At Oakland's Homestead, Gather 'Round the Fire

The hearth is at the heart of this Piedmont Ave. bistro

When Fred Sassen informed Homestead's designers that he wanted a combination grill, oven and smoker, "They told me they didn't know what that was," he says.

So Sassen, the restaurant's co-chef and owner, mocked up a design himself. Then he tapped a local ironworker to forge a hearth equipped with a removable roof and doors. Now that hearth is at the heart of the open kitchen at the month-old Piedmont Avenue restaurant, where diners and cooks are practically working side by side.

Fred and his wife, Elizabeth Hopkins–both of them former Farallon sous chefs–make California cuisine that fits seamlessly into their Oakland neighborhood. It's earthy and straightforward, yet even the simplest dishes, such as bubbly mound of baked ricotta ($12) surrounded by shaved sopressata and plums, are fashioned out of many layers of flavor.

Homestead's baked ricotta plate

The best dishes see some fire time, such slow-roasted spice-rubbed pork loin ($20), which emerges from the flames juicy and pink-tinged.

Our favorite dish from a recent meal delivered a double kiss of smoke: clams with fennel, sausage and white wine ($13), cooked in a pan set directly on the embers, and served with grilled, garlic-rubbed bread.