By Anneli Rufus
The Bay Area's trend-setting relationship with food, and thus the whole world's soon-to-be relationship with food, keeps ascending to new apexes of this and that.
At Oakland's Homestead, helmed by husband-and-wife chef-restaurateur team (and fellow Farallon alumni) Fred and Liz Sassen, many of our apexes are on display. Outfitted with original vintage brick inlay, a wide-open kitchen, and wood-burning grill before which burly, beaming workers toss domes of dough, 2-year-old Homestead is a farm-to-table, rustic-chic, upscale Apex Expo.
The first apex is local/seasonal/sustainable. Menus change frequently here to spotlight what's hyper-fresh not just that month but that week, even that day. That's why, on a late-summer evening, corn graces several dishes—simple but bright as the sun itself and attention-queenishly, boldly, naturally candy-sweet.
Much at Homestead is organic. Much comes from Northern California ranches, breweries, wineries, and farms. Very much is made in house, including vinegars, select cheeses, ice creams, charcuterie items, pasta, sweet and savory preserves, and what might be the freshest, heartiest house-baked bread you'll ever slather with house-churned butter.
Which brings us to the second apex: creativity. Our ancestors, heck, even our slightly older cousins, would have marveled slackjawed at what today's chefs do with what. Case in point: a glorious melon gazpacho festooned with fruit cubes, smoky padron pepper strips, fresh mint, and ripply, paper-thin house-cured lemon. Radiantly amber, sweet, and savory, it's a super-cool smoothie-in-a-bowl in the best, most sumptuous, most past-and-futuristic-in-a-single-mouthful way that leaves you asking, awestruck, like a magic-show attendee: How in heck did they do this?
"We are a collaborative kitchen," explains Liz Sassen, who grew up on a Central Valley farm as did her parents. "Everyone comes to the table with ideas for dishes.
"It is usually not just linear, as in, 'I have beans; what goes good with beans?' " she added. "It's much more orchestrated than that.
"I am a nostalgic person. I draw a lot of inspiration from childhood and from traveling. Memories, to me, are often based around meals and food."
For instance, during a visit to China, "one of my favorite dishes was blistered green beans with this funky, savory, fermented black-bean sauce with lots of chiles. At another dinner, we ate spicy hotpot, and one of the palate refreshers were these marinated cucumbers smashed with tons of raw garlic and salted. Both of these items are so vivid in my memory that even though I never ate them together, they married well together."
Which is what spawned one remarkable, texture-festival dish: chewy, resplendently creamy grilled Monterey squid with blistered summer beans in smoky black-bean sauce, dotted with heirloom-tomato and cucumber chunks.
It's not just the ingredients that require contemplation, Sassen adds. "It's the experience as a whole, as in: How does this dish make sense?" she said. "If I came to Homestead as a diner, would I order this? Would this satisfy me? Those are the first questions."
Only after they're answered comes the further question "of whether we need to make this dish 'more interesting' or 'more unique' or not; or is it at its best simply as it is? Obviously, physically making it and tasting it answers those questions and we can make the final adjustments from there."
And while savoring that gazpacho, you're fielding your flood of associations, fantasies, and memories. (Pippi Longstocking and her pals ate "fruit soup." You always wondered what that was.) The astounding newness of this soup (despite, or perhaps because of its components' down-home basic-ness) renders you a trendsetter, a gastronomic guinea pig, reeling in the chervil-scented wind that barrages the vanguard of the avant-garde.
You could sit pondering this gazpacho for hours but, no, because, hark, here comes a translucent halibut gravlax served with that sunshiny corn, Kandinksy-worthy house-preserved lomo and mellow cherry tomatoes. And there goes gleaming duck confit with figs, charred scallions—not just ordinary raw ones but charred—and house-made vinegar that echoes down the centuries in its ancient, tart traditionality.
It's almost too much to absorb in one sitting. But, hey, these roasted butterball potatoes, bursting into Wild West-flavored, toasty-skinned, crumbly golden glory atop a jade-green bed of makes-you-proud-to-live-in-California basil aioli, aren't going to eat themselves.
Apex No. 3 is loyalty, a cross-current circuit connecting creator and consumer with an almost tangible spirit of collaboration, collusion and commitment to the concept of a restaurant as part circus, part semi-secret club whose pass-phrase is: I will be wowed but
how? We've seen this spirit at other East Bay favorites such as Tigerlily, Hopscotch, Comal, Ramen Shop, Chop Bar, and Gather. It's a thing.
"We strive to make excellent food, not to please our own egos, or to show you what we are capable of," Liz Sassen says, "but to feed and nourish our guests and provide them with an experience."
The Homestead experience might manifest not only as dinner, but also as an adventurous multicourse Sunday supper or a morning café service featuring savory strata, beignets, and Contraband coffee.
Whichever experience you choose, Homestead's wide-open kitchen will be part of it. Old-school eaters might hate it, lamenting that just as all diners can see every move the kitchen staff makes, so can the kitchen staff see our every move—our every smile but also every disappointed, startled, the-menu-said-"spicy"-but-these-curried-lentils-cradling-my-poached-egg-are-infernal-so-thank-God-this-delicious-cross-cultural-chickpea-socca-soaks-up-the-incendiarity moue. The open kitchen spurs either a friendly sense of intimacy or the total abandonment of privacy, depending on your tastes and whatever you have to hide.
Apexes nos. 4 and 5 merge at Homestead. They are ethics and price. This year, the Sassens took the pioneering step of adopting a no-tip policy. That's why prices here might appear especially hefty at first, until you read this message printed on the menu: "As our prices now include service, we are able to pay all employees a living wage. This eliminates the need for gratuity. Thank you."
It also eliminates some of the awkwardness afflicting diner-server repartee.
Dessert is a cool-warm brick layered with ruby-red frozen strawberry parfait and tender, whimsically tropical coconut cake, topped with circus-bunting swirls of toasted meringue. On the side, looking like afterthoughts but so luscious that you want to make a meal of them, lie hunks of coconut brittle and transportingly intense strawberry slices. This dish looks, then tastes, like fun itself.
It was, Sassen says, inspired by those strawberry-shortcake Good Humor bars "that you can get at gas stations. I love these things and have since I was a child. . . . The flavor profile is the same" as that of its gas-station cousins, "but by using higher-quality real ingredients, we have made something with much more powerful and delicious flavors."
And that's the latest bulletin from this Age of Strange Creations, but strange in a good way, as in "Hello, stranger!"
It is also an era of culinary courage in which Homestead is, in fact, a true homestead—one where the maitake mushrooms paired ingeniously with pickled peppers and crumbly fresh ricotta in your beautfiful sweet-corn salad taste like a holy cross between the forest floor and clouds.
4029 Piedmont Ave.,
Open Tue.-Sat. 8am-12pm and 5-10pm;
Beer and wine.
Accepts credit cards.
Try the creamy grilled Monterey squid with blistered summer beans in smoky black-bean sauce with heirloom-tomato and cucumber chunks. Photo by Kristan Lawson.