DOUKKALA – the beginning of a beautiful friendship

Morocco is a land of mystery. It has been the setting of a multitude of films, perhaps the most famous of which is the unforgettably iconic Casablanca. Casablanca was story of adventure,

Lovely Ahi Tartare & Quail Egg

Ahi Tartare & Quail Egg

lost love and heroism, set against the perfect backdrop, a mysterious and intriguing city on the North African coast, Casablanca, Morocco. The city remains a curiosity in the American imagination, as evidenced by the many film makers and song writers that have made it the subject of their artistry. It’s no wonder. Colonized by the French at the turn of the 20th century, the two cultures mingled and cuisines blended to produce a unique result, a compelling marriage of African and French flavors and techniques. The first time I experienced Moroccan food was back in the seventies, in a restaurant whose name I have long forgotten. I remember only that we sat on pillows and ate with our hands, quite literally, immersed in a bit of Moroccan culture. My first little trip on the “Marrakech Express.”

I haven’t really been afforded an opportunity to fully experience the flavors since then, but as our global community grows ever smaller, the cuisines of other lands seem to be more and more readily available to the consumer. Such opportunities are a gift, and we should take advantage of such gifts when they present themselves. So when I was recently invited to sample the menu at the newly renovated and rebranded Doukkala located in Oakland’s Temescal District, I decided to take my own advice and check it out.

Oysters in the Shell

Oysters in the Shell

THE BEGINNING

The restaurant has chosen the terms “California Moroccan” to describe the cuisine provided within. With all the variations on descriptive terminology used to entice us, one can have some difficulty translating the terms into our expectations of the food offerings within. Doukkala is aptly named. It is a blending of the style of California and the flavors of Morocco.

Chef Eric Lanvert presented us a masterful Tasting Menu. The opening salvo was a delightful chilled Gazpacho, ripe with the blush of summer tomatoes and Mediterranean spices. Richly seasoned, the soup carried the mysteries of the locale along the tastebuds, a thrilling little adventure in flavors that was just the right temperature to awaken the palate.

The next course, a special “off-menu” preparation from Chef Lanvert, was a beautiful little mountain of Albacore Tartare. The delicate combination of the buttery fish on the tongue as it blended with the subtle kick of spice, made the dish irresistible to this seafood fanatic. No sooner had we devoured our Tartare than we were presented with a glorious Pacific Dayboat Scallop, nestled beautifully in a pillowy bed of jerusalem artichoke velouté. The velouté itself was a lovely consistency, akin to that of perfectly creamy grits, and a stellar companion to each delicate bite of the perfectly seared morsel of seafood atop it. Sublime.

THE MAINS

The next dish, a Grilled Spanish Mackerel was a bit heartier than those that had preceded it. Mackerel is an oily fish, its flesh is rich and tangy, rather like an overgrown sardine. It is the sort of fish that really holds up to the hearty tomato and olive-based preparations Chef had chosen to accompany this dish. The fish was crisped beautifully, and the blissful Morroccan

Day Boat Scallop on Jerusalem Artichoke Veloute

Day Boat Scallop on Jerusalem Artichoke Veloute

tapenade alongside it was tempered perfectly by the delicate sauce of mint and green peas drizzled along the plate, allowing a hint of the sauce with every bite. By the addition of the olives, the dish was pushed right up to edges of salty, but the oils and hint of mint pulled it right back to an execution of excellence that all but transported the diner to the streets of Marrakesh. With each bite I could imagine myself shoulder to shoulder with other travelers, making my way along a crowded street in the heart of the bustling city, the smells of the street food wafting along in the air, as eager vendors shouted the superiority of their wares in a foreign tongue.

The Mendocino Quail Pastilla was the final offering of the savory courses, and it was an imaginative bridge to the sweet side of the meal, arriving at the table in the form of a puff pastry of filo dough filled to the brim with savory, succulent quail meat. The top of the pastry was sprinkled with a dusting of powdered sugar, lending a hint of sweet to an otherwise savory filling. The filo dough wrapped each tender bite of dark, spicy quail, with a toothsome crunch, the filling of anjou pears, honey and spices, keeping the bird meat itself from any hint of gaminess. The dish bridged the road to sweet from savory from a uniquely new and appealing perspective. It was decadent, rich and incredibly satisfying.

THE DESSERTS

The final course was a lovely tasting trio of dessert offerings: a succulent Panna Cotta, a delicate Spiced Chocolate Cake topped with crème fraîche and the classic Middle Eastern dessert, the Baklava. The Panna Cotta was creamy and light; the chocolate cake rich and moist and the Baklava was laden with honey, but not overly sweet, which I found refreshing. All three were delightful. The perfect end to a really splendid meal.

Dessert Trio

Dessert Trio

THE WRAPUP

When I arrived at Doukkala, I was expecting a family-style meal of plentiful bowls, containing casually ladled out couscous and kefta. I was both surprised and impressed to taste the bounty of dishes that were actually presented to us there, each having both a delightfully artistic classic French appearance in the plating, while containing a variety of vibrant flavors and textures expertly representing the best of Moroccan cuisine. If you are a fan of adventure, or even if you are not, I believe a visit to Doukkala is in order. I found it sublime. As always, check it out, break some bread, and make a memory of your own.

DOUKKALA
4905 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609
(510) 653-8691
info@doukkalarestaurant.com

BOWL’D KOREAN: OAKLAND: Perfection at the Peasant’s Table

 

Myulchi Bokum (salted, crispy fried anchovies)

Myulchi Bokum (salted, crispy fried anchovies)

Just before I left for Italy in 1978, my grandfather told me I must check in on our family. He said that he wanted me to give them some money, and handed me $200.00. Grandpa Gianni had been sending them cash since he left Italy in the early teens, but to my modern sensibilities, shoving wads of cash at family seemed rather crass, not to mention awkward, but I decided to size up the situation before making any final decisions.

When we finally arrived in the tiny village of Scurtabo, nestled in the rolling hills of Genoa, it took us a full day to find my family home. Ultimately, after a lengthy conversation with the local parish priest, we were directed to a small stone farmhouse on a hill, and deposited at the residence of my great-aunt Annunziata and her son, Nunzio. It was beautiful. I asked her, in broken Italian, where my grandfather had been born. Her answer was stunningly simple, as she pointed to a second small building holding only a straw bed. “proprio qui” she responded, pointing to the bed. “Right here.” It took a few minutes for me to absorb that. The continuity of history that lay within this these walls, so far from my home in California, where my grandfather had immigrated so many years ago. I could see my grandfather running about these hills as a child, playing next to the home his father had built for the family at the turn of a different century. It was, to put it mildly, trans-formative.

Soondubuchigae (Spicy Tofu Stew)

Soondubuchigae (Spicy Tofu Stew)

After a brief tour of the property, we gathered in the kitchen for a meal. Seated around a small wooden table, perched atop a floor of pounded dirt, where live chickens scurried about like house pets. The sweet, country breeze came into the room through the glass-less square holes in the walls that served as windows, unimpeded by any semblance of curtains. My great-aunt bustled in her kitchen, her black head scarf and dress creating the illusion that she had stepped out of another time, as she loaded the table with homemade salumi and a variety of cheeses, accompanied by fresh baked bread and, of course, red wine. It was, in its simplicity, one of the best meals I have ever tasted. There were five in my party, and she fed us all to the point where we could eat no more. At the conclusion of the meal, Nunzio brought out a keg of what I believed to be grappa, and began to pour. But when I asked him if it were grappa, he shook his head and replied, “No, è il brandy.” So we drank his “brandy” and raised our glasses to new-found family. When we finally got up to leave, it was almost dark. I kissed my great-aunt good-bye and pressed all my remaining cash into her hand, finding ultimately, it was among the most natural acts of my life. This woman had entertained me by emptying her larder, and had done so without hesitation. She and her son would willingly go hungry, in order that visiting family had a memorable meal in her home. And that, dear readers, is the definition of what it means to eat at a peasant’s table.

You never leave hungry and you always feel welcome. No matter the unspoken cost to your host.

***

Bibimbap (with spicy pork, and the requisite egg)

Bibimbap (with spicy pork, and the requisite egg)

When I eat any form of peasant food in a restaurant, I am reminded of this ethos. Of the staples provided at a peasant’s table. The flavors, the abundance and most importantly, the vibrant hospitality that is provided the diner with every bountiful bite. If it’s done right, a simple meal is as satisfying and rewarding as any to be found at a 3-star Michelin establishment. The peasant’s table offers no distractions, no sleight of hand, only the food and its flavors. The history of its people comes through, as their story is recounted through every mouthful, the flavors recalling all the meals that have been laid out before, in just the same way, for all the generations of guests that have come before you. Bowl’d Korean in Oakland provides just such a meal, and does so with an effortless grace. The simple rituals of Korean tradition replayed, in lilting melody, for the guest dining with them in that moment. The staff at Bowl’d captures the song of the peasant to perfection. They are welcoming and informative, cheerily letting you know what they have laid before you and delightfully invested in their guests enjoyment of each savory bite. I was reminded of my great-aunt’s table (and my cousin Nunzio’s “brandy”) as I read the instructions on how to serve one another the Soju, an ancient rice, grain and sweet potato alcohol that reminds one very much of that peasant brandy consumed in the hills of Italy so many years ago.

We began our meal by sampling the little bowl of Myulchi Bokum (salted, crispy fried anchovies), a traditional finger food to whet the appetite for the meal about to be served. They were fascinating, the little silver tidbits in a tiny silver bowl beckoned and glittered, as though each one had a story to be told. It felt as though I was actually eating in Korea.

Never having yet formally had a Bibimbap, except perhaps a “reinvented” sampling at a Food Truck festival, I felt obligated to begin there, selecting a spicy pork as my protein for the dish. The flavors were astounding, each bit of crispy rice at the bottom of my bowl felt like finding tiny, hidden bits of treasure. Another ritual. Perhaps the best thing about eating at a traditional Korean BBQ place aside from the abundance of flavor, is the infinite combination of same in each bite. That ritual, the blending of banchan with each mouthful of Bibimbap, creating a choose-your-own-adventure of flavors, was a form of interacting with the food that provides a second level of enjoyment. Bowl’d maintains that tradition by setting the table with limitless banchan side dishes, each a marvel to be experienced in its own right, or blended in combination with a mouthful of another dish. The banchan is served initially in small portions, so that the diners may select their favorites and call for refills. The servers were attentive, bringing generous portions of our table’s particular banchan favorites immediately upon obtaining our selections. Our server was thrilled to see our enthusiasm for the meal, and her attitude kept us engaged in the experience without ever feeling hovered over. She had the natural ability to host, and it all felt very personal, and it was good.

Banchan (plethora of sides)

We also sampled the Fried Chicken, which arrived as a large portion of steaming hot chicken fresh from the fryer. It was so fresh we could hardly handle the pieces with our fingers, inside the beautiful golden crust, the meat was moist and delicate. One among us tried the Soondubuchigae (Spicy Tofu Stew) , adding pork and a “yes” to the egg. The raw egg is cracked at the table and added to the hot bowl of soup, to be left to cook for the duration of eating the dish. I’ve never seen anything like it, and the interaction added to the experience immensely.

So the bottom line is that eating at Bowl’d provided us exactly that which I seek in the perfect dining experience. A bit of ritual, a sense of hospitality, and flavor, flavor, flavor. It’s no wonder that folks like Anthony Bourdain call this food the perfect eating experience. It just is.

I cannot wait to return and sample some of the other dishes from the extensive menu. Bowl’d BBQ Korean Stone Grill is a restaurant whose music will definitely be added to my “replay” list.

As always, I say check it out for yourself, and make some memories of your own!

Bowl’d BBQ Korean Stone Grill

4869 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609
b/t 48th St & 49th St in Temescal, North Oakland
Phone: (510) 654-2000
Web: http://www.bowldbbq.com

 

JUHU BEACH CLUB: Bollywood Bliss in Oakland’s Temescal District

Delectably spice Tomato Shorba

Delectably spice Tomato Shorba

When I was a kid, my babysitter, Carol Neill, would tell us that if we behaved all morning, we would get a special treat. We all knew what that meant, a trip to Lake Temescal. Once there, we knew we would spend that summer day in a delirium of fun as we swam and cavorted on it’s tiny beach, burning off that youthful energy that children seem to amass in droves, with hours and hours of waterplay. In my young mind, it was a far off destination, and these outings an incomparable adventure. We would wade in with her three children, our steadfast playmates, and challenge the beckoning waters that lapped at the edge of its beachfront. I haven’t been back there in years, and imagine it would seem very small now indeed to my grownup self. But when I was a child, this was our private retreat, an oasis nestled in the heart of Oakland. It was indeed a magical place. Beaches hold a beckoning sort of vastness at their edges, the shore is a promise of explorations to be, and as children the thrill of picturing the imaginary creatures who might populate the waters off the shore never grew old.

Naming an urban restaurant after a beach resort, then, is high promise indeed, conjuring up the images of abandon and pleasure that one might expect from a seaside escape. Fortunately for her patrons, Priti Mistri’s Juhu Beach Club delivers on that promise. On a recent visit to Juhu Beach Club, itself perched unassumingly in a tiny strip mall, rather than on an oceanfront pier, we embarked on a journey of exploration of our own. We arrived on a particularly chill and rainy day, so one of the first dishes that caught our eye was the Bombay Sandwich, a lovely medley of pressed cheese, cilantro chutney, and beets played against a spicy chaat masala. The optional cup of Tomato Shorba seemed a must in the gloomy weather, and the warm tomato-ey spices were just the ticket. We ended up using it as a “dip” for almost all the other goodies that we sampled.
We’d have ordered more, but it’s only available separately as a dinner menu item. Definitely an incentive to return for dinner.

There were many appealing choices, so we were forced to “man up” and attempted to do our best at sampling as many variations as we could

master in one sitting. The sandwich choices allow for mixing and matching in reasonably priced combos, so we got two sets of three sandwiches to be split among the four of us, in addition to the Bombay. They are a nice sized sandwich here, just a bit bigger than a slider, but with that lovely polished finish one expects from this modern “bite on a bun.” This presentation is almost a “hamburger tapas” and it makes me happy. Like mini cupcakes, they are small enough to allow the diner to really get in there and try a variety of flavors, yet large enough to fill one up if you only want one or two.

Trio of Indian Goodness on a bun!

Trio of Indian Goodness on a bun!

The promised heat of the Vaga Pav appealed, with its potato and ghost pepper blend. We found it enjoyable, but not particularly spicy, which was a surprise. It had a kick, but nothing jarring, as my non-spice-eating spouse was able to enjoy it with us. I’m not sure this is typical, as I didn’t get a chance to chat with the chef to ask about the intended heat levels. The Chowpatty Chicken with its blend of green chillies, chicken and tangy slaw was a refreshing bite. We also tried the Holy Cow, which features the lovely melted beef of a brisket-texture to its meat, the fat of the toothsome beef offset well by the nicely acidic cucumber raita. My favorite sandwich bite may have been the Pork Vindaloo, an Indian take on pulled pork, gently slathered in a vindaloo barbeque sauce and finished with a nice yoghurt sauce.

Each sandwich was sufficiently different that we were continually bouncing between the flavors. I’ve never had anything but the classic Indian fare found in hot buttery naam or a nice bowl of tikka masala, so I really loved experiencing a lighter hand and more subtle take on all the flavors of South Asian cuisine offered here. The dishes were solid, and even though sampling so many in one sitting was a whirlwind, it was a dining experience we thoroughly enjoyed. The was indeed an adventure, and one I intend to repeat, and soon.

If you’d like to try something out of the box, but with all the love and attention of simple street food, with a touch of culinary genius, then Juhu Beach Club would be a great option to try in your own very near future.

Go on. Check it out for yourself, and make some new memories of your own. You know you want to.

Bonus dish of popcorn munchies, Indian-style

Bonus dish of popcorn munchies, Indian-style

Juhu Beach Club
5179 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609
b/t Claremont Ave & 52nd St in Rockridge, North Oakland
(510) 652-7350
juhubeachclub.com