Who knew peasant fare could be so delicious? Camino takes the road less traveled. November 14, 2011

I stopped by Camino Restaurant in Oakland last night with my wife and several friends.  Aside from the outstanding meal which we had, I was impressed by the terrific hardwood grilling set up in the restaurant.  The kitchen mainly consists of a large stone hearth, with a wood-burning firebox in the middle, and several grills to each side of the firebox.  The majority of the menu at Camino is cooked using hardwood coals.  The result is a rustic and hearty meal with plenty of soul.  What is it about sitting in an establishment with a glowing flame at the center that connects with you with the dining experience?

Camino has impressive back story– it is the creation of Russell Moore, a fomer chef and produce buyer at Chez Panisse (in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto), and his wife Allison Hopelain, a formerhostess at Zuni Cafeand Bar Tartine in San Francisco.  The restaurant opened in 2008 and was featured in the New York Times shortly thereafter.

Chris Colin, of the NY Times, captures the ambience of the restaurant and its cooking style in his review from June 2008:

Mr. Moore has converted an old Oakland, Calif., furniture store into the warm and rustic Camino, and the heart of the new restaurant is a prominent cooking fireplace. A massive one, actually — you could just about park your car in it — filled with the fig, cherry and walnut logs stoked by Camino’s rosy-cheeked cooks.

Mr. Moore’s techniques draw on diverse traditions, from Bordeaux to Uruguay to the beaches of Mexico. And the fireplace itself has a worldly flavor; it was constructed of imported limestone by a French stonemason, hailing from a line of them dating back to the Crusades.

On a recent Thursday night at Camino, my wife and I might have lost ourselves in the flames, campfire-style, were it not for the rest of the place, which is equally absorbing. It could be described as agrarian chic: Simple iron chandeliers underscored the peasant-food vibe, and we dined amid benches and church chairs Mr. Moore and his wife, the general manager Allison Hopelain, had salvaged from here and there.

Camino doesn’t tout itself as a hardwood grilling establishment, per se.  Rather, as described by Mr. Colin, the feel is distinctively rustic, peasant fare…ipso facto, it involves hardwood grilling and open fire hearth equipment.  The result is that the food lacks much of the pretension associated with fine dining–exactly the same features which gives South American asado much of its charm.

As an interesting side note, I have actually met the blacksmith who did most of the metal working for Camino’s fixtures.  Jon Sarriugarte is an artisan metal worker in West Oakland.  He writes the blog, Form and Reform, and chronicled much of his work for Camino in this post.  He did much of the hand-forged iron work for the firebox and hearth grilling tools as well as the half dozen iron wrought chandeliers which hang in the restaurant’s dining room.