Oakland, April 28, 2014 —¡AY CARAMBA QUE BUENO comer con amigos aqui! Another trip to the East Bay, and a far too belated return to a restaurant we really like. Of course it doesn't hurt that it was opened, a little over a year ago, by a friend, a cook whose passion and enthusiasm and optimism are second to none.
His restaurant, in downtown Oakland, is big, popular, a little noisy when full, and dramatic, with bold décor tending to reds and blacks. There's jazz in the air: Paul is a man of serious musical tastes. The bar is well stocked. And the cuisine — forgive the phony Spanish at the top of this notice — is assertively, imaginatively, resourcefully Catalan. Ai caram que bo menjar amb amics aquí!
Since there were four of us at table, we began with several pintxos, servings a little more generous than tapas, less overwhelming than raciones, beginning with asparagus, smoked beets, and blood oranges, with a scatter of chopped black moroccan olives and pine nuts.
We simply asked Paul to send out what he wanted us to have, barring arthropods of course, and we continued with beautiful little glasses of ajo blanco y erizo de mar, a sort of gazpacho made of almond milk, garlic, the roe of local herring, and chives — inspired and delicious.
There was green salad with green almonds and goat cheese; and ensalada de col with Savoy cabbage, Mahon cheese, green olives, and pistachios; and a fabulous butifarra dulce: sweet house-made (of course) Catalunyan rum sausage (a sort of loose boudin blanc, flavored with currants, sultanas, and dried cherries) with perfectly cooked garbanzos and topped with roasted rapini.
Then we got down to business with a fine paella: Bomba rice, Manila clams, chorizo, rich sweet pork belly, English peas and rosemary. Remarkably, the flavor of each of these six ingredients was present, individually identifiable, in every bite; yet the whole was beautifully integrated and balanced. It was deep and smoky, but even though I grabbed every morsel of the pork belly it was not overly rich, cloying, or deadening. It was a superb dish, making you realize a truly fine paella is the equivalent of a perfect risotto or cassoulet — perhaps even a combination (or at least a mediation) of the two.
We shared two desserts, pretending we'd eaten too much to order four: a gateau basquaise with vanilla ice cream, apricot purée, and candied kumquat; and a chocolate cake with coffee-and-orange-flavored whipped cream. They were quite up to the rest of the meal.
What else can I say? Oh, the service: it was friendly, intelligent, and informed — and marvelously attractive. I thought now and then we might have been in an Aldomovar movie except that there was nothing creepy or surreal, just grace and beauty and pure pleasure.
A Fino to start; then sangría• Duende, 468 19th Street, Oakland, California; (510) 893-0174