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 … Continue reading
THE KLONDYKER’S DREAM
(Jack London October 1898)
“…He came in good season, the table was laid;
The rich, fragrant coffee was steaming and hot;
The pastries and puddings were all there arrayed;
The beefsteak was done, aye was done to a dot.
His fingers, were trembling, so rich was the fare,
And when Grace was ended he murmured Amen!
And took, of all dishes, the beefsteak so rare;
Ah! He was the happiest man of all men.
The jaws of the sleeper are moving with joy;
Food quickens his palate, his hardships seem o’er;
A feeling of plenty steals over the boy—
“O God! Thou has fed me, I ask for no more. …”
In The Klondyker’s Dream, the narrator is starving; he dreams of a glorious feast, only to awaken to find a wolf stealing the last bit of dried meat from his tent. Too late to catch the animal, he resigns himself to an immediate future of lackluster meals. Meals that will serve only to sustain his life, as the animal has absconded with the last, treasured, morsel of the precious meat that is the only foodstuff in his possession he actually looks forward to eating. Lackluster meals are the stuff of his nightmares.
Lucky for Oakland, Jack’s Oyster Bar & Fish House offers no lackluster fare. It’s location immediately calls to mind my own youthful sojourns, dining along Oakland’s magnificent waterfront with family and friends. When I walk along the Estuary, I cannot help but be reminded of a young Jack London, Oakland’s Favorite Son. This famed seafarer and writer, a man who understood the powerful relationship between a man and his meals, remains a welcome ghost whose spirit will forever define the City in one way or another, particularly its waterfront. His close relationship with Oakland has inspired a great many restaurants to take his name, or the name of one of his literary works, yet it never gets old.
Those establishments that make this choice, often have a great deal to live up to. If they are not spectacular, then they fall prey to the rote of the tourist trap: another storefront sporting yet another hollow iteration of the Jack London meme. Fortunately for the diners of Oakland, Jack’s Oyster Bar lives up to its name, and then some. This stellar new addition to the Oakland dining scene is one which Jack London himself would certainly have frequented. Though it is possible that he would have found himself overwhelmed with the inventive cuisine moderne being served there, which while honoring tradition, in no way resembles the seafood fare that one might have found in 1890’s Oakland.
As an example, we began our meal with blissfully executed cocktails, one of which is my new favorite: a dizzyingly refreshing brew the mixologist has entitled simply, a Lavender Collins. This lush glass of barely bruised gin drizzled in housemade lavender syrup and garnished with a spring of fresh lavender is vaguely sweet and delightfully herbacious. It comes in a highball glass and is served over ice. Magic in a glass.The other cocktails enjoyed at our table were similarly inventive. Another of our party enjoyed The Greek Martini – a robust and garlicy combination of vodka, americano, olive juice and garlic, which was a savory delight. While the olive flavor was universally present, but overall this cocktail was much more complicated on the palate than say, a Dirty Martini. Superb mixology going on here.
Having recently visited Jack’s on multiple occasions, I have learned that this is a focused kitchen, and that the executive chef has honed the menu with meticulous precision. That dishes we’ve ordered on more than one occasion arrive as expected, clearly this kitchen can turn them out flawlessly time and time again. A new restaurant with little to suggest that it is new, rather the dining experience here is one of polished precision. The menu is an array of seafood specialities, some familiar classics with a twist, some a complete re-invention of the expected. All are rewarding.
I won’t run through every morsel I’ve had on my three visits (soon to be more) but I will run through a few of the highlights. On my first trip my party and I sampled the Lobster Rolls a threesome of buttery plump lobster on pretzel rolls along with a platter of fresh, succulent oysters. We also sampled the Grilled Octopus, brilliantly charred and tender as a ripe peach. If you’ve never yet tasted octopus, this dish should be your first experience with this rather difficult to prepare seafood. When octopus isn’t done right, it can be tough and leathery, but this version is sublime. It bears no resemblance to the chewy calamari “are these onion rings” disasters of my youth.
On the second visit we again found everything we tried delicious, but there are always standouts. The Po’ Bau, a delightful concoction of fried oyster and pork belly tucked into a soft and delicate house made steamed bun was a perfect bite. I particularly enjoyed the Escargot Butter Mussels complete with escargot in the broth. The mussels and snail went together beautifully, and in my opinion one can never go wrong with garlic and butter on anything. Another spectacular treat is the Lobster Poutine which presents itself as a bowl of fresh lobster meat floating in creamy cheeses, beneath which hide a treasure trove of lovely steak fries. The bonito flakes atop the steaming dish flicker and beckon like a living thing. Fascinatingly delicious.
Jack’s Oyster Bar is a delightful reinvention of the classic seafood “joint” that once populated Jack London Square. The food is sublime, it’s flavors inventive and contemporary, while the components themselves remain a familiar reflection of the staples that seafood lovers invariably crave.
If you haven’t been you should definitely check it out and make a few lovely dining memories of your own. I know I will, again.
Jack’s Oyster Bar & Fish House
336 Water St
Oakland, CA 94607
(Jack London Square)
Phone: (510) 271-7952
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