard-y” golden crust. The relish was like nothing I’ve ever had before, and really dressed up the blank canvas that is a good piece of white fish.
Crimini mushroom flatbread with savoy spinach and Tartufello; a sheep’s milk pecorino like cheese imported from Tuscany. This was definitely the richest dish we’d ordered over the course of the evening, but the charred thin crust helped cut through some of that salty-fatty-goodness.
As I’ve said a million times before, and I’m sticking to it, I think side dishes are some of the best hidden-gems on any restaurant menu. Oh and they’re usually the least expensive items too! At A Coté there are usually at least two sides on the menu, and we decided to go with the creamy polenta with grilled radicchio. Interesting combination, right? The polenta was perfect; just like you’d want it to be, it was soft, creamy, buttery, and salty. The grilled radicchio is bitter and caramelized with a splash of an aged balsamic vinaigrette.