PENROSE: What’s past is prologue…

Burrata and summer tomatoes

Burrata and summer tomatoes

I grew up in Oakland. I’ve seen a myriad of change, some good, some not. The streets of my childhood were constantly changing, adapting. To progress, to the passage of time, and even, on occasion, to the forces of nature beneath the earth’s crust. I mark many of these changes with the establishments that offered the foods I’ve loved and lost. The incomparable Lakeshore Deli, where I would accompany my grandfather for snacks of sliced prosciutto and fresh-baked foccacia. Grand Avenue was home to Mitch and Jim’s, a steak joint awash in red leather upholstery and dark-paneled interior. It was classically Mad Men, the atmosphere so thick with the testosterone of the sixties that it wrapped around you like the ribbons of smoke that curled dreamily from my Grandfather’s cigars at the end of a meal. Mitch’s served this fantastic salad of beefsteak tomatoes, purple onions and anchovies. I savor it still in my memory. As time passed, new places replaced the old. The Pewter House, the old Victoria Station on the Estuary. Each held some special dish that I would return to experience again and again. All are long gone.

If Oakland wasn’t currently alive with new culinary adventures, I might have time or inclination to mourn them. But I don’t. In my hometown these days, the options for dining are myriad and delightful.

These “ghosts of restaurants past” have made way for a new kind of progress. Penrose, the embodiment of the modern restaurant, is located on Grand Avenue. It is next door to The Alley, one of the last icons of Oakland’s vaguely dusty past. Unlike its antiquated neighbor, the decor at Penrose is open and airy, the delicately vaulted ceilings suggesting more the interior of a Tahoe ski lodge, than the occluded and secretive trysting dens of the fifties that lingered well into the disco era. The only smoke in the air at Penrose is the delicate scent of wood burning slowly, in the cavernous ovens in which they prepare, well, just about everything, except maybe the ice cream.

The food was remarkable. I’m getting used to that, in this age of fresh and local and carefully crafted bites. Our meal was simple, and perfect in its simplicity. There were no complex flavors murking up the flavor profiles, the ingredients were in the forefront of each bite.

THE MEAL

SONY DSC

Delicate flaky fish

We were starving, so we ordered the flatbread and dips to get things started. The bread was remarkable. Simple, the heat from the oven still kissing its surface, the streaked brown crust bubbling with the delicate flavor of the smoky oven. It reminded me of the food to be had at a campfire, all that much better for having been prepared over an open flame. The trio of sauces were solid, consisting of a delicate harissa, a spicy charmoula & a creamy tahini yogurt. We promptly ordered a second go round of that fantastic bread with which to consume them, and with the bread arrived a lovely helping of house made ricotta, which is a bit like a slightly dense buratta in texture, as well as taste. We followed the bread with a plate of the panko-crusted pork strips. Those puffy golden fingers of air were hot enough to make one take notice. There is something about food that’s piping hot, cooled only enough not to burn the soft palate, that carries the flavors to the tastebuds in a palpable way, a way a lukewarm bite cannot.
The options on the menu at Penrose are graduated, going from share-sized portions, to heartier options, meant to be enough for an individual main. The Ahi Tartare my son-in-law ordered was a light, delicate serving of beautiful fish, the consistency of not quite room-temperature butter and just a hint of citrus to round things out.

My daughter ordered the game hen, which had been boned and roasted to perfection. I had the quail, which was moist, with a beautifully roasted, golden crust of a skin. Hubs had the salmon, which was likewise buttery and moist. Every dish had a thread of simplicity running through its preparation. We all hear about “local, fresh ingredients” making the difference. How many talking heads at the Food Network have repeated the meme that we must let the flavors of the foods speak for themselves. Having tasted the theory in its best practice, I finally understand the idea on a primal level. The fowl tasted like fowl in its best iteration, an exterior crisp from the grill, the meat still juicy and moist. The vegetables tasted like the colors in the rainbow, a green that resonated with spring, the yellows sweet and sunny with flavor. I found myself marveling all the way through dinner at how the chef had captured their essence and left it on the plate. That’s not to say I don’t like complicated food, but simple food is spectacular when done correctly. Sublime, even.

Strawberries and bread pudding

Strawberries and bread pudding

Given that we were celebrating, we ordered several desserts. They did not disappoint. A glorious buttery pound cake with fresh glazed strawberries, a magnificent citrus granita, a bread pudding that was a cross between french toast and pudding, and a light crispy meringue floating atop a creamy pudding. Every one of them was just sweet enough without being so saccharine as to grate on the teeth after our savory courses.

By the time we finished we were blissed out, which is the way one should always leave a restaurant. Stepping out into the familiar street, I was reminded again of the evolution of Oakland into a real contender in the food scene. We’ve gone straight from the familiar comforts of the past, into the surprising and artistic entertainment that is our culinary present. Perhaps the restaurants that went before were meant to set the stage for what we have become. Perhaps they were the best we could do at the time, given how small the repertoire was for a local chef before the food of the world’s cuisines began to bleed together into something unique and completely now. Either way, Penrose is a must-visit stop in Oakland’s ever growing list of places to break bread. So check it out, make a lasting memory of your own. Bon Appetito!

Penrose
3311 Grand Ave
Oakland , CA
Phone: 510-444-1649
http://www.penroseoakland.com

DOUKKALA – the beginning of a beautiful friendship

Morocco is a land of mystery. It has been the setting of a multitude of films, perhaps the most famous of which is the unforgettably iconic Casablanca. Casablanca was story of adventure,

Lovely Ahi Tartare & Quail Egg

Ahi Tartare & Quail Egg

lost love and heroism, set against the perfect backdrop, a mysterious and intriguing city on the North African coast, Casablanca, Morocco. The city remains a curiosity in the American imagination, as evidenced by the many film makers and song writers that have made it the subject of their artistry. It’s no wonder. Colonized by the French at the turn of the 20th century, the two cultures mingled and cuisines blended to produce a unique result, a compelling marriage of African and French flavors and techniques. The first time I experienced Moroccan food was back in the seventies, in a restaurant whose name I have long forgotten. I remember only that we sat on pillows and ate with our hands, quite literally, immersed in a bit of Moroccan culture. My first little trip on the “Marrakech Express.”

I haven’t really been afforded an opportunity to fully experience the flavors since then, but as our global community grows ever smaller, the cuisines of other lands seem to be more and more readily available to the consumer. Such opportunities are a gift, and we should take advantage of such gifts when they present themselves. So when I was recently invited to sample the menu at the newly renovated and rebranded Doukkala located in Oakland’s Temescal District, I decided to take my own advice and check it out.

Oysters in the Shell

Oysters in the Shell

THE BEGINNING

The restaurant has chosen the terms “California Moroccan” to describe the cuisine provided within. With all the variations on descriptive terminology used to entice us, one can have some difficulty translating the terms into our expectations of the food offerings within. Doukkala is aptly named. It is a blending of the style of California and the flavors of Morocco.

Chef Eric Lanvert presented us a masterful Tasting Menu. The opening salvo was a delightful chilled Gazpacho, ripe with the blush of summer tomatoes and Mediterranean spices. Richly seasoned, the soup carried the mysteries of the locale along the tastebuds, a thrilling little adventure in flavors that was just the right temperature to awaken the palate.

The next course, a special “off-menu” preparation from Chef Lanvert, was a beautiful little mountain of Albacore Tartare. The delicate combination of the buttery fish on the tongue as it blended with the subtle kick of spice, made the dish irresistible to this seafood fanatic. No sooner had we devoured our Tartare than we were presented with a glorious Pacific Dayboat Scallop, nestled beautifully in a pillowy bed of jerusalem artichoke velouté. The velouté itself was a lovely consistency, akin to that of perfectly creamy grits, and a stellar companion to each delicate bite of the perfectly seared morsel of seafood atop it. Sublime.

THE MAINS

The next dish, a Grilled Spanish Mackerel was a bit heartier than those that had preceded it. Mackerel is an oily fish, its flesh is rich and tangy, rather like an overgrown sardine. It is the sort of fish that really holds up to the hearty tomato and olive-based preparations Chef had chosen to accompany this dish. The fish was crisped beautifully, and the blissful Morroccan

Day Boat Scallop on Jerusalem Artichoke Veloute

Day Boat Scallop on Jerusalem Artichoke Veloute

tapenade alongside it was tempered perfectly by the delicate sauce of mint and green peas drizzled along the plate, allowing a hint of the sauce with every bite. By the addition of the olives, the dish was pushed right up to edges of salty, but the oils and hint of mint pulled it right back to an execution of excellence that all but transported the diner to the streets of Marrakesh. With each bite I could imagine myself shoulder to shoulder with other travelers, making my way along a crowded street in the heart of the bustling city, the smells of the street food wafting along in the air, as eager vendors shouted the superiority of their wares in a foreign tongue.

The Mendocino Quail Pastilla was the final offering of the savory courses, and it was an imaginative bridge to the sweet side of the meal, arriving at the table in the form of a puff pastry of filo dough filled to the brim with savory, succulent quail meat. The top of the pastry was sprinkled with a dusting of powdered sugar, lending a hint of sweet to an otherwise savory filling. The filo dough wrapped each tender bite of dark, spicy quail, with a toothsome crunch, the filling of anjou pears, honey and spices, keeping the bird meat itself from any hint of gaminess. The dish bridged the road to sweet from savory from a uniquely new and appealing perspective. It was decadent, rich and incredibly satisfying.

THE DESSERTS

The final course was a lovely tasting trio of dessert offerings: a succulent Panna Cotta, a delicate Spiced Chocolate Cake topped with crème fraîche and the classic Middle Eastern dessert, the Baklava. The Panna Cotta was creamy and light; the chocolate cake rich and moist and the Baklava was laden with honey, but not overly sweet, which I found refreshing. All three were delightful. The perfect end to a really splendid meal.

Dessert Trio

Dessert Trio

THE WRAPUP

When I arrived at Doukkala, I was expecting a family-style meal of plentiful bowls, containing casually ladled out couscous and kefta. I was both surprised and impressed to taste the bounty of dishes that were actually presented to us there, each having both a delightfully artistic classic French appearance in the plating, while containing a variety of vibrant flavors and textures expertly representing the best of Moroccan cuisine. If you are a fan of adventure, or even if you are not, I believe a visit to Doukkala is in order. I found it sublime. As always, check it out, break some bread, and make a memory of your own.

DOUKKALA
4905 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609
(510) 653-8691
info@doukkalarestaurant.com

TRIBUNE TAVERN – Who says you can’t go home again?

Guilty Fries anyone?

Guilty Fries anyone?

All things belonging to the earth will never change–the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth–all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth–these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever. THOMAS WOLFE

I have a thing for the Tribune Tower. Its history fascinates me. The “Trib” as I’ve always called it, where my grandfather once hung out with his buddy, Joe Knowland. Knowland, who purchased the paper in 1915 was a character right out of a black and white movie. I used to imagine the two of them sitting together in a walnut paneled his office, pouring scotch from a delicate crystal decanter and surveying the City from a perch far above. There they remain, in my mind’s eye, discussing politics or the day’s current headline, making decisions that would change history. It is always a scene cut straight from Citizen Kane. The Tribune Tower is a repository of much of Oakland’s history, and by a twist of fate, my own as well.

It was while working there as a legal secretary that I first met my husband. He interviewed me when I answered an ad in the Inter-City Express. I got the job. We worked there together for almost ten years, until the building was felled by the Quake of ‘89. While it didn’t quite come down, but it was uninhabitable for some time afterwards. I was devastated to leave it behind.
So naturally, I was thrilled to see it rise like a phoenix, after being restored. When the Tribune Tavern opened at the site of the former Oakland Tribune offices, I was elated. Ownership has reinvented the space into something new and modern, while managing to faithfully retain the spirit of its origins.

I’ve recently moved my own office back to the heart of Oakland’s 14th Street, only a block from our spot in the Trib. So recently, I grabbed my camera and headed out on a mission, accompanied by most of my family for a festive occasion, my mother’s “18th” birthday. My heart-to-food conversation with the Tribune Tavern felt long overdue.

THE FOOD

Golden Fried Fish & Chips

Golden Fried Fish & Chips

We all arrived on time, which for my family is a feat in itself. The evening started with cocktails, of course. I had my favorite of their talented mixologist’s concoctions, the Stolen Afternoon. A lovely blend of Hibiscus tequila and Earl Gray, with a hint of lemon. Cool and refreshing, its flavors hide quite a punch My kind of drink.

Absolutely starving, we ordered almost every appetizer on the menu. The staff was on it, and we were shortly presented with a lovely assortment of appetizers. The house made chips were light as air, and crisp which is not often the case with a house chip. They don’t add all the “stuff” that keeps chips crispy, which is good, but it often results in a slightly soggy chip. No so these. Whatever the chef is doing, it is being done to perfection. (The bacon in the dip wasn’t bad either.)
We shared a cheese plate, which though a bit on the small side as cheese plates go, was a lovely blend of flavors. The charcuterie plate, on the other hand, was abundant and really tasty. A nice selection of sliced cured meats, and a country paté. Delectable. My party devoured it all.

Moving on to the mains, several of us had the Ahi Tuna, which arrived on a bed of pureed greens. The fish was cooked beautifully, with a nice sear and a buttery pink interior. My eldest had the Burger, and it came with a fried egg on top. Did you hear the part about the fried egg? I’m as crazy for fried eggs as I am for the Tribune Tower. Yum.

Hubs had the Fish & Chips, which appeared as tender pillows of fish filet as puffy and light as a wispy spring cloud, on a bed of piping hot fries, both cooked to a golden perfection. The potato slices were likewise . My youngest had the Veggie Risotto, a dish I had opted to skip in favor of something with a bit more animal protein. Big mistake. I think it was the most flavorful dish of the evening. The tender bits of rice were rich and masterfully seasoned, each bite so good I wanted to eat her entire bowl. I think she sensed my predatory air, because she snatched it back before I could. Spectacularly successful dish.

Veggie Risotto bliss

Veggie Risotto bliss

TIME FOR DESSERT

We completed our feast by ordering three of the four desserts (with share plates and loads of spoons and forks, cause I’m nothing if not a sharer). The first of our desserts was a simple confection featuring the first Strawberries of the season atop a creamy house made ice cream. We also ordered the Bread Pudding & Caramel which presented as a creamy and toothsome pudding served with mango ice cream. The last dessert was essentially a piping fresh Turnover, chock full of blueberries and accompanied by a lovely serving of house made dulce de leche ice cream. All were delicious, but the pie, hot from the oven, with the cream melting into every nook and cranny was my favorite. Anything consisting of a flaky, buttery crust, berries and cream is pretty much heaven in my book.

The Tribune Tavern is a splendid jewel in the Oakland dining crown. The chef used simple, fresh ingredients, to produce complicated bursts of flavor, each dish was well executed; our service was attentive while remaining inobtrusive as we carried on with our festivities. In short, mom had a swell birthday party, and we left very happy indeed.

Places like the Tribune Tavern remind me that I no longer have to cross that beautiful sparkly bridge into Oz to experience a special evening out. If you’re looking to celebrate something in Oakland, then check it out. Break some bread, make a memory of your own.

Tribune Tavern
401 13th St, Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 452-8742

http://tribunetavern.com/

Blueberry Turnover with Caramel & Ice Cream

Blueberry Turnover with Caramel & Ice Cream