.Upstairs Downstairs

ACRE Kitchen & Bar honors its Oliveto predecessor

For nearly four decades, Oliveto was the central anchor point in Rockridge that held both sides of College Avenue in place. Located on the corner across the street from BART, Bob Klein and Maggie Blyth Klein’s restaurant was impossible to miss. It felt like it had always been there and always would be. If a neighborhood develops a personality over time, Oliveto was an essential, stabilizing ingredient in bringing Rockridge to life.

During the pandemic, the Kleins began sending out signal flares, warning longtime diners that they were readying to close the doors at their Italian restaurant. Following at least one postponement, it was announced that Chef Dirk Tolsma would be taking over. A couple of months ago, Tolsma opened ACRE Kitchen & Bar in Oliveto’s place. After a night out in the refurbished dining room, the thoughtful transition appears to be going smoothly.

Tolsma and his team decided to retain Oliveto’s upstairs-downstairs approach. The formal dining room is still upstairs, but the entire menu is available to the casual table settings in the downstairs cafe, too. The warming flames that emanate out of the stone hearth downstairs inspire a pub-like coziness. Risotto, pizza and gnocchi grace the menu, along with the feeling that intimate conversations and epiphanies take place at every table.

Acknowledging the fact that he has inherited a nearly mythical space, Tolsma said, “There certainly is a lot of humility that comes when you step back and look at the history that Oliveto’s carries.” The chef/owner at ACRE is grateful for the opportunity to step into the famed kitchen. But the weight of that history makes him want to be a better chef every day he shows up to work. “We talk a lot about the history here with our staff. We take a step back when we’re putting dishes together, and that’s a motivating factor for us,” he said.

While Tolsma serves a couple of Italian dishes, ACRE has pared down the menu. The cafe menu includes small and medium plates, plus six different pizzas. These starters are essentially meant to be shared with an accompanying glass or bottle of wine. The wines are, by and large, from California, France and Italy. The main dinner plates range from lamb sugo to roast chicken and fish, a ribeye steak and a mushroom dish for vegetarians. 

I’ve noticed homemade milk bread and dinner rolls reappearing on Bay Area menus. ACRE’s version is Starter Bakery pull-apart rolls with aleppo butter and lava salt ($8). The trend intends to transform those dry, plastic-packaged rolls into something charming and fulfilling in their own right. I could eat them morning, noon and night.

The bitter Caesar salad ($13) prompted the recurring debate I have with my friend about the right amount of dressing. For her, the Caesar was perfectly dressed. For me, it was under, and the croutons lived in that nowhere land where they’ve been cooked well beyond a satisfying crunch. 

Of the more substantial dishes, the garlic shrimp ($27) revisited scampi with a lighter, Californian touch. A bowl of saffron risotto ($21) incorporated a slightly strange combination of nduja sausage and thinly sliced, sautéed kumquats. I understood the principle: Add citrus to brighten the risotto. But I wanted some green vegetable to really light the dish up, asparagus perhaps, peas or even pea shoots. The potato gnocchi ($18) with turnips was hearty and comforting, but I would like to try it again when spring vegetables start arriving in farmers’ markets.

When I spoke with Tolsma, he’d just done a lunch product tasting. “We go through some of the new dishes to make sure they’re working,” he said. Tolsma mentioned the tasting included a smoked salmon dish, some poached chicken for a salad and a new dessert. “The inspiration is a Mexican flan. This one was vanilla,” he said. The pastry chef at ACRE has a background in Mexican pastries and puts a different spin on traditional desserts.

Even as the restaurant gets busier, the cuisine at ACRE is still being fine-tuned on a weekly basis. “People appreciate the homey aspect. The feedback we’ve gotten so far is that the food doesn’t feel fussy,” Tolsma said. “But we also want to feel celebratory, so we’re working on a few things that would end the meal with a little more fireworks.”

ACRE Kitchen & Bar, 5655 College Ave., Oakland. Restaurant: Sun to Wed 5–9pm; Thu to Sat 5–9:30pm. Cafe: Sun to Wed 11am to 9pm; Thu to Sat 11am to 9:30pm. 510.250.3790. acrekitchenandbar.com

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