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.
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.
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!
3311 Grand Ave
Oakland , CA