Plenty of 'Meat' in Our Top 10 Restaurants of 2007

December 28, 2007
Section: Entertainment/Bay Area Living
Nicholas Boer, STAFF WRITER

WITH IZZY'S in San Ramon, Fleming's in Walnut Creek and Moresi's in Clayton, 2007 might be called the Year of the Steak (even rib-happy Back 40 in Pleasant Hill has gone steak-crazy). But while none of those new East Bay restaurants took one of our Top 10 spots, there's plenty of "meat" to choose from in our list. Each of our picks demonstrated a clear concept and delicious food (and you can order beef at any of them). Chosen from the 50 reviews we printed this year, the 10 restaurants listed below are a testament to the rising quality of ingredient-driven dining establishments throughout the East Bay:

1. Wood Tavern: An instant success, the restaurant's tempo blends the best of urban sophistication and neighborhood charm. Rich and Rebekah Wood, previously owners of Frascati in San Francisco, are ever-present. The food, by chef Maximilian DiMare, is at once refined and rustic, delivering bold flavors and hearty portions in a pretty package. Salads are sublime, the Hot Pastrami at lunch is transcendent, and DiMare shows talent with anything cured or smoked. 6317 College Ave. (at Alcatraz Avenue), Oakland. 510-654-6607.

2. Metro Lafayette: Metro was Contra Costa's biggest hit this year. True to its name, it gave this hamlet a taste of the big city — from impeccably fresh oysters to skin-on fries. Founding chef Mark Lusardi has just departed, but Jack Moore, the tireless owner, insists that the kitchen hums without him. Minimalism is hip, but Metro distills the formula: refining service, simplifying and purifying the menu, and surrounding it all with an arty, almost austere, ambience. Great wine list. 3524 Mt. Diablo Blvd. (in the Safeway shopping center), Lafayette. 925-284-4422;

3. Riva Cucina: The stripped-down cuisine here has startled some, but most foodies find it refreshing, on a par with Oliveto and Bay Wolf. Young chef-owner Massi Boldrini delivers a stunning piece of fish, of cheese, of tomato, a little salt, a little olive oil, accentuating natural goodness. Riva is out of the way, but worth seeking out. While Boldrini's cooking is sweet — from ripe produce and careful caramelization — it's not overly rich. Small but stunning Italian wine list. 800 Heinz Ave. (at 7th Street), Berkeley. 510-841-7482;

4. Singapore Old Town Cafe: Dublin's Ulferts Center brought us more than a dozen Asian restaurants in 2007, but the cuisine here stands out with dishes sizzling with toasted curry, ground dried shrimp and sambal. Satay brings moist, fat chunks of chicken pebbled with coarse-ground spice. Don't miss the Roti Canai — a savory and flaky pan bread — or the coconutty Beef Rendang, or, for that matter, the whole coconut (with a straw). 4288 Dublin Blvd., Unit 109, Dublin. 925-833-8300;

5. Maria Maria: Maria Maria's mellow-dramatic, wick-lit, quasi-hallucinogenic dining room has you melting in your seat. Moles have a fruity, haunting complexity. Vegetarians will love the roasted chile rellenos; everyone else should indulge in a platter of carnitas, served in glorious gnarly chunks. A trio of salsas are best chased with agave-enhanced margaritas. 1470 N. Broadway, Walnut Creek. 925-946-1010; http://www.mariamariarestaurants.

6. Digs Bistro: Call 2007 "coming out" year for Digs. For 30 months, it was an underground "restaurant" where friends could gather to eat good food and indulge in the local music and arts. The 35-seat restaurant has all the charm of a fairy-tale cottage, including dishes with a homespun honesty. The cooking style is honest and gutsy — American, you might say — with just enough finesse to park in California. Start with the charcuterie and finish with a sundae. 1453 Dwight Way (at Sacramento), Berkeley. 510-548-2322;

7. Huynh: A number of Vietnamese restaurants — both upscale bistros and humble noodle houses — opened in 2007, but none outshone Huynh's Jan. 6 debut. The dining room's varied shades of green capture all that's compelling about this fresh, calming and refined cuisine. The serving platters — metallic, Asian and shapely — are dazzling by themselves, and well-suited to the stark presentations. Look for stuffed squid, steamed bass with coconut broth and crusty Shaking Beef. 1512 Locust St., Walnut Creek. 925-952-9898;

8. Gigi: Slammed with customers the moment the doors opened in July, chef/owner Jeff Amber is just now catching his breath. His dishes, when the kitchen is calm, don't blow you away so much as nourish you, like a market-inspired weeknight meal. He's at his best with french fries, salads and seasonal presentations of fresh fish. The setting, in the antique cottage that housed Kaffee Barbara for 30 years, has the same sprawling brick patio and a refurbished, contemporary indoor space. 1005 Brown Ave., Lafayette. 925-962-0882.

9. Baci Ristorante: The garish decor will tell you otherwise, but Baci is trying hard to bring fine dining to Vallejo. With dishes such as grilled bitter lettuce and whole poached fish, Baci's menu has the sex appeal of a Tuscan trattoria. Chef Scott Larson persuaded the owners to go upscale. It was a move as gutsy as the pastas are bold. Larson uses a minimum of sauce, extracting maximum flavor by searing produce and protein in extra virgin olive oil. 324 Virginia St., Vallejo. 707-552-4888;

10. Sahara: Mahida and Abe Hadeed have established a winning restaurant in a location that has struggled for years. Their dining room is bathed in the warm, golden tones of dunes at sunset. High-quality authentic kabobs, hummus and falafel are served at reasonable prices. Delicious wraps at lunch. Mahida makes everything by eye, taste and hand, meaning she's in the kitchen all day, every day. Wines are quite reasonable. Service can be amateurish, but that just adds to the relaxed atmosphere. 907 First St., Benicia. 707-746-0505.

Reach Nicholas Boer at 925-943-8254 or