February 25, 2006

East Bay Eats - Nibblers

Who would have guessed we'd find a favorite new restaurant in a strip mall in Pleasant Hill? Our friends Jim and Louise invited us to join them for a snack after dancing a couple of weeks ago. The restaurant's rather unassuming -- a small space sharing a parking lot with a pizza parlor and a chain BBQ restaurant. Nibblers bills itself as "a neighborhood destination for international small plates & eclectic wines" -- in other words, our kind of place. One look at the menu and we were intrigued. One taste, and we were hooked. A conversation with the chef/owner and his staff, and we were in love...

Sadly, we'd eaten dinner and didn't have a lot of appetite for snacking, so we couldn't explore the menu as much as we'd have liked THAT night. But a taste of the calamari, the crostini and a delightfully decadent libation called Caramel Apple (apple cider steamed with a late harvest pedro ximenez wine & macadamia syrup, topped with whipped cream), we knew we'd be back...

We made our return visit Friday night, with heftier appetites. Because while it was tempting, looking at the menu and saying "yes" simply wasn't feasible calorically or financially, we managed to narrow our choices down to:

Housemade horchata the Oaxacan way -- according to Daniel, they cook the rice, bringing out the almond flavor and an amazing richness for a drink with no dairy.

Roasted fuji apple, French brie, pulled Smithfield ham & piquillo peppers pizette - In my exploration of various food, I've learned that one of the things that moves a dish from good to great for me is when (to quote a math geek friend) "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Mix three or four good ingredients, and you're likely to have something really good. Mix them just right, and you have something that takes the best of each ingredient and (to quote a famous food troll) kicks them up to notches unknown. That's what happened here.

Grilled Pacific Coho salmon "norteno" with sweet pineapple pico de gallo - Pineapple??? In Northern California in February? I had my doubts, but Daniel said he found it at a local produce market and couldn't pass it up. It was some of the best pineapple I've ever had, and it *made* the dish.

Cambazola & Calvados fondue with Asian pear, broccoli rabe & focaccia - I really enjoyed this (despite my typical hesitation over strong cheeses); John absolutely adored it. Had there not been so many other enticing choices, he would have ordered a second. I was surprised to get any hint of the Calvados through the Cambazola, but it was most definitely there. And the focaccia was phenomenal - I'd have ordered that on its own. Consider me converted.

Grilled beef asada with an avocado salsa over frijoles negros - This was my least favorite dish of the evening, but I suspect my culinary limitations converted to its lack of appeal. I'm allergic to legumes of most varieties, so Tracy offered to serve the dish without the beans. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure the beans were integral to the execution of this dish. So if it's on the menu and it appeals to you, don't skip it based on MY review.

Creamed spinach gratin with freshly grated nutmeg & gruyere - see my earlier comment about the whole versus a sum of the parts -- this is your grandma's old-fashioned cream spinach, with a twist. A delightful, gruyere twist.

Camarones a la pipian - (Tiger shrimp with a light mole of pumpkin seeds & garlic) - there is nothing better than perfectly cooked shrimp in a balanced, well-executed sauce. Absolutely nothing.

Seasonal fruits crudite with a dark chocolate Kahlua fondue - The cheese fondue was a hit and the pineapple the standout produce of the evening. So we opted to try the dessert version -- pineapple chunks dipped in Kahlua-infused chocolate. And we were not disappointed.

Cheesecake fritters with a fresh guava coulis - These... these go to 11. My apologies to the restaurant -- the picture doesn't do them justice but I'm new at this and a cell phone camera was all I had to work with. And this dessert was a moment I wasn't about to leave undocumented...

The selection of artisan cheeses - here you're going to have to wait for John to comment; he was compelled to try them but I just had no appetite left with which to help him. He didn't offer twice, so I know they were good. :)

So it's clear we liked the food. We were pretty sure we would from the moment we looked at the menu. What we didn't expect to find when we walked in the door was the friendship we developed with Daniel & Tracy over the course of our two evenings together. The first night we were there, they kept the kitchen open as long as our party had the urge to sample. This weekend, we walked in at 8 or so on Friday evening. We left at well past 1 AM. We ate. We ate well. And then the four of us sat and talked for hours about life, about work, about our shared passion for food, about other restaurants (we got some GREAT recommendations), about commitment to quality, about childhood and college and corporate America, about everything and about nothing. John and I consider ourselves blessed to have several friends in the food industry (and to the extent I can keep this thing up, you'll meet many of them here). We consider it an honor and a privilege to have added Daniel, Habib & Tracy to that circle.

If I've hung on to your attention this long, check out their website. And for those of you who can identify the Caldecott, if you're on this side of it, check them out. You won't be disappointed.