Talk about being late to the party – five years late! I just learned about Camino in Oakland last year from our friends Kayoko and Yoko of Umami Mart and our friend, Honolulu-based gourmand, Reid of Ono Kine Grindz. It’s the kind of restaurant that makes me ask myself, “Where in the world have I been?”. Camino is Chef Russell Moore’s first restaurant. Recently, Moore had committed 21 years of his professional culinary career at Chez Panisse under Chef David Tanis. My discovery of this restaurant could not have come at a better time. The food I was eating of late was just seemingly complicated. Dishes that were basically edible forms of a United Nations meeting. Uni from here, fish from here, vegetables from here, etc. When I finally had the chance to eat at Camino, I was taken back by so many things. I was yearning for simplicity, something fundamental. As I looked at the ten-item savory menu, I suddenly became very excited. For once, I didn’t have to spend time deciding what to pick off the 50+ item menu. I’m all for places that only do a few dishes but do them very well. Why is it that street food is so appealing to many people? It’s because it’s usually from a vendor selling no more than 1 or 2 items. They’ve been so used doing the same thing over and over again, until perfection is achieved instinctively. Too many dishes on a menu, you’re bound to have more misses than hits. At Camino, you won’t see foam, brushed sauces or food contraptions – you’re going to see simple, yet flavorful food on a white plate. In addition to a focused menu, the secret to Chef Russell Moore’s style of food is knowing exactly who the purveyors of meat, fish and produce are – and the magical wood fire-powered hearth that he calls his kitchen. This is Camino.
Walking in and seeing the black wrought-iron ring chandeliers, candles and dark wooden furniture, I got a sense of medieval meets modern. With the hearth in the center of the restaurant and chefs behind the wooden counter, it was almost set up like an old school theater. I already knew the food would be delicious just from walking into this warm restaurant.
Chef Moore uses almond and cherry wood to power the hearth. In the middle of the hearth is a 2′ wide grill. Flanking the grill are various “grill stations” equipped with cast iron pots/skillets and clay cooking pots from Spain/Latin America called cazuelas. When we were in Argentina, we ate various meat and fish stews cooked in cazuelas. This type of material stores heat at higher temperatures for longer periods of time, allowing another level of flavoring to occur than your standard metal pot.
This write-up combines my meals from four different occasions within 2 months. On my first visit, I lucked out during crab season but did not make it for Crab Mondays which I hear gets incredibly packed. Poor crustaceans.