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
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
A duende is a fairy- or goblin-like mythological creature in Spanish folklore. Duendes are believed to be of a small stature wearing big hats, whistling a mystical tune, while walking in the forest where they dwell. One view of folklore would have you believe they are mischievous and furtive, luring young girls from their paths deep into the woods; in another, they are quiet and kindly aides to people lost in the forest, helping them find their way home.
Duende is a difficult-to-define concept in Spanish art, including performing arts. The closest English translation of “tener duende” (having duende) is “having soul,” and is an idea often applied in an attempt to describe the mysterious powers, both light and dark, of flamenco. Duende may be described as the force that animates art, deeply related to emotion, expression, and authenticity.
“All arts are capable of duende…” Federico Garcia Lorca, “The duende, then, is a power and not a construct, is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old guitarist, a true virtuoso, remark, “The duende is not in the throat, the duende comes up from inside, up from the very soles of the feet.” That is to say, it is not a question of aptitude, but of a true and viable style – of blood, in other words; of what is oldest in culture: of creation made act.” Federico Garcia Lorca”The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.” Federico Garcia Lorca [From the Duende website]
Clearly, the folks at Duende have put great thought into their concept. The blending of food and music is a siren call to their customers, one they succeed in elevating to an impressively high standard. There is nothing quite so enchanting as the work of an artist, or group of artists, who understand their message and express it clearly. If you allow yourself to be open to it, a meal at Duende is as spiritually rewarding an experience as hearing Izaak Pearlman play the violin, or watching a perfectly paced film. While dining there, you are an actor in their play of life.
Upon arrival, I expected good food, having read the many favorable write ups by critics, and been counseled by friends who had preceded me that a meal at Duende made for delightful dining. I was not disappointed. Rather, I was blown away. Having worked in the arts for decades myself, I am familiar with the spirit of the artist. In my experience, I have found that while many can sing, few can do so with an honesty that allows the listener to hear the emotion within the song, thus experiencing it themselves. The ability to convey truth as well as tune, is rare. It is a gift from whatever greater power one might believe in, the actor must tap into his or her own essence or experience, and be willing to share it in the moment. This act of exposing the soul for one’s art poses a risk many will not, or cannot, attempt. If you have the gift, only a fear of failing can hold you back. But for those who have conquered that fear, the product that results is an unparalled gift. At Duende, that gift extends to the kitchen. They are fearless.
Everything about Duende resonates their concept. The space is inviting, with high ceilings that evoke high goals. The walls are decorated beautifully with just the right splashes of art, the color choices perfection. Reach for the stars, it says. We’ve got your back.
Visitors are greeted with smiles, cocktails resplendent with intriguing flavor and food that is blissfully transcendent. When I visit a place that is so clearly dedicated to creating a dining experience, as opposed to merely feeding the hungry, I read the menu with an eye to selecting that which may be out of my comfort zone. Rather than selecting the familiar ingredients or choosing from a list of that which I have experienced as enjoyable in the past, I try to select in a manner that will allow me to experience whatever culinary journey my hosts may see fit. I sensed Duende to be a place where this would be a safe course of action, and I wasn’t wrong.
The Hubs & I ordered from every category: Tapas, Raciones and Platos Familiares. All can be shared, each representing a slight increase in portion size to allow maximum flexibility to the patrons. From the Tapas we selected the Bocadillo de Congrejito and the Pescado Crudo. The first was a magnificent soft-shelled crab, served in an airy battered crust and fried to perfection. The sauce, titled simply mayonasa picante, was killer good. Complex and flavorful, it made the perfect foil to the delicate toothsome goodness of the fried crab, which was not at all greasy or heavy, its consistency reminiscent of an airy tempura. This is my kind of fried food.
Likewise pleasing was the Pescado (salmon ) Crudo. The dish was two lovely morsels of perfect fish, the edges of which had been seared by a hint of flame and accompanied by the addition of crunch in the form of verdant spring peas. The finishing touch a delicate, citrus-y, sauce which made each bite unforgettable, the taste reminiscent of being kissed by dappled sunshine on a perfect Spring day.
The next plate they presented was a hearty lamb sausage atop a garbanzo torta. The light bean “bread” was similar in consistency
to a polenta cake, and was as delightfully rewarding a mouthful as all the others. The rich, earthy lamb was abundantly juicy and the moist bean cake captured the natural juice to perfection, not a drop escaping in the consumption of the dish. By this point my palate was singing, so I ordered a second cocktail to celebrate. (Oh, come on, they were SO good!)
We completed our savory exploration with a shared favorite, seafood Paella. Theirs was as bright as 24 karat gold, and laden with Saffron. Its delicate notes of buttery goodness and delightful tang, played off the lightly spiced chorizo and manila clams, all individual ingredients having been cooked to perfection. Paella is a dish I fell in love with when I first attempted to prepare it in the mid-seventies using an elaborate recipe in Bon Appetit. I’ve never forgotten the complexities of its construction and the subsequent and lasting reward of its consumption. In the hands of the folks at Duende, the dish was both elevated and hearty. Duende’s kitchen turns out a magnificent version of this Latin classic.
By this point, the Hubs and I were feeling overwhelmed (in the best and most positive meaning of the word) by the savory courses, so felt compelled to sample a dessert to complete our culinary journey. The hardest part of the evening may have been in the choosing of a single offering from the pastry chef, as all options on the menu beckoned irresistibly. “Pick me,” they said, echoing the call of the Duende siren. After painful deliberation, we settled on the Cherry Galette. (I must confess, I’m a sucker for stone fruit in the summertime). Within moments, we were presented with a flaky pastry laden with a mound of mouth-watering rich, black cherries, swimming in a perfect dollop of creme fraiche as light as clouds. The cherry flavor of the dish was so robust that at first bite I found myself transported to the hot, lazy summer afternoons of childhood, when the world has slowed to a whispered heartbeat of promise and possibility.
I should note that the service was stellar. Our team was always at hand when needed, everyone cordial and enthusiastic about showing us a good time. As we were on our way to see the Broadway tour of Fela! at the Paramount, we’d asked to be out by seven o’clock. They managed t
o meet our deadline without ever making us feel rushed. Nicely done.
All in all, ours was the perfect meal. Great company, enlightening exploration of flavors and beautiful surroundings. When establishments like this dot the corners of her streets, it is clear that Oakland has truly arrived as a culinary mecca. One can walk a
block in any direction and eat as well as in any major capital of the world. Elevated food, beautiful music and lovely surroundings abound. Duende is indeed, as magical as its name. If the Duende siren calls you, answer. To fail to do so is to miss out on the meaning of life as seen through true culinary genius.
Check it out, bring some good friends or find them there, and make a lasting memory of your own. Life is short, mangia!
Oakland, CA 94612