Thursday, May 20, 2010

BOCANOVA Revisited ~ The Echo of Pan American Rhythms

Cocktails @ Bocanova!
“When marimba rhythms start to play,
Dance with me, make me sway
Like a lazy ocean hugs the shore,
Hold me close, sway me more”

Early in April, the lovely weather and my hearty appetite convinced me it was time to revisit Bocanova, a Pan American Restaurant down on Jack London Square. The restaurant is still lovely, a big, open, slick barn of a place. It is still located just next to the new train station where the Old Spaghetti Factory used to be in the heart of Oakland’s Jack London Waterfront. Tables overlook the water, along one side of the establishment and the bar at its center is glistening and chic.  It fell a little short on our first visit.  I went again to see what might have changed.
Dungeness Crab Deviled Eggs

To begin our meal on this, our second visit, we shared the Dungeness Crab Deviled Eggs. Now I love deviled eggs, but these were extraordinarily well done. It may have been that the whites were just firm enough, and the fresh, creamy centers of whipped egg and crabmeat, were just awash in delicate flavors. The BH and I both found this dish outstanding.

Quinoa Shrimp Salad
When I first visited Bocanova, I liked about half of what I tried. Maybe more. On the whole, the food is good, with some dishes really being standouts. But the salads were a disappointment.  I found them overdressed.  I'm a fan of leafy salads with all manner of fresh ingredients.  I ordered the Quinoa, Wild Shrimp & Roasted Beet Salad.  Everything in the description was something I love:  Beets, Shrimp, mandarine orange vinaigrette.  Sounded lovely, but it was quite a disappointment. It just wasn’t balanced. Firstly, it’s not really a salad, at least not in the leafy sense. It’s more of a dressed quinoa affair, which resulted in a bowl of mush the consistency of say, a mashed potato salad. The mixture arrived in a large bowl, chock full of heavily “creamed’ quinoa with several big, chunky beets clumsily tossed into the mix. While the shrimp were large, plump and moist — and really well prepared —  that fact just didn’t compensate for the soggily dressed quinoa. The orange vinaigrette used to dress the mixture was the consistency of a really heavy mayonnaise rather than a vinaigrette and was much too sweet.   I really felt the flavors didn’t complement each other very well. The “salad” ultimately read on my palate like a bowl of paste. Soggy flavors, soggy texture. Just soggy all around, being much too heavily dressed. This was the second time I tried a salad here and found it to be mucky on the dressing side. Though every ingredient was one I like independently, the flavors were lost in the swampy bowl. This Chef apparently believes firmly in a soggy salad. For my tastes, that’s a problem, particularly since I think I have always enjoyed a little too much dressing on my salad. So if I am finding this too much dressing, I can’t imagine anyone who will find it to their liking. When I go back, I may ask for the dressing on the side to see if that might correct the problem, at least for me. My recommendation is to just skip their salads all together.  (Except the Beef Salad mentioned below.)

Mini Burger Sliders
Fortunately, many of Bocanova’s other offerings are so good as to make it worthwhile. We had several appetizers and small plates we shared, and really enjoyed. One of these such dishes, which might just be the exact opposite of the salad is their Mini Slider Burgers. This dish is absolute perfection. The meat is fatty enough to almost melt on the tongue, just rare enough, just bloody enough to conjure up every perfect bar-b-que of years gone by. The miniature bun is light as air, with just a hint of a warm crunch to the outer shell from brief, hot bath in the toaster. Meat has a nice rich hint of smoke to it from the flame. Condiments are provided, but this burger is so good it can be eaten plain. Nothing else needed. The mixture of meat and bun are the ultimate marriage of perfection.

We also sampled the Enyacados which were a bit like a stuffed latke. That’s a potato pancake, for those of you who’ve never had a bite of your Bubbe’s Chanukah treats. They contain a filling of roasted chicken with a tasty cilantro pesto perched atop the potato puff. The flavors were light, and the texture was crunchy. I found the patties to be just a little too soft for my tastes, since I prefer the grated variety of pancake. I think it may just be that I like my potato pancake less mashed and more like a hash brown. That said, it had a tasty filling and a good balance of seasonings.

We also shared a Bavette Steak Salad which contained big chunks of beautifully cooked red meat atop a lovely bed of lettuce. This is one salad here which I would say was not overdressed. The tomato vinaigrette really enhances the little gem lettuce, and the queso fresco was delicious. This meat was the best cut of steak I’ve ever seen on a salad, definitely no off cuts of meat.

The final of our appis was a Beef Currant & Green Olive Empanada. This dish was like a South American potsticker. Flakier and with a tomato-based rather than soy-based sauce. I really enjoyed the mouthfuls of tiny goodness. Really delicious.

The Yucatan Seafood Stew contained roasted garlic, grapefruit, & tomato. It had a beautifully balanced clear broth, chock full of mussels, shrimp, every imaginable kind of seafood. The BH is a huge fan of Seafood and Seafood Stew. This dish was both pretty and absolutely delicious.

Pear Tartelette
The next dish we sampled was a dessert of Organic Pear Tartlette. It was a splendid tartlette. The luscious, beautiful, slices of sugary fresh baked pear, covered in an airy, flaky crust over of fresh baked pear. The pear itself covered in tricklets of carmelized sugar. Melt in your mouth goodness.

We finished our meal with Bocanova’s Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding. This may be one of the best variations on bread pudding I’ve had, right up there with the Bread Pudding Souffle at Commander’s Palace or the Bananas Foster Bread Pudding at Angeline’s. Bread pudding is a classic dessert, and to see it re-imagined with the flakiness of a croissant, and then baked with delicious eggy pudding. So good. Covered in chocolate sauce. Isn’t everything better with chocolate?

So overall the restaurant is a good one with significant dishes that are not to be missed. It also has a few dishes that fall incredibly short. If you go, just don’t order a salad. Or maybe you will order the beef! Check it out, and as always ~ Bon Appetit!

Jack London Square
55 Webster Street, Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 444-1233

Noise level: lunch is fine, I imagine that all that open space is loud at night. 1-3 BELLS
Dining time: in an out in a little over an hour
Service: excellent

Sunday, May 16, 2010

BROWN SUGAR KITCHEN - Southern Cooking Comes to West Oakland

Beignets @ Brown Sugar Kitchen
Oakland’s bad girl reputation was something I spent much of my youth refuting. Even now, I can hear myself explaining my hometown to others who pictured her a squalid, dangerous crime-ridden blight on San Francisco’s shiny image. An image that could be envied, apparently from a nice, safe distance across the Bay. Travelers felt San Francisco was the place to be, not Oakland. Yet I insisted they were wrong. Oakland had her charms. She was pretty, with a lovely natural lake in the center of town, she had verdant green hills. She was a nice place to live, with her sleepy streets and homes rich in architectural history, including Art Deco, Victorian, Beaux Arts, — period revivals of Italian Renaissance, Spanish Eclectic, and English cottage. Oakland wasn’t at all how they pictured her, I insisted. They should just give her a chance.
For years my hometown’s image remained eclipsed by that Glittering City by the Bay that lay just over the Bay Bridge, the one where all the tourists would leave their hearts. Oakland’s grimy reputation as its slattern little step-sister grew, strengthened by her struggling economy and waning business districts. Oakland sat on the wrong and dangerous side of that big bridge waiting like a wallflower at a dance waits for attention, her questionable reputation keeping suitors at a distance. Low expectations kept too many from exploring her streets, experiencing her landscapes, or exposing themselves to her wealth of cultures and vibrant history. But that was then. Brown Sugar Kitchen is now.

The 1989 quake took down the Cypress Structure that ran through West Oakland, leveling the freeway and ending lives. It was horrific. But that quake opened a door. The citizens of the neighborhood stood up and demanded that Oakland acknowledge them, allowing the area around Cypress Street to be re-imagined and renamed Mandela Parkway. Out of the ugly, the depressing, the smothered— came something new and alive and very, very Oakland.

Bar-be-Que Shrimp
In fact, the times they are more than “a changing.” Now Oakland herself stands erect and head held high she too demands acknowledgment. She is a City on the verge of a serious rebirth. She’s got game. Her foodie scene is impressive and varied, rivaling that of her Big Sister. New restaurants pop up everywhere, and these eateries offer fare that easily matches what can be had in that “other” city on the water, and while some of them may seem to have appeared out of nowhere — they didn’t. Oakland has been working for quite some time to redefine herself. City leaders have courted new businesses, and her restauranteurs not only have a point of view, they have attitude. Be they saloon, bistro, cafĂ© or white-table-clothed restaurant, these eateries are all young and hip and spirited, possessing a sense of artistry and passion unique to the city of my birth. One among the best of these is the Brown Sugar Kitchen, a lively breakfast and lunch spot located right there along Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. Yeah, you heard me.
Brown Sugar Kitchen

When she arrived in Oakland, BSK’s owner/chef Tanya Holland brought with her an “imagination de cuisine” that is uniquely her own. Informed by her African-American heritage, a lifetime of exposure to a broad variety of foods and her classical training in France, she has seen the inside of many of the world’s best kitchens, resulting in food with a deeply inspired background that goes well beyond “Soul Food” into something transformative.

Her menu is essentially Southern, her dishes all prepared with that incomparable hospitality of spirit that is the defining component of Southern cooking and Soul Food. There is a deep tradition in African-American kitchens to express love with food and Tanya speaks this language fluently, in simple flavors and without pretense. Her cooking is authentic, and it is delicious. I swear I could taste the love in every bite. Those who line up on any given day to compete for a table and a meal apparently agree.

Fried Chicken & Cornmeal Waffle
We began our meal with an order of beignets, on the menu as a lunch special on the day we were there. Now I know beignets, having just returned from a lovely junket to New Orleans, where they can be found in abundance and variety. Brown Sugar’s were lighter than a traditional beignet, fluffy and airy as little fried sugar clouds. Fresh and hot from the fryer, they melted on the tongue almost as readily as cotton candy. The powdered sugar sprinkled generously over the square donuts, blending nicely with the traces of hot grease from the fryer. Hallelujah!

Brown Sugar Kitchen's
I then experienced a gumbo unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Gumbos I’ve tried elsewhere are generally fatty, with a heavy broth. Not so at BSK. The broth was light, not at all greasy and much to my delight not overly laden with okra. What fat it contained was flavorful, adding to the richness of the tastes. Its flavors were abundant and complimentary, each ingredient working with the others to make a perfection of a whole. The vegetables within had lovely textures, with an unanticipated happy little crunch in every bite, nothing overcooked here. Delightfully spiced, there was just enough pepper to get my attention, but not so much as to overwhelm anyone less spice-happy than I. Savory, strong — perfection.

Cornbread is one of my biggest weaknesses. I cannot resist good cornbread, and Brown Sugar’s cornbread is buttery and savory, with a nice, grainy texture against the tongue. Half the pleasure of cornbread is that texture, the unmistakable coarseness that is the character of the grain itself. I prefer a hearty cornmeal, one that hasn’t been ground so much that it is almost flour. This bread still had personality, and lent itself well to enhance the other dishes. But I will get to that in a moment.

Macaroni & Cheese
The Better Half tried their Cornbread Waffle & Fried Chicken combo. BSK’s Cornbread Waffle is an extremely popular dish. It’s reputation was one of the reasons we tried the restaurant. Having heard many positive advance reviews from patrons, we were assuming it would be tasty, but once I tasted it, I realized the reviews had not done it justice. The cornbread waffle at Brown Sugar may quite simply be the best waffle I have ever tasted. It had a lovely primitive texture to it, there was something comforting and earthy about this hearty chew of a waffle. A welcome departure from the soft, doughy version one might get elsewhere, these were an adventure. I am always impressed at human ingenuity in all of its forms, and imagination in cooking will stop me in my tracks every time.

I had Bar-B-Que Shrimp. The seafood itself was moist, they were fairly big crustaceans, all languishing in a traditional black butter sauce. The sauce itself was peppery hot, herbs and spices swimming in a pool of butter, with a bit of fried spinach laid over fluffy basmati rice.  The airy basmati was a nice departure from a heavier, more traditional rice, and it allowed the butter to be absorbed and eaten while taking a back seat to the flavor of the shrimp. Smart choice. And that cornbread came in handy here for soaking up the lip-smacking sauce.  Each shrimp was easily peeled, the thin shell rolling back neatly to reveal the fluffy pink meat beneath— moist and juicy, each mouthful covered in tangy, spicy sauce. Biting into these mounds of tender butter-coated shrimp was like experiencing the cheery pop of a cherry tomato, as the flavors inside explode right into your mouth. In my mind Bar-B-Que Shrimp are the crown jewel of southern cooking.
Blackened Catfish

Our dining companion sampled Brown Sugar’s Blackened Catfish, which he was extremely pleased with. He found the fish well-cooked, it’s exterior coated with a nice spice-laden heat, the inside of the fish fillet smoky and soft. The Better Half ordered the Fried Chicken as his main, and he reported it a good solid fried chicken. Not as remarkable as the waffles perhaps, but moist and crunchy in all the right places. Overall a definite success.

As a side to my meal I also had the Mac & Cheese, which was creamy and mild. Given the complexity of the Bar-be-Qued Shrimp, I felt it may have been a deliberate choice to allow the macaroni and cheese to remain such a simple dish, that it might serve as almost a palate cleanser between bites of the spicier items on the menu.

The food here is cooked with ample care and creativity, as well as an abundance of skill. I say make it a point to get there and check it out. As always ~ bon appetit!

Open from 7 - 3pm, they serve a menu that is a breakfast lunch combo all day.

Brown Sugar Kitchen
2534 Mandela Parkway
Oakland, CA 94607-1727
(510) 839-7685