Growing up in Oakland, I used to love to wander downtown and look at the buildings. I went downtown a lot. That’s what teenagers do, they hang out downtown. We would go to the old Capwell’s or Liberty House for shopping, or over to Newberrys Drugstore counter for a burger and a soda. We didn’t have malls back then, so wandering from one independent department store to another was the most excitement that could be had in a day.
Over time, the buildings contents have changed, but Oakland’s unique and vibrant architecture has always remained a touchstone. My mother worked in the Cathedral Building, a beautiful narrow flatiron structure at 16th & Broadway. It was the first Gothic Revival style skyscraper erected west of the Mississippi River. Built by architect Benjamin Geer McDougall, its narrow, triangular form is a result of its location on Latham Square, where Telegraph Avenue branches off diagonally from Broadway.
The Lionel Wilson Flatiron building at 14th and Broadway is another example of this beautiful, triangular architecture, and it now houses Downtown Wine Merchants, a lovely upscale wine and small plates establishment opened by Suzanne Breen in December of last year. Given my
predilection for beautiful buildings, the location was as much a draw as the promise of great wine being suddenly available in my home town, and across the street from my office, no less. Not surprisingly, the wine is magnificent. Ms. Breen brings a real wine pedigree to her selections of small-production wines from Europe and the US, and then there’s the food. Chef Cabrillo’s small plates are nothing less than outstanding.
On our two visits, we’ve sampled just about everything on the menu. This is a chef who knows his small plates. How to craft them, how to bring out the best in the food. The Cheese & Charcuteris Boards are uniformly good, with a nice selection of a broad range of cheeses. The meats are all beautifully cured from local artisan butcheries, with just the right bits of pickled sides and accoutrements.
The Flatbreads are crisped to perfection. We’ve had the White Shrimp Flatbread with cherry tomatoes and found it chock full of succulent shrimp— a light summer bite if ever there was one. The Pulled Pork Flatbread is topped with beautifully caramelized onions, its flavor rich and exuberant, and the Salmon Flatbread is my husband’s personal mecca. Loaded with house cured salmon in the Swedish gravlax method, each bite of salmon dissolves on the tongue. One of our go-to dishes on the menu are the Pintxos, an Andalusian chicken skewer that is melt in the mouth delicious. These little sticks of savory goodness are succulent and moist, and the unusual spice blend is one I find worth repeating again and again.
Even the sandwiches are sublime. We sampled the The Ocean, Chef’s take on tuna confit (with egg), and found the rich, mouthwatering fish was beautifully seasoned with the familiar herbs that meld with fish and make it sing. We also tried Chef Cabrillo’s Brandade, a clasically traditional emulsion of salt cod and olive oil, over a whipped potato gratin. If you’ve never tried Brandade, put it on your “must do” list.
I can’t comment on a wine bar without talking a little bit about the wines. Ordinarily, I’ll do a flight, or let them select a glass and enjoy it with my meal. I don’t ordinarily purchase wine to take home on the first visit. I’m not a wine expert and I often feel I’ll be over my head a bit. But when I can tell the people really know what they’re talking about, and I love everything they bring me, I’ll go for it. I took home four bottles on my first visit, and I’m thinking it’s time to go back for a refill. Suzanne features a lot of small batch wines from vintners in Spain and abroad, as well as some great wines made here in the US. If you too, get a little overwhelmed at the thought of wading through a wine selection, they are the people to take you through it. And if you don’t like wine, I can’t help you with that, but get it seen to by a professional, okay?
This is the perfect place to take a client over lunch, or swing by for a lovely happy hour glass of red. Dinner is also an option. They aim to please
at Downtown Wine. Check it out for yourself, and make a memory of your own.
Downtown Wine Merchants
150 Frank H Ogawa Plaza
Oakland, CA 94612