LA MARCHA TAPAS BAR – Sharing is in the Heart

La Marcha Interior - photo credit Kristen Loken

La Marcha Interior – photo credit Kristen Loken

The first time I heard about tapas, a friend had just returned from Spain. He spoke for weeks about these extraordinary small plates that he’d experienced, as he dined across Spain in its restaurants and bars. He’d enjoyed the experience immensely, and described sampling tiny mouthfuls of smoked octopus, chicken covered in garlic and chiles and shrimp paella, each dish served in bite-sized proportions atop tiny plates. The first thing I thought then was, how would one get enough to eat? Yet today, after decades of sampling the “small plates” now so prevalent in our food culture, I’m a convert to the concept. I don’t think I’ve ordered a main course intended for just myself in over a decade. No meal is complete without shared plates.

The tradition of tapas itself hails from a time between the middle ages and modern Europe, when bad roads and difficult travels forced weary travelers to rest often. Hungry and exhausted, they’d find succor at many a roadside inn. The innkeepers of these establishments, often were unable to read or write, and so had no menus to offer their patrons. Wanting to be as hospitable as possible, they would offer their guests a sample of the dishes available, on a “tapa” (Spanish for pot cover), instead. The first tasting menu, if you will, and thus, tapas were born.

Chefs Emily Sarlatte and Sergio Monleón have partnered to bring their version of tapas to Berkeley, opening the brick and mortar version of their

Tortilla de Patatas - photo credit Phi Tran

Tortilla de Patatas – photo credit Phi Tran

wildly popular food truck “Ñora Cocina Española” in mid-October. The restaurant interior harkens back to that tradition of bar-hopping and bites that is uniquely Spanish. The overall effect is welcoming, and the effort itself clearly a collaboration, as the large expressive and colorful paintings of what appear to be colorful arches adorning the walls, are the product of Chef Sarlatte’s artist father.

La Marcha offers more than sustenance, it’s food reflecting the great pride in the art of combining flavor and providing a variety of tastes, that is at the heart of shared dining. It is clear that Chefs Monleón and Sarlatte understand that a well-prepared dish can have the power to envelop your senses, warming the heart like a grandmother’s hug. The idea that hungry travelers will cross their threshold and find not simply a meal, but a dining experience worthy of a memory, seems to be the thrust of their undertaking here in Berkeley.

At the recent soft-opening gala, I was able to sample many of their food offerings. There were thoughtful little amuse bouche of anchovy and peppers

Paella Mixta - photo credit Phi Tran

Paella Mixta – photo credit Phi Tran

to whet the palate, the tart acid of the peppers a lovely foil for the oily fish. The Albóndigas (wild boar meatballs) were juicy and plump, lightly acidic from the tomato cream sauce, and melted in the mouth, leaving a lingering blend of meat and cheese caressing the tastebuds. The bite-sized morsels of Tortilla de Patatas, a creamy egg and potato concoction that reminded me of my grandfather’s fritatta (no small compliment) were delicious. But the house special, Paella, was definitely the show stopper everyone came to taste, and it was splendid, chock full of seafood and well-developed flavors.

There was such pride in the house, both chefs clearly possessing a deep passion for the art of feeding people. It means something to them. The foods they serve brighten up a plate with the natural resonance on the tongue that is the joy found when food comes from the heart. The menu reflects that passion. Dish after dish offering the tang of tomato, fatty fish, well seasoned proteins, crafted together with peppers, and cheeses, each conjured nicely to be presented to their diners in the classic style that is “tapas.” It makes perfect sense. I’m heading back to have a full meal. I’ll bring some friends and make a memory. How about you?

La Marcha Tapas Bar
2026 San Pablo Ave
Berkeley, CA 94702
b/t University Ave & Addison St
Phone: (510) 269-7374

Chefs Sergio Monleon and Emily Sarlatte - photo credit Phi Tran

Chefs Sergio Monleon and Emily Sarlatte – photo credit Phi Tran

DOWNTOWN WINE BAR – Intoxicating Buildings and Beautiful Wines

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 … Continue reading

JACK’S OYSTER BAR & FISH HOUSE – A Seafooder’s Dream

Grilled Octopus Salad

Grilled Octopus Salad

(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.


Po’ Bau: Fried Oyster & Pork Belly on a steamed “Bau” bun

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.

Delectably Briny Oysters

Delectably Briny Oysters

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.

Peel & Eat Shrimp

Peel & Eat Shrimp

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