Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Oakland Stories: PICÁN - Part One: Tasting the South

Since early in her existence, Oakland has been viewed as San Francisco’s awkward and somehow less-desirable little sister. You know the type, the mouthy chick in the room with the chip on her shoulder, sporting a tramp stamp and holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. In reality, Oakland is far more complicated beauty, whose rich culture and history are well worth a second look. Sure, she may have her moments of urban chaos, but she is a girl who is definitely worth getting to know — smarter than she looks and with a lot to offer the right suitor. If you think you know everything there is to know about Oakland, you’re wrong.

In the past several years, there has been a cultural renaissance in Oakland, the genesis of which was the opening of several new restaurants. If you are as curious as I was to know why some of these restaurants are here, what they plan to offer us and whether they’ll stick around for a second date, read on.

Among Oakland’s new residents are Pican, Tamarindo, Camino, Commis, Plum — it’s a rapidly growing list — and each place has a personality all its own. Oakland’s newly thriving restaurant industry and the accompanying accolades to the City they’ve brought along with them, has been a genuine thrill for this lifetime resident to witness. Watching each new establishment arrive and begin to mesh with the fabric of Oakland is a joy. In the past several years the blooming restaurant industry in Oakland has begun to reshape the way the rest of the Bay Area, and gradually the rest of the world, views my City. When it comes to gastronomic offerings, Oakland’s profile now rivals that of San Francisco and Berkeley for exquisite dining, fine and otherwise. In an effort to document Oakland’s journey to the culinary Big Time, I decided to touch base with a few of the restaurants that have had a part in the City’s transformation, conducting a series of interviews with the movers and shakers in the industry that is reshaping the way the world-at-large views the city of my birth.

Tasting the South

One of the first to open the floodgates, Picán Restaurant, seemed a very good place to start. I recently sat down with Picán’s Executive Chef, Dean Dupuis, and owner, Michael LeBlanc, to chat with them about how they view Picán’s role in the revival of Oakland and their part in the “Uptown” movement.

Dean Dupuis - Executive Chef, Picán Restaurant, Oakland

Duck Ham over Cornmeal Biscuit
 Chef Dean Dupuis is the real deal. An affable guy who enjoys his craft, Chef Dean was generous with his time and forthcoming with his answers. Chef told us that when Picán opened in March 2009, he was among the first to be hired. As such he has shared this journey with owner Michael LeBlanc from day one, and the two are a formidable team. In the beginning, Chef Dean and LeBlanc hammered out the design of the food that would be served together. In Chef’s own words “Michael gave me free reign when it came to developing the menu.  Anything that had to do with food was left to me, [though] Michael did have a few dishes he wanted to see. For instance, Michael wanted to put fried chicken on [the menu], and we went back and forth about that. I said “'Who is going to order fried chicken?' Come to find out, it is our most popular seller times two.

Seared Foie Gras
& Pepper Jelly
 Dean went on to describe the cuisine at Picán as Contemporary Southern Food, reporting that Owner LeBlanc terms it “Paula Dean meets Alice Waters.” A self-taught Chef who learned food from others in the industry and the “school of life,” Dean also confesses to being a bit playful with the menu items offered. He gave as an example his Smoked Alligator Nachos, explaining that LeBlanc had asked him to find a way to include an alligator dish on the menu in an effort to incorporate even more traditional foods of the American South. Intended to be served as a bar-food item, the dish was originally titled “Smoked Alligator Natchez” as a play on “nachos.” Chef said that when patrons didn’t pick up on the joke he found himself having to tinker with the title. Another dish that did catch on right away with patrons was their Bayou Paté, a cheese and blue crab dip accompanied by house-made barbeque potato chips. The playfulness of the preparation and whimsy in the naming is something of which Chef Dean is extremely proud. It’s abundantly clear that Chef Dean is supported in his artistry by LeBlanc. In addition to the wonderful food, this sort of symbiotic teamwork may be one of the reasons Picán is finding a permanent spot in the hearts of its patrons.

Fried Green Tomatoes
 Both men evidenced a small frustration at those who insist on trying to buttonhole Picán into the “soul food” genre. Perhaps it is because Oakland has traditionally been a place where one could find good “soul food” offerings from the many of its residents who are southern transplants. But this is not what Picán offers, nor how it wishes to be defined. Rather both men see the restaurant as a broader sampling of every food one might sample below the Mason-Dixon line. As DuPuis put it “I wouldn’t categorize us as a 'soul food' place. It’s Contemporary Southern. We’ll do fried chicken; we’ll do ribs, but we’ll also do Bourbon marinated Salmon, which is really a much more California-oriented dish with a Southern flair in the Bourbon. We like to fuse Southern ingredients with a California spin to get a result that is unique to us.

Pork Belly with Cola Caramel

DuPuis says that although he is dedicated to the food of the South, the restaurant also believes it is important to support local growers, so he sources as much local produce as he can. At the same time Picán supports the South by importing rarities from across the heart of Dixie. Recently Dean made a trip to New Orleans to meet with current White House Chef, Cristeta Comerford, New Orleans' own John Besh and other Chefs from across the Country, to explore ways to assist the local fishing industry in NoLa that had been affected by the spill. Chef Dean brings in most of Picán’s Blue Crab directly from New Orleans, so upon his return he made an effort to lend a hand to a New Orlinean adversely impacted by the oil spill by sharing his personal source for the delicacy with other Bay Area restaurants. His effort was successful, and Chef was able to directly impact the fisherman’s business for the better.

It is his willingness to go that extra mile in everything he does that makes Chef Dean Dupuis so impressive. While local sourcing is hugely important to him to help reduce Picán’s carbon footprint, so is obtaining the authentic ingredients that will give his food its regional character. Straddling that line is something Chef Dean seems to understand naturally, and his success at this balancing act is reflected in the nature of the food served. “I bring in my pork from Alabama. It’s the best pork I’ve ever had. Some things I’ve insisted on remaining Southern. I won’t use Dungeness Crab here, I feel Blue Crab is more representative of our vibe. [...] It’s a different texture, a different flavor. Dungeness Crab is great, but here [at Pican] Blue Crab is where it’s at [...] it feels Southern and that’s a big thing for me.

Chef Dean loves living in Oakland. He loves the vibe, the diversity, the energy, and the access to a variety of great ingredients for his kitchen. Though Southern food will always be his first love, living in Oakland has brought him a new perspective on other flavors of regional cooking. When at home Chef confesses to eating and preparing the ethnic foods that are abundant here. “Vietnamese. Korean. Thai. Mexican. I find myself cooking them at home as well. Vietnamese is my latest down time passion.”

 I’ll admit to some curiousity as to how Chef creates a new dish. I asked him whether it was the result of careful planning, happy accident, or a combination of both. His response: “Both! Absolutely! [...] Once in awhile, sometimes at staff meal, we’ll make something, we’ll just bang something out, and a flavor will hit and we’ll be like, 'we should try this in another form on the menu'. [...] I like to mix a lot of other cultures and cuisines into my food. I’ll put fish sauce in my Southern cooking. [...] I have a Pork Belly on the menu now that I make with coca-cola caramel glaze, but it’s a [Vietnamese] caramel. It’s made with a ginger, garlic, chiles, fish-sauce, so it’s a savory [...] then I add coca-cola, so it ends up being very Southern.

When I asked Chef Dean what dream dish he wanted to add to the menu? “A month ago I would have said I wanted to put foie gras on the menu ---  but I just did. So now I do like a Southern foie gras. [...] In the South, Country Ham biscuits is a big thing. So I make “duck ham.” So that’s with the duck foie gras, which is seared [...] Then I make a ham biscuit, and put a little homemade mustard on a cornmeal biscuit [&] pepper jelly. [...] It’s fun. It’s Southern. It’s Upscale. It’s Picán.

As it so happens, I dined at Picán the evening after the interview and was able to sample some of Chef Dean’s new dishes. The Foie Gras with Duck Ham Biscuits was mind-numbingly delicious. I am a huge fan of ham, biscuits, pepper jelly and foie gras, so the combination of them all in one dish was my idea of bliss. The BH had the Seared Sea Scallops. Inspired by Chef Dean’s talk of the South, I had two additional appetizers instead of a main: the Fried Green Tomatoes and the Pork Belly with the Caramel sauce. As you can see, good stuff!
Stay tuned for Part Two: A Southern Dream Realized, an interview with Owner Michael LeBlanc
Picán Restaurant
2295 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 834-1000