There is something reassuring about the familiar haunts of childhood, even in change. Lakeshore Avenue, with its quaint shops and soda counters, was perhaps where I spent most of my life, after school, before school, all summer long. An outing was a walk to Edy’s and then the toy store. Perhaps all the way to Lake Merritt on a particularly warm summer’s day. That block was the center of the universe. It’s different now, but perhaps it’s better. Either way, it is inevitable, that time brings with it necessary changes. Different faces, different landscapes, same earth beneath one’s feet.
As for my recent visit to The Strip of Yore, the baby girl, the hubs and I all finally made it to Shakewell, Top Chef Alum Jen Biesty’s partnership with Tim Nugent. Self-described as “Neighborhood Mediterranean” the interior design is part sun-laced Big City Bistro, part Chic-est of Caves, part Mom’s Dining room. The rock-lined room dividers are genius, interesting to the eye, yet somehow they import a sense of cool stone, settling the senses. One feels as though they are picnicking in a cave on a Mediterranean shore, the peaceful sound of the ocean rhythmically lapping at the edges of sensibility. These silent natural surfaces cradle the dining areas in a cozy and organic way, and the interior is bright without being glaring, lit either by daylight or the perfect balance of creative illumination. I felt relaxed and ready to
experience food, which is, of course, the best possible way to start a meal.
Before ordering our dinner, we opted to try a sampling of the mixology offered. Without really knowing, one must assume that the restaurant’s fanciful title has much to do with the calibre of drinks offered at the gloriously appointed bar. It is indeed a thing to behold. I tried the Neighborhood Fix, a concoction of tequila, aquavit lemon and jam, with just a hint of mezcal to smoke it up a tad. It was heaven in a glass. Little One had a La Vida Rosa, a cocktail served in an old-school champagne glass, and brimming with rosy-hued hibiscus and vodka, tiny flowers dancing atop its sunset colored liquid. When I look for a well mixed drink, I love invention, but if the flavors don’t meld into a whole, I cannot consider it a success. These were each a symphony of taste, and all played delightful summer songs on the palate. Bliss.
I’ve discovered lately that I like a Chef who loves to cook bright. Acids, in all their many forms, are my drug of choice. When food is engaging that way, when it wakes up my palate and takes me like a rough lover, I’m all in.
The first lovely bite that was brought to our table were the sausage stuffed sage leaves, a tidy little dish of delicate ginger goodness to dip them in, accompanied the app. They were warm, perfectly toothsome and they had me at hello.
Glorious. Moments later, we were brought the duck liver pate. Creamy perfection topped with dark cherries, it was melting on the bread and in our mouths, its flavor profile as delicate as the skin of a newborn baby. Subtle and sublime. I was so in love with the stuff I ordered three more rounds of bread in order that not a scrape would be left in the ramekin. If I thought I could have gotten away with licking the bowl, I totally would have. It was just that good.
There is a saying we often toss around, to “eat the rainbow” – meaning that color, and particularly variety of color, is a great way to maintain a balanced diet. The food here IS a rainbow, everything maintaining its colors and all colors represented. The chickpea flatbread, with it’s vibrant scattering of squash blossoms, appeared on our table as though the blossoms had been casually tossed there by the ethereal hand of an errant summer wind. It was as delicious as it was colorful.
Next up, the chicken and prawns, arriving bathed in a lovely piperade, (generally a traditional Gascon mix of onion, green peppers, and tomatoes
sautéd and flavoured with red Espelette pepper), yet another example of brilliant acids awash in natural colors of the rainbow. The thick broth created by caramelizing the peppers and the onions creates a sort of “french onion soup” texture and the mixture set off the seafood and chicken brilliantly. We didn’t leave a morsel.
There were so many choices we wanted to try, but the skewered lamb was recommended by our server, so we went for it. The meat between the
barbequed slices of onion and pepper was charred, kissed by flame until the fat of the exterior rendered it a lovely crust, its juice oozing its flavors with abandon into every bite. Lamb is a fatty meat, so the sauces worked beautifully against the delicate weight of the fat. The first was a bright harissa, (a Tunisian hot chili pepper paste) with its heat and acidic bite, and then the cooling yoghurt in the tzatziki, its hints of cucumber and lemon, each alternately married to the flavors of the lamb, depending on the whimsy of my fork.
The fried chicken was likewise lovely, and also accompanied by a variation of the tomato laden chili sauce and a yoghurt preparation that warmed the dish and brought it to life. Acid again. And yest, it is my crack.
Having sated our savory desires so blissfully, we went on to try a few of the desserts. A lovely blackberry crisp of a tart with orange-laced creme fraiche, hot churros drizzled in melted chocolate and a chocolate torta delicately laced with cherries and cocoa nibs. All were marvelous in their sweet, but not too sweet dance with sugar, but the churros (yes, the churros!), were perhaps the most remarkable. That may be simply because they were not your typical churro — either because they were right out of the fryer, or because they were made with a recipe slightly more delicate that we had ever previously experienced. Whatever it was, we’d tried them only out of curiosity and indecision, but as soon as we each took a bite, the game was afoot, eyeing one another to see who would reach for another, until all the magic was
In leaving the restaurant, I looked around at the street, once so familiar, now so changed. It is now the location of a world class restaurant, located in what I believe was once a family drug store, full of knicknacks and the stuff of fifties dreams. Life is short, and the items we collect, only collect dust. The places we visit, and the foods we try, create memories to feed the soul. These are all we take with us on this journey, those things that become part of us, that make up our core. Chefs understand this, and this may be why I love to write about their efforts. These gifts they offer cannot be judged as mere sustenance. They are so much more. Tiny parcels of hope, of strength, and of experience, to balance our steps along the journey as we run away from childhood into the business of life.
So if you are in a neighborhood kind of mood, visit Shakewell. Have a cocktail, break some bread, and make a memory of your own.
3407 Lakeshore Ave.
Oakland, CA 94610