This past Friday night, we had a surprise birthday dinner for my wife at Oliveto. Because we had 18 people (including one other hound in attendance, wanderlust21), we booked the private dining room.
The meal was terrific, and not just by large banquet-style standards (which are, understandably, often not as high as those of a restaurant's non-banquet meals). The meal began with passed hors d'oevures, consisting of four different kinds of canapés: pork pate, a green herbed chevre, caramelized onion and cheese, and fava bean puree. None were spectacular, but all were perfectly tasty table-setters. The rest of the meal consisted of an appetizer course, a pasta intermezzo, a main course, and (in lieu of dessert) a birthday cake. Instead of rigidly locking all of us into one or two options for each course, the restaurant gave us 5 or 6 options for the appetizer and main courses; we would have also received 3 or 4 dessert options had we not opted for the cake instead.
For my first course, I had a "Fried Pork Trotter" with frisee, sliced radishes and Dijon mustard. I love bacon, and have a strong salty tooth, so I couldn't go wrong with this dish. The trotter (a pig forearm that was basically a confit) had a perfect internal texture, similar to the texture of bacon between the crispy and chewy extremes, which was a great contrast to the deep-fried coating. Also in perfect contrast were the saltiness and fattiness of the trotter and the frisee/radish side, which provided a necessary bitterness and acidity. My wife went with a lighter alternative--shaved fennel with sliced fuji apples and hazelnuts and honey vinegar--that was crisp and refreshing. I also tried wanderlust21's dish, a spicy rabbit confit with pancetta and new potatoes. This was delicious; wanderlust21 and I spent some time afterward debating which was the best dish of the night, my trotter or her rabbit.
The pasta intermezzo was a very small portion of simple tagliolini in a creamy bolognese sauce. For the vegetarians in the group, the restaurant thoughtfully prepared the same pasta, but in an olive oil preparation with chick peas and some very savory leaf that I couldn't identify. Like the hors d'oevures, the intermezzos did their job, being satisfying without threatening to upstage the other courses.
My main course was a spit-roasted wild boar belly and loin. It was good, and again, very porky and salty. It was also humongous, to the point where I could only eat half of it. Also, I'm not generally one of those people who can be put off by the sheer size of a piece of meat, but this was pushing my limits. I liked my wife's dish better: petrale sole rolled around wild nettles, spinach and porcini mushrooms.
Finally, the birthday cake was Oliveto's bittersweet chocolate torte, supersized to birthday-cake proportions. Everybody who likes chocolate liked it… which is to say, everybody liked it.
The food, however, was only part of the story. Even more than the great meal, what will stand out in my mind was how great the restaurant was about helping me plan this dinner; there was a lot of last-minute planning, but the people with whom I was working at Oliveto never gave me any attitude or any response other than their best efforts to help me out and make the event a special one for my wife. Our head server, Drew, was also great (although his supporting wait staff was admittedly a little bumbly). In contrast, when I approached Chez Panisse about the possibility of doing this dinner there, they were incredibly cold and unfriendly. So while I'd recommend Oliveto heartily for a meal, I'd recommend it even more enthusiastically for a special event.
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