The front of the kitchen here has an almost altar-like setting, with large bowls prominently brimming with heads of bumpy cauliflower, prickly artichokes, stalks of asparagus and bulging pods of favas.
Overhead, medieval, church-like iron chandeliers are strung with a profusion of fragrant bay leaves that illuminate two 30-foot long, bare redwood tables spanning the length of the dining room, almost like stretched pews.
Welcome to Camino restaurant in Oakland, where what’s worshiped is rustic California cuisine in all its purity.
If you feel shades of Chez Panisse stepping inside, it’s no coincidence. Camino’s husband and wife team, Chef Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain, are alums of the fabled Berkeley restaurant.
As at Chez Panisse, there’s a wood-burning fireplace in the kitchen, which the chef puts to good use to roast both veggies and meats with a smoky allure.
My husband and I recently met a friend for dinner at Camino — a first time for all of us to this restaurant, where the food isn’t dished up with flourishes, tricks or trendiness, but with straightforward simplicity.
Camino might not be the ideal place for a picky eater, as the menu is fairly concise — just half a dozen first courses; a dish or two that are slightly larger but smaller than mains; and three entrees to choose from, one of which is usually vegetarian.
We couldn’t resist getting an order of the duck cracklings ($4). These nubbins were super crispy and nicely salty, but without the slightly melt-in-your-mouth quality of chicharróns.
After eyeing that display of spring veggies at the counter, I had to go for the starter of tender fava beans, artichokes, and saffron with spreadable sheepsmilk ricotta ($10). Fresh mint was a nice touch to this dish that epitomized its season in full glory.
Grilled local sardines were balanced by a perky hit of Meyer lemon and green olives ($12). Underneath, were garbanzo beans that had been mashed but left chunky, creating a whole new texture experience.
We also tried both of the larger starters that night. First up, the wood oven-baked ling cod brandade ($10) that arrived with a wonderful crisped top that gave way to an airy, whipped interior that only suffered from being a bit too salty.
Better was the second larger starter of slow-cooked goat ragu ($13) with yogurt and chiles. The meat reminded me a little of oxtail in texture — robust yet wonderfully tender.
From the short entree list, we ordered two. Grilled duck and braised duck leg ($25) brought a generous serving of juicy, silky poultry with grilled cauliflower, baby turnips, lentils and a touch of mustard.
The grilled squid ($21) was the standout dish of the night — charred, smoky, soft and supple with a little kick of spice. English peas on the plate were simple and sweet. The accompanying polenta had the bright taste of corn, and the unexpected texture of grits.
We ended with house-made strawberry ice cream ($8.50) full of vivid fruit flavor, and paired with an earthy, crumbly buckwheat cookie.
Camino isn’t a place you come to for fireworks or to be seen. It’s a place with a laid-back, neighborhood-friendly vibe where the ingredients are the celebrities.