New walking tour combines cuisine with Oakland history

CONTRA COSTA TIMES: January 12, 2011

Montclair is joining the ranks of several Oakland neighborhoods getting attention from “foodies” these days. Local writer Serena Bartlett has launched a new culinary walking tour peppered with historic anecdotes of what she calls “unique food offerings” in the village, known more for its quaint hillside setting and proximity to parks.

Bartlett, the author of GrassRoutes guidebooks to Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Oakland/Berkeley and the Northern California wine region, says her research has connected her with some incredible people — but the nature of guidebooks can be limiting.

“If you go and you meet people and you can’t do something justice, it’s disheartening,” she says.

So Bartlett, who’s been doing eco-tours of Old Oakland for the last two years, put together her first food-centric tour of Montclair this month. “I wanted a chance to get out from behind the computer. Tours are a way to do that.”

A New York native, Bartlett grew up in a family of food lovers. “I learned to use a mortar and pestle when I was a baby,” she says, remembering how her dad made his own curry blends and her mom was a line chef at a restaurant in Philly. She adds with a laugh, “She taught me knife skills before most mothers would do that.”

One of Bartlett’s favorite photos shows her at a very young age — stuffing a fish.

Bartlett’s culinary skills and food knowledge are reflected in the 2½-hour tours, which highlight the history of Montclair and make six or seven stops. “We’ll go in-depth about professional food and drink tasting techniques, hear about the early days when the Medau family was perched in this once-logging town and meet some of the neighborhood’s most vibrant characters,” she says.

One of the more sensual stops is at Nelly’s Java, for what Bartlett calls “coffee cupping.” With a noise that sounds more like a water syringe in a dental office, she holds her cup at an angle and slurps.

“It coats your mouth with the flavor,” she says, sharing tips about tasting techniques and flavor profiles of the different beans. “I think this roast has more cardamom than cinnamon. It’s got a really nutty, aromatic flavor profile.”

Other tour venues include Amba, for what Bartlett calls the best Mediterranean falafels in the East Bay, and a surprising stop for soup at the Montclair Malt Shop. “Here, I talk about spices and diversity in food. It’s the only place I know to get an authentic Iranian soup” she says.

The tour also may include sampling a Reuben with house-made corned beef at Grille One Carvery, enjoying Indian cuisine at Flavors of India and a mini class on pairing at Farmstead Cheeses and Wines. Bartlett gets shop owners involved, whenever possible, letting them tell their stories. “We’ll even get baking tips and try the best almond tea cake in the Bay Area at Someone’s in the Kitchen,” she adds.

For this Oakland food writer, the new Montclair walking tours are a way to put her heart — and “sole” — into one of her favorite neighborhoods. She says, “I’m seriously passionate about my hometown Oakland, and these tours are a way that I can share my love for this place.”

A Taste of Montclair walking tours are $45, including parking and all tastings. Upcoming dates are Feb. 1 and the first Wednesday of each month, with weekend dates upon request.


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