Oakland’s Rockridge eagerly awaits Acre Restaurant’s November opening
By Lou Fancher
Executive Chef Dirk Tolsma is exhilarated by the opportunities and undaunted by the challenges of launching Acre Restaurant with Managing Partner Pete Sittnick.
The new, two-story dining establishment (acrekitchenandbar.com) will occupy the Oliveto restaurant’s former longtime home at the Market Hall building in Oakland’s Rockridge district. While honoring the history of its beloved predecessor, an early November opening will herald past traditions while trumpeting the future by offering a menu driven by seasonality and sustainability built on classic dishes and cocktails and planned in collaboration with local farmers and food purveyors.
Expressing vibrant energy, there is The Café, a 1,000-square-foot space with a stone oven that will generate vegetable-infused flatbreads and also a casual bar introducing low-alcohol and classic-with-a-twist cocktails. Upstairs, presenting the best of Mediterranean and California cuisine in a 4,000-square-foot dining room, 30-seat private space and 17-seat bar, a wood fire rotisserie will bring flavorful smoke and fire to pork, chicken, specialty steaks and more. Acre is meant to make “simple,” “straightforward,” “familiar,” “fun,” “surprising” and “delicious” the buzzwords that guests and the restaurant team speak most often.
Tolsma, 38, will have a short commute from his home in the city’s Dimond District, which suits him just fine. Having worked in the North Bay (Barrel House Tavern, Eloise Restaurant) and in San Francisco (Baker and Banker, EPIC Steak), he is also no stranger to Rockridge. He recalled in an interview traveling with his family as a child from their home in Merced to visit grandparents, aunts and uncles who lived in the East Bay. Meals cooked and eaten together with others have been a staple of his life for as long as he can remember.
“My parents both worked in the public education sector,” Tolsma said. “My father taught history, then was a principal, then an administrator. My mother was a ‘Home Ec’ teacher.”
Among his most cherished childhood memories are learning to cook his own eggs from his mother when she returned to teaching. The youngest child of three, the interest in cooking soon expanded to baking and backyard barbecue experiments with his father.
“When I got to high school, me and my dad learned how to grill salmon,” Tolsma said.
With his parents’ approval, he began throwing barbecue parties with friends.
“I would try to not do traditional. I liked the element of surprise, like doing a whole roasted fish. Sometimes we failed horribly, but that was OK. Or I’d take a marinade from a friend whose mom had a great taco recipe and play around with it. Or I’d see something at the market and ask my mom what it was. She’d say ‘scallops,’ and I’d try some.”
The idea of becoming a professional chef took a hiatus during his college years, but returned with unexpected clarity in Washington state while working in housekeeping at a resort lodge in Mount Rainier. He was unhappy, except socially, and it dawned on him that all of his friends were cooks.
“We just got to hang and have a good time together with food as the catalyst. I decided I needed to follow that and see where it takes me.”
It took him to Napa Valley Cooking School and a heightened appreciation for a menu sourced from local farmers. Tolsma also came to appreciate a kitchen culture emphasizing strong, open and frequent communication and a seasonally sensitive menu.
Asked about how Brian Sheehy’s role as collaborator will influence the bar program, Tolsma said “We’re looking at classic cocktails: a Negroni, a Manhattan, a Gimlet. How can we stick true to what this is but give it a twist or do it in the very best possible way? He’ll help us maneuver with that familiarity and something that says ‘this is an Acre cocktail.’ You’re going to order something you know and find (in it) something a little different you love.”
Tolsma said the positives of opening a new restaurant as the pandemic wanes are abundant and come due to planning and a generosity causing him to feel unbelievably lucky but also due to serendipity. A man he knows who hauls “cool stuff” out of places abandoned or undergoing renovation offered an antique butcher block that Tolsma loves for its worn patina. Colleagues and others have tipped him off to used equipment, and “unique and beautiful things” have come from auctions. At the core of everything from the food coming from local farmers and markets to work tables and pasta-making machines, relying on community connections is key.
“People pitch in and help us get stuff,” he said.
Tolsma faces the dining industry’s well-known perils — even without COVID-19 restrictions’ impact and supply chain issues — with practicality.
“As we’ve navigated it, the challenge is that everything is a negotiation. You want to do A, but you always have to have a B and C,” he said.
About possible negative feedback, Toslma said that by preemptively allowing time to listen to guests, with a dynamic that invites input from all directions, successful restaurants learn what is most resonant. Continuing the lineage and legacy of Oliveto, he emphasized, is a privilege Acre intends to maintain, including holding specialty dinners hosted with the now-closed restaurant’s co-owner, Bob Klein.
Perhaps Tolsma’s can-do attitude comes from those long-ago barbecue adventures and having once been terrorized by ducks — and surviving. While attending cooking school, he brought home three ducks to roast. He’d enjoyed it at school and sought to impress his family. The ducks roasted just fine, but when he was about to carve, he froze.
“I realized I’d never butchered a whole duck. Terror set in, and I thought I’d just ruined Christmas.”
Fortunately, a family friend invited as a guest was a hunter.
“He’d broken down millions of ducks and said ‘Give me the knife.’ He taught me how to break it down. My dad likes to tell the story of how I came home to cook a fancy dinner and it took a good old boy to show me how to do it.”