There was never any doubt about Gary Rizzo's restaurant chops. His Somerset bistro was a fixture in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood for a decade, a date-night mainstay. So when he closed the place down earlier this year, the big question was: What would be next?

The answer is tucked away on a quiet block of Grand Avenue, right next to trendy Camino. Rizzo's Destino Bar and Restaurant is no Somerset reinvention. It's a cool, polished take on regional Central and Latin American cuisine -- with killer cocktails.

From the outside, the place has the feel of someone's house, but inside it's a haven of polished wood, pristine white walls and expansive windows. The deck will be a lovely place to hang out when the weather gets nice once more.

The new place is a collaborative effort between Rizzo, Mexico City-trained chef Marisol del Rio, her sous chef, Latin American cuisine specialist Rogelio Mejia, and mixologist Alex Aguilar and his handcrafted cocktails ($10.50).

Handcrafted cocktails are one of those trendy terms that makes some people scoff. Aren't all cocktails made by hand? The next time someone makes you a drink in a Cheers-style bar, look at how he or she does it: a slosh of booze from a bottle-top pourer, a squirt of mixer from a hose and plop -- in goes the maraschino cherry or lime wedge.


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Handcrafted cocktails typically include half a dozen intriguing ingredients. Botanicals -- cucumbers and mint, perhaps, or basil and lime -- are muddled in the bottom of a mixing glass. High-end alcohol is measured in a jigger, and bitters, simple syrup and infused ingredients are carefully measured and added. And after the whole thing is shaken and strained, sometimes twice, into the glass, the bartender quietly grabs a tiny mixing straw. With a thumb clamped over the end to provide suction, he removes a tiny sample to taste, making sure the drink's complex flavors are properly balanced.

That's why events like the Best Martini in the East Bay contest at the Lafayette Park Hotel or the Best Martini in Oakland contest are such a big deal and why cocktail devotees will follow a mixologist from one venue to another. It's the details and creativity of their handcrafted drinks that give a bartender a hyphenated name. Destino's bar is headed by Alex-Aguilar-from-Somerset-who-won-Oakland's-best-martini, whose repertoire includes, for example, a grapefruit and gin-infused La Otra Paloma and a citrusy, tequila-based Anejo Sour that comes garnished with lemon and a series of hearts, drawn into the foam on top.

That same level of care and creativity goes into Destino itself, where the goal is to showcase Central and South American cuisine with fresh, organic California ingredients. It succeeds very well indeed. The flavors are bright, the presentation lovely and the balance of dishes offers a nice mix of classic and less well-known dishes. This is no burrito joint or Corona-centric cantina. The place is polished and the offerings are divided between tapas and heartier fare.

The small platitos include guacamole ($5.50), for example, and corn-filled empanadas ($6.50) -- as well as grilled baby squid in an onion confit ($9.50) and sopecitos de chorizo ($6.50), three small corn cakes topped with white beans, locally made chorizo, guacamole and a black chili salsa.

We started with deep-fried artichokes and chickpeas ($10), piled into an eye-catching pyramid and served with a pale green, tangy cilantro sauce. The chickpeas were particularly fun, crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside when you bit through with a little pop. The small artichokes were tasty, too, although the fibrous ends could have used slightly more trimming. It's a great small plate and perfect for sharing while sipping one of those cocktails.

A baby butter lettuce salad with roasted beets ($9) arrived as a colorful, artfully stacked construction -- not in the uber-precious way that a "stacked salad" is sometimes done, where you know someone's fingers have been cramming things in a mold. Here, the small, sweet lettuce leaves were tossed in a hibiscus-honey vinaigrette, then stacked in a loose and carefree arrangement on the plate, with beets, crumbled herbed goat cheese and pumpkin seeds strewn amid the violet drizzles of dressing. It was a thing of beauty, boasting beautifully balanced flavors.

In the Bay Area, tortilla soup is typically a brothy mixture, served with a multitude of garnishes. At Destino ($6.50), it's a thick, creamy, ocher-hued soup, topped with crisply fried tortilla strips and avocado slices, the delicious country cousin to the salad's city sophisticate.

Destino's plato fuerte menu features larger plates, including achiote-marinated prawns ($15), an Acapulco-style chile-marinated cod ($16) baked in banana leaves, an Argentinean-inspired steak ($16), twists on the chile relleno theme, and a burger ($12) -- given added pizazz with manchego cheese and chipotle mayonnaise.

The typical north-of-the-border chile relleno tends to be a battered, cheese-stuffed, deep-fried, call-my-cardiologist pepper on a plate. The only thing Destino's chile rellenos ($7.50) have in common with the Tex-Mex model is the presence of a chile and a plate.

Here, the poblano is cut in half and stuffed with a flavorful mixture of marinated steak, chopped chorizo and Yukon potatoes, then roasted. It's served with pipian, a zippy green mole thickened with pumpkin seeds, and small, fresh tortillas. A vegetarian version features sauteed summer squash, carrots and chayote, as well as crumbled cotija and manchego. They're priced as tapas, but hearty enough to serve as an entree, especially when preceded by the tortilla soup or salad.

It's tough to go wrong with an Argentinean-style steak, and the Destino version certainly delivers. The grilled New York steak is served with chimichurri, a tomato sauce and what the menu describes as house fries but are actually addictive, chunky, oven-roasted potatoes.

Where Destino could use more attention is the dessert menu, which, with just two choices, is a bit of a letdown after a main menu filled with so many interesting possibilities. Destino offers a vanilla bean panna cotta with blackberry sauce -- which seems odd in November -- and a double chocolate cake.

We shared the latter, which consisted of a large square of very chocolatey cake, topped with a slightly alarming piped sausage of chocolate ganache and a flavored whipped cream. It was very sweet but not particularly interesting, especially given the range of everything that came before.

To be fair, the place has only been open a month, and they've clearly put their focus on the most important aspects -- the starters and entrees, the cocktails, the gracious staff and the polished decor. But here's hoping that in the coming weeks, they augment the sweets menu with something more amazing from the vast array of Central and Latin American dessert possibilities.

Otherwise when we return -- and we definitely will -- we may order that perfect beet salad for dessert, too.

Destino

* * *

FOOD: * * *
AMBIENCE: * * *
SERVICE: * * *
WHERE: 3909 Grand Ave., Oakland
CONTACT: 510-788-4152, www.destinobarandrestaurant.com
HOURS: 4-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
CUISINE: Regional Central and South American
PRICES: $$
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including a vegetarian chile relleno
BEVERAGES: Wine by the bottle or glass, and a full bar headed by Somerset's Alex Aguilar
RESERVATIONS: Accepted
NOISE LEVEL: Medium loud
PARKING: Street parking
PLUSES: Fresh regional Central and South American dishes made with local, organic ingredients
MINUSES: At the moment, there are just two options on the dessert menu.
DATE OPENED: October

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Ratings

Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.

Price code

$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40