The first thing I noticed when I sat down next to the long, open kitchen at Homestead was the abundance of women in the kitchen. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen four women running the line, let alone the gorgeous wood-fired oven here. Yes, co-owner Fred Sassen was expediting, but otherwise, the only men on staff that night were clearing tables or taking an occasional table order.
It was gratifying. With the exception of wonderfully fun Juhu Beach Club on Telegraph and crowd favorite Miss Ollie’s in Old Oakland, it feels like too many of the popular new East Bay restaurants are for those who like macho, dude-food. Ramen Shop, Hopscotch, Tribune Tavern, and (forthcoming) Box and Bells are all big, bold, loud.
Homestead is subtler in its detail, effortlessly melding California cuisine with Southern comfort and a scrappy, DIY ethos.
Owners Fred and Elizabeth Sassen opened their new restaurant in a prime location on Piedmont Avenue earlier this summer. The restaurant’s name pays homage to Elizabeth Sassen’s family’s plot of homesteaded land in Wyoming, and hints at their intent to produce everything from scratch. It’s not a particularly novel concept, but it can be a great one — as long as these house-made staples are made with care.
Here at Berkeleyside Nosh, we took a quick look at Homestead when they first opened, but we wanted to know how the food stacked up on an unannounced visit. We were pleasantly surprised.
The menu is short, but offers a fairly wide range of dishes for such a seasonally focused spot. Salads, charcuterie, and demure vegetable preparations make up the most of the first two courses; the heavy-hitters from the wood oven are mostly featured in the entrées. A few sides, like salt-roasted potatoes and tomato salad, round out the savory courses. Order as many dishes as will fit on the table. There aren’t many misses.
Their baked house-made ricotta is truly a cheese transformed. The soft tenderness of the fresh cheese concentrates and blisters in the oven, grabbing a hold of the wisps of smoke from the wood to carry through the rich milk. On its own, the ricotta makes a wondrous appetizer; accompanied by house-cured pepper salame, olive oil-slicked grilled bread, figs, and a tuft of bitter greens, it is unforgettable.
Roast wild chanterelles with artichokes, Treviso, and grana padano were less successful. A heavy hand with the olive oil and aioli left the dish tasting a bit dull. The earthiness of the mushrooms and grassy notes from the artichoke hearts were left to duke it out with the excess fat, ultimately falling short.
A few bites of the slow-roasted pork, however, were enough to erase any ill will towards the mushrooms. Homestead’s pork is an exquisitely cooked belly-on pork loin, thinly sliced and laid out atop a bed of sweet creamed corn. A tangy cherry tomato salad adds bright contrast—overwhelmingly sharp on its own, but vibrant and balanced in bites with the pork and corn. Like in the ricotta dish, hints of wood smoke perfume the plate, transporting each lucky diner to a checkered picnic blanket at a Southern barbeque on the tail ends of summer.
Equally smart is the grilled ribeye. Topped with luxurious bone marrow butter, the fat-rippled steak could easily come off as overly rich. Yet the duo of charred bitter escarole and sweet roasted carrots anchor the beef and butter on the side of freshness. It’s hard to put down the fork when this dish arrives.
And don’t ignore the bread and butter basket. While they work out the details of baking bread in house, Homestead is serving Firebrand’s sweet and faintly sour batards, gratis, along with a dish of tangy cultured butter, topped with a generous pinch of sea salt.
Like the dinner menu, the wine and beer list is short, but well-curated. Wines by the glass are surprisingly cheap for an otherwise pricey restaurant—most are under $10. Bottles offer a strong, affordable mix of old and new world wines, with many options under $40. Homestead teemed up with The Trappist to produce their beer list, and there are some great finds from California, Belgium, the Netherlands, and even Sweden.
Despite the fact that much of the food and drink was spot-on, the service showed its immaturity. Drinks came quickly, but appetizers were slow to appear. Our waitress, while friendly, managed to disappear whenever we had a question. (The backwaiter, however, was eager to chat about anything from the beer list to the pedigree of pork used in their salami.) We sat right near the pass, and were able to see all too clearly when dishes were misplaced or the kitchen backed up.
However, these hiccups did little to deter from the quality of the food, and the service has nowhere to go but up.
4029 Piedmont Ave, Oakland
Recommended dishes: baked ricotta, slow-roasted pork, grilled ribeye, bread and butter
Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.
Nosh on the town: Homestead on Piedmont Avenue (09.24.13)
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