Trader Vic's (Emeryville, California)
I had the occasion to go to Trader Vic's for my anniversary, and could not have picked a better place. I've been reading Martin Cate's outstanding book, named after his tiki bar in San Francisco, and there's extensive reference to Trader Vic being one of the father's of the American tiki craze of the 1940's and 1950's. Their Emeryville CA location is one of the last, and does not disappoint! From an extensive rum selection to top notch food, if you're at all interested in tiki as a cocktail culture, this is the place to go.
My only caveat for Trader Vic's is that it's on the water, so if you go in February like I did, bring a jacket. The restaurant itself is drafty, which can be great in the depth of summer but was chilly on a February evening. From the moment you arrive, the decor is stunning, with carvings and South Seas brick-a-brack everywhere you look. I love that the restaurant is, in some ways, set up as a working exhibit, with their signature oven being on display as the chefs and kitchen team craft dishes.
We started with some of their appetizers, including the crispy coconut shrimp, the poké with taro chips and the goat cheese and walnut salad. Of the three, the poké was the clear winner. Meltingly fresh Ahi tuna, perfectly crisp taro chips and a great presentation made this the stand out appetizer. The coconut shrimp was well done, attractively served and a good accompaniment. The salad was light, fresh, and a great gateway into the main course.
For main courses, we tried the surf and turf stir fry, a combination of beef and shrimp with vegetables, and their signature dish, the miso glazed grilled salmon. The salmon was by far the better dish, and was probably the best piece of fish I've ever had. A perfect balance between the sweet of a fresh salmon filet and the salty of the miso glaze made it a delight. The stir fry was well executed, but honestly didn't hold a candle to the salmon. If you go, this is the dish to order!
And, of course, dessert. We had the chocolate tart and the banana fritter. Both were very good, although the chocolate tart was the winner. Creamy, rich, this was the perfect amount to share. The banana fritter was good for flavor, but could have been a little crispier. Presentation on both was, however, A+
Of course, where would we be if we hadn't gone to a tiki bar and ordered drinks? Trader Vic's is one of the original names in exotic cocktails, right beside Don The Beachcomber, and the quality of their bar staff shows. We had the signature Mai Tai, the Painkiller, the Kokonana Delight and a classic Daiquiri. All were excellent, with great flavor, balance and presentation. Half the fun of going to a tiki bar is the mugs, and Trader Vic's has one of the widest ranges of tiki mugs I've seen.
Trader Vic's is an excellent place to go for a date, an occasion or just because you feel like escaping to the islands for a while. Their menu is reasonably priced, and has enough variety to have something for everyone. If nothing else, drop in for a cocktail!