From Tuesday through Friday, Oliveto Café and Restaurant in Rockridge will offer four nights of notable seafood dishes for its 11th Annual Oceanic Dinner. The meals will include historic San Francisco seafood recipes like cioppino made from local fish and shellfish, Crab Louie, Hog Island Oyster Po’Boys and salt-roasted black sea bass with Romano beans. The focus on seafood is a part of the restaurant’s continued interest in expanding the use of locally and sustainably-sourced products. The large menu, with over 20 options, is transparent, listing where every fish was caught and how.
Bob Klein, who co-owns Oliveto with his wife, Maggie, has never been interested in doing mundane wine dinners at his restaurant. The restaurant, which opened in 1986, has hosted regional dinners for several years, including one that focuses on the top dishes of Puglia, Italy, where Klein travels every year with chefs and select farmers.
One of Klein’s big interests is the integrity of the sources of his food. The restaurant has a local grain project for pastas, using grains native to California sourced from local makers. Klein also has the restaurant using a unique polenta—red flint corn as oppose to a yellow—which grows from seeds sourced in Italy. “Right now the pasta on the shelves is made with commodity wheat,” he said. “We know it’s from Yolo or Sacramento County but we don’t know what farm.”
While grains will be a part of the dishes served during the Oceanic series, the meals will really be all about the fish. The restaurant’s fish vender, Tom Worthington, a partner at Monterey Fish Market, sells to fine dining restaurants in the Bay Area. “We are being sourced fish that are just extraordinary—much of our menu really focuses on local ingredients and always has,” Klein said.
Among the items on the Oceanic series menu will be a swordfish involtini, a traditionally Italian dish with a twist, in which the swordfish loins are salted for two days—just long enough to take out some of the moisture. Partially cured and then cold smoked, from there the swordfish is sliced very thin to couple with marinated shaved summer squash. The slices of swordfish are then firmly wrapped around the squash and served on a dollop of horseradish crème fraîche with Sausalito watercress.
Other dishes will incorporate the restaurant’s exclusive ingredients. The local oyster Po’ Boy with fennel slaw will be marinated in buttermilk, seasoned with coriander, chili flakes, black pepper, and fennel, then dredged in a mixture of flour and the red flint corn polenta. “We have access to this great polenta from Community Grains,” the local grains project Klein started a year ago, said chef Jonah Rhodehamel. “It has a lot more flavor then your typical polenta has—a nice nuttiness—it just really adds something to the dish.”
The Oceanic Dinner comes at a time of great concern about the overfishing of certain aquatic species. While there have been reports of some species of fish, particularly salmon, returning to the Bay Area after a recent population crash, environmentalists and fisheries experts urge caution. There are regulations on how many animals fishermen can catch, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which displays thousands of sea plants and animals, puts out an extensive list of fish people should not eat because of sustainability concerns.
Klein is well aware of this conflict and is working to achieve sustainably sourced seafood in his restaurant. On Saturday, three days before the dinner series was to start, Klein hosted “It’s Complicated: A Series of Conversations about Eating, Cooking, and The Politics of Food,” in Oliveto’s upstairs dining room. Panelists included Ed Tavasieff, a local small-boat hook-and-line fisherman, Ed Ueber, former superintendent of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and fish buyer Tom Worthington. The discussion focused on the state of local seas and the improvement of fisheries in the northern Pacific coast.
“We have a global economic circumstance, which is an industrial structure pillaging the public seas,” Klein said during a sit-down interview on Monday of the challenges facing the seafood industry. “It’s creating havoc and distress. But then you have local fishermen who are doing a good job and have always done a good job—they’re the fourth generation doing a good job.”
Klein said he is using these local fishermen to supply Oliveto. “The fish they get are different from fish farming industries,” he said. “There are circumstances where fish are thought not to be healthy or you should to stay away from them, according to the Monterey Bay list. But it’s a broad stroke and the answer is always more complicated.”
The independent fishermen Klein buys from are distributors for the Monterey Fish Market. The methods these fishermen use, he said, vary from using Scottish seine, a more environmentally friendly use of seine rope to collect fish (it was granted an exemption in California from federal trawl closure areas in 2005), to using longline circle hooks to catch swordfish, which reduces the risk that the fishermen will accidentally catch turtles.
None of the fish that will be served on the Oceanic Dinner menu were caught through dredging—a practice in which a device is towed along the bottom of the sea by a fishing boat to collect edible bottom-dwelling species—or was sourced from fish farming, Klein said. The menu does include some farmed shellfish (Manilla clams and mussels from Tomales Bay) as well as sea scallops, which are harvested through dredging.
Klein said that the comeback of certain fish species has to do with smart regulation. “It’s not perfect regulation,” he said. “We still need to do better. We’re not going to say ‘The fish problem is over, glad we solved that.’ It’s nothing like that. But it’s a ‘Hold on, reserve your judgment, ask another question and be open-minded’ standpoint. Here are these local people who are really doing an amazing job and they’re fighting all these forces.”
Freshness and local sourcing are also primary concerns at Oliveto. Hundreds of live Dungeness crab, a species that inhabits eelgrass beds and water bottoms on the West Coast and were trapped near San Francisco, are being picked in the restaurant’s kitchen in preparation for the Oceanic event. “I thought if we’re going to do something as easy as crab cakes that 50 percent of the restaurants in downtown San Francisco offer, we have to do it a bit differently,” Rhodehamel said. “We’re bringing in these crabs and hand picking them. It’s time consuming and crab cakes sell, which will make it really tough.”
“You buy crab in a tin or you buy it fresh and it’s in a container but its not picked for you,” Klein added. “It’s not fresh. These are crabs that were alive earlier today and we’re cooking them and then we’re picking them. It’s a huge huge effort to get fresh crab meat.”
Not every dish will be as easily identifiable. “One of the more fun ones on there is the sausage of hen and bay shrimp,” Rhodehamel said. “It’s similar to a boudin blanc [a particular style of sausage] but its not completely emulsified.” The charcoal-grilled sausage of hen and bay shrimp with crostino and frisée, a curly endive, will be crusted with a little tarragon, chervil, chive, and a hint of Pernod, an anise-flavored liqueur. “The hen doesn’t really come across,” Rhodehamel said. “You’ll think its 100 percent shrimp. It’s hard to get that snap that comes with a good sausage just using shrimp. The hen takes the place of that. It’s a soft enough player that it won’t overpower the shrimp.”
Desserts won’t veer away from the Oceanic palate, either. The Georgia white shrimp crema fritta with roasted apricots “will taste like a pastry crème with shrimp,” Rhodehamel said, “the shrimp is not at all overpowering. There are hints of the shrimp, but it seems almost like a Chinese dish—how they can really incorporate those flavors and make them work with deserts.”
Klein said he has recently noticed a change in the way people see fine dining to focus more on the food itself. “What’s happened in recent years,” he said, “is the show part, the façade, becomes part of the irrelevance. To me, fine dining is about what you are really going to do. What are people really getting.” At Oliveto, “We don’t have fine china,” Klein said, “but we put our effort into the food and the quality of the food and communications and our staff. We have always done that; it’s not a switch for us. But it is much easier having no façade. It’s really cool.”
“We want people to have a real world experience, really good food. Be clear on what we’re doing and attentive to what they want,” he said. “It becomes more inclusive and that’s a good thing.”
You can find details about the next panel discussion here. The 11th Annual Oceanic Dinner at Oliveto Café and Restaurant runs from June 12 through June 15. Call 510-547-5356 or make reservations online here.