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|
|Seared Foie Gras|
& Pepper Jelly
|Fried Green Tomatoes|
|Pork Belly with Cola Caramel|
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.”
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
Oakland, CA 94612