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

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 Knowland’s walnut paneled 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

The FORGE (Pizza) – Childhood Comforts with an Artisan Twist

Margherita Pizza, bundles of burrata atop a perfectly seasoned tomato sauce!

Margherita Pizza, bundles of burrata atop a perfectly seasoned tomato sauce!

I grew up in a pizza parlor. Literally. My father’s best friend, with whom we spent at least one night of every weekend he had my sister and I, owned Granata’s Pizzeria in Berkeley. Dad would take us into the restaurant for dinner at least twice a week. I was so at home in the restaurant, I spent most of my time in the kitchen, where I would hang out and watch Carlo and Mike punch mounds of dough, billowy clouds of flour forming in the air around their hands, as they caressed the snowy dunes into submission. When it was flexible enough, they would begin to spin the dough. My Uncle Frank would sit me up on the counter, so I could get a better look at the guys as they proceeded to turn those powdery orbs of fresh made dough into beautiful, whirling spaceships, no wires attached. Transfixed by their skills, I watched as they stretched the mounds into spheres, first rolling and then kneading the dough over their clenched fists, picking up speed as they went. Soon the discs would be spinning in the air, suspended above their heads, flying up so high they would almost touch the ceiling. After ten or so minutes, they would judge them done, and lay them out for toppings. Handing me container after container, I was allowed to build my own pie. Only the toppings I wanted. I felt like a princess. It was magical.

To this day, I’m fascinated by the process of making a pie. Always excited when a new pizza joint opens up, the first thing I like to check out is their oven. After all, a great pie is all about the oven. It’s there that they transform the soft lifeless dough into that which drives us back for more — the crust. Whether it’s brick, tile, or steel, the heat has to be just right to transform the raw dough into that chewy, crunchy goodness that makes the dish. Whatever your favorite form, thick or thin, good crust is essential to good pizza. The art of crafting the perfect pizza is a ritual that takes skill and patience, one that is handed down through generations. It’s at least a thousand years old, and though no one knows exactly where the dish originated, it is, in my mind, uniquely and forever, Italian.

If a restaurant is to produce great pizza, they have to love making it. They have to care about things like temperature and tradition, or they’ll be handing you a confused and soggy mess. That’s what I love about a great slice. Knowing its origins, what it takes to get all the components to come together. So when a steaming hot platter of melted cheese, herbacious sauces and fresh baked crust arrives in front of me, I show it the respect it deserves and eat it while it’s hot.

Delectably, hot, chewy-crispy pillows of fried cheese curd - delicious!!

Delectably, hot, chewy-crispy pillows of fried cheese curd – delicious!!

On a recent visit to The Forge a new(ish) pizzeria on the waterfront of Oakland’s Jack London Square, I was delighted to discover that they get it. Chef Jeffrey Amber is definitely a kindred spirit, someone to whom pizza matters. Owners Michael Karp and Bob Burke went so far as to hire Jeff Krupman (the Pizza Hacker) and Jeff Hayden (Boot & Shoe Service, another Oakland purveyor of mind-blowingly well-executed pizzas) to craft the perfect American version of this legendary food. They clearly wanted to honor the historical traditions of the pizzeria, while reinventing the toppings to bring it a fresh artisan feel, and they’ve succeeded.

We sampled a few other dishes first, the delectably fascinating Fried Cheese Curds were something I’ve heard much about, but had never yet tried. O.M.G. Right up there with fried Hostess Twinkies. One of those dishes everyone has to try at least once. The outside is hot and crisp, and the interior is creamy, melty, goodness. The Soup of the Day was a mild, delightfully creamy concoction of asparagus and seasonings, drizzled with olive oil and bearing a spot-on consistency. Hubs is a soup fanatic, and he enjoyed it tremendously.

Next up was a lovely bowl of mussels, laden with well-seasoned broth and a heaping pile of perfect french fried pototoes.  All of us enjoyed dipping the hot sticks of crispy potato into the steamy broth.  The creamy aioli drizzled across the mussels made its way slowly to the bottom of the bowl, further enhancing the flavors of the dish.

Glorious Mussels and French Fries!

Glorious Mussels and French Fries!

The pizza itself, when it arrived, was simplicity and perfection on a platter. The dough at The Forge is done from a Tartine country loaf recipe, and the result is a fluffy chew with a crispy edged perfection. We had a Margherita style pie, which has only tomato sauce, basil, and cheese, which in this case was a house made burrata.  These are the perfect ingredients for lovers of crust. The more you add to a pizza, the less you really get a sense of the baked dough itself. We dived into our pie, managing to disappear it faster than David Copperfield vanishes at the end of his Vegas act. I’m assuming that meant my dining companions enjoyed it as much as I did.

Needless to say, everyone has a different favorite style of pizza. Which is the “best” pizza is an argument as old as the dish itself, and has been the source of heated feuds that would make the Hatfields and the McCoys seem like a happy family with minor differences of opinion. I’m not going to get into that here. Thin crust, thick crust, Chicago style, with or without egg, you like what you like. There are just too many variants. For me, good pizza is one that has been crafted with the attention to detail that began somewhere in the villages of Italy a little over a thousand years ago, when some peasant added toppings to the evening’s foccacia bread. How that translates, ultimately, into the final result is up to each participant in the line: from tossing the dough, to ladling it with whatever imaginative toppings inspires the chef, until it is handed off to be artfully paddle tossed into the heat of the chosen oven. Whether the diner finds it enjoyable will depend on what sort of pizza makes that personal connection. But pizza done well, is good pizza, and at The Forge, it is done very well indeed.

So if you want a great time out with family, and are craving the simplicity of a good slice of “pie” by all means stop by The Forge and check it out. Drinks are delicious, and there are a few other fascinating goodies on the menu to round out a meal. Make a memory of your own. Mangia!

The Forge
66 Franklin St., Ste 100
b/t Jack London Sq & W Embarcadero in Jack London Square
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 268-3200
http://www.theforgepizza.com/oakland/