Rico Rivera is one of those chefs who hates interviews. He starts our conversation by making it clear that he’d rather just let his food speak for itself. He gestures to all the chefs prepping, saying he couldn’t do it alone — they also deserve the credit.
Rivera, 40, is the force behind Almond & Oak. If the name is unfamiliar still, it’s because the sign hasn’t even gone up yet. There’s no website yet and the menus and lettering on the window of this Grand Avenue spot still say “Penrose.” The name was suggested by one of his chefs, it comes from the two types of wood the restaurants burns in the open fire.
Escrow for the sale from Charlie Hallowell and partners closed Dec. 28, and service wasn’t interrupted, even for a day. Rivera is the second former Hallowell group employee to take over one of his restaurants; Boot & Shoe Service was the first.
An official opening party under its new name will take place in a few weeks.
When you take over a restaurant that belonged to Hallowell, who sold the business after the allegations of sexual harassment against him emerged, you have to address the elephant in the room.
“I’m sure business here is down,” Rivera said. “I’ve heard that people won’t come here if he’s still the owner, but hopefully they’ll show up again now.”
Rivera said that some of the front of house staff has stayed on from the Hallowell era. He’s brought in a new general manager and bar manager and his own chefs. Other front of house staffers have departed to work at Western Pacific, Hallowell’s new venture in Berkeley. Rivera has no hard feelings about any of it.
Aside from the new name, Rivera has not made many other outward changes (“This is the most beautiful restaurant in town,” he contends). The cosmetic tweaks have been minor — a new picture is hanging, succulents and plants were added and wider tables were brought in.
The biggest change you’ll find at Almond & Oak is the food. Flatbread was popular at Penrose, so Rivera offers one type now, but other than that, the menu is fully his own vision, with a focus on the food he likes to eat.
Rivera is an East Oakland native, born and bred. He’s been cooking his whole life, learning out of necessity when he was a child since neither of his parents were great at it.
“I figured if I had dinner on the table by the time they got home, I didn’t have to eat their food and that worked out pretty well,” he said.
Rivera started taking culinary classes at Diablo Valley College, and then made the leap to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He began his career at Lark Creek Inn, in its heyday, he pointed out.
“It was an intense, great, humbling experience,” he said. “I thought I was a good cook when I got there, but learned that I wasn’t very quickly. It just made me work harder.”
Stints in Boston, where he helped James Beard award-winning chef Michael Schlow open Great Bay, one of the country’s best seafood restaurants at the time, were followed by his time at Gramercy Tavern in New York, where he worked under Tom Colicchio when he was just a well-known chef and not yet the head judge on Bravo’s Top Chef.
It was at Gramercy Tavern that Rivera began cooking with wood fire, something he prefers to this day.
“It imparts more flavor, and the food just tastes better,” he said. He also enjoys the ritualistic nature of it.
“You have to maintain it while you’re cooking; it makes the process more intuitive,” he said. “You can’t just walk away from it, you have to respect it. It keeps you on your toes. It’s fun, it’s beautiful. It never gets old.”
After about five years at Pizzaiolo and another eight as executive chef at Flora, this is the first time Rivera has a place of his own.
And he wants to be known for two things: great food and substantial portions.
He knows all of his farmers, ranchers and fishmongers personally, many of them are friends. He orders meats by the whole animal, and finds a use for everything part of an ingredient, even the lowly potato peel. The peels are fried until crispy and used to garnish the gnocchi, adding an unusual crunch to one of his most popular dishes.
The gnocchi ($17), which he says the chefs will throw out and make over if the texture isn’t just right, are like “little pillows of love.” We agreed with that assessment. Served in a beef and pancetta ragú with cubes of butternut squash, fried rosemary and pecorino romano, the dish is an excellent example of Rivera’s rustic, yet refined food.
Almond & Oak cures all of its own meats (except for the San Daniele prosciutto, which takes a whole year to make) and makes its own burrata. Speaking of, the burrata plate ($17), which came with marinated rapini, Meyer lemon, warm olives and grilled toast, spoke to the restaurant’s generous portion sizes. I considered myself a purist when it came to burrata, preferring it with very little else on the plate, but Rivera convinced me otherwise. Of course, the warmed olives had us asking, “Why doesn’t everyone do this?” Alternating bites of the burrata — on toast alone, with just the rapini, or just the prosciutto, or both — made for a much more varied experience.
My husband went for the fish and shellfish stew ($31), with fennel, potatoes, bok choy, soft herbs, absinthe, garlic croutons and rouille, while I took chef’s recommendation for his favorite, the pork ($29), which was described as confit pork shoulder with spaetzel, roasted brussels sprouts and apples, apple sauce and cider reduction.
Pork and apples are a common combination, but Rivera’s technique-driven plate stands out from others. The apples appeared in three iterations: roasted, raw strands atop the pork that were tossed in cider vinegar, and apples simmered in a cider and stock reduction.
While we definitely went for some of the more decadent options on the menu, Rivera said it’s often quite easy to modify dishes to make them gluten or dairy-free, as so many diners request these days. “I want to give the people what they want,” he said.
Other dishes sounding worthy of a return visit are the black barley risotto with maitake mushrooms, cauliflower, broccolini, carrots, radish and grana ($25) and the chicken, another one of chef’s favorites, maybe because so many guests say it’s among the best chicken dishes they’ve ever had. It’s served with mashed potatoes, rainbow chard, confit mushrooms and pomegranate seed salsa verde ($28).
It’s worth mentioning that Almond & Oak’s cocktail program is still in flux, as it inherited the bar from Penrose. So while cocktails are on offer, it’s not quite what the program will eventually look like.
Bar manager Jon Prange, who worked with Rivera at Flora, says he likes cocktails to feel representative of hospitality, and he prefers those that are stirred and spirit forward. “I love using different vermouths and sherry and gins,” he said.
There are also wines by the glass — a mix of local and Spanish and French.
Rivera is quite proud of Almond & Oak’s brunch, featuring a large menu with appetizers like beignets with lemon curd ($8) and deviled eggs with romesco, beet and fried capers ($7), and more hearty fare, such as a benedict with buttermilk biscuit, pork belly and whole grain mustard hollandaise ($16) and shrimp and polenta, which comes with shrimp gravy, shishito and piquillo peppers, scallions and poached eggs ($17). While again the menu is more on the carnivorous side, a winter veggie hash with sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, butternut squash, celery root, grilled onions, parsley and poached eggs ($15) shouldn’t leave vegetarians feeling shortchanged.
At the end of the day, Rivera is just grateful to be at the helm of his own restaurant now, doing what he loves.
“There’s no difference walking into this restaurant,” he said. “I still have people to manage, menus to create, cooks to teach. I have a job to do and have no time for any of the nonsense. I just want people who come in here to leave happy, and that’s it.”
Almond & Oak is open 5:30-9:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 5:30-10 p.m., Friday through Sunday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.