Monday, November 15, 2010

OAKLAND STORIES: PICÁN - Part Two: A Southern Dream Realized

Michael LeBlanc - Owner, Picán Restaurant, Oakland

At the time Picán Restaurant first opened its doors, owner Michael LeBlanc was taking a pretty big leap of faith. Opening a high-end restaurant smack in the middle of downtown Oakland at the height of an economic downturn takes genius, courage and, some might say, a big dollop of crazy. Whatever the combination of bravery and/or foolhardiness that might have conspired to bring Picán to fruition, the restaurant has been successful. It has weathered the depths of the recession, which means that people who were choosing much more carefully, chose to spend their precious entertainment dollars at Picán.

LeBlanc has made a name for himself and his eatery within the city, spearheading events that bring the community together and introduce people to the concept that Oakland is a hot spot for dining and a desired place to socialize. Picán has served as the flagship for Oakland’s newfound possibilities, attracting a myriad of patrons from within Oakland and around the East Bay. In addition, Picán is rapidly becoming a destination restaurant for the residents of San Francisco, which is no small feat. Getting people to cross The Bridge in the other direction says something about the restaurant that little else could say. Picán offers a beautiful ambience, reliably excellent food and, perhaps most importantly to its owner, a place to mingle with a mix of folk from all walks of life, a perfect mirror of the city that houses it.

When one asks LeBlanc to talk about his restaurant, he lights up – a man animated by his passion. Pican is for him far more than a business; it is an outward expression of his contribution to the betterment of society at large. It is a place that not only serves the remarkable food of the South with flair and artistry, but, more importantly to LeBlanc, that serves as a meeting place for a diverse group of man- (and woman-) kind. It is no accident that Picán seems to have slipped effortlessly into the role of Happening Meeting Place. LeBlanc made it so with a unique combination of vision and determination.

I recently attended a Bartending Competition Event hosted by Picán and Grand Marnier, and open to all female bartenders in the Bay. There the melting pot success of LeBlanc’s world view was effectively highlighted. Standing in a room humming with humanity, I found myself glancing around the lounge to behold a rainbow reflection of Oakland and East Bay society. A man sporting a soul patch laughing over a shared joke with an Asian woman; a cluster of sartorially resplendent Church Ladies savoring a round of cocktails; tight denim- and leather-clad college girls enjoying the vibe at the bar. Like a perfectly balanced cocktail, Picán seems naturally infused with diversity. Perhaps it is a reflection of the times. Maybe Oakland has at last grown up and come into her own, becoming the all-encompassing city she was always meant to be. Maybe it is evidence of LeBlanc’s subtle skill at showing people from so many walks of life a good time. Or maybe, it’s a little of both.

Table Prepped for Bartending Competition

When speaking with LeBlanc, it is the diversity of the clientele that really sets him glowing. Born in New Orleans, and having lived around the world, Michael LeBlanc is proud of the iconic gathering place he has created. LeBlanc and I are both children of the sixties, and, as such, he shared with me the joy he takes in watching this mesh of culture and experience. Watching people of all races and backgrounds fall into easy companionship — strangers and friends alike — LeBlanc and I cannot help but recall the dreams of our youth growing up in the turbulent sixties. The hope was instilled then that some day we might indeed overcome the scars of this country’s birth. I have to say the first time I walked into the restaurant for dinner, I felt the same way. It was like the dream had arrived. LeBlanc believes it is here to stay.

 Though he leaves much of the food to Chef DuPuis, LeBlanc, as a true Southerner, has a strong idea of the food he wishes to serve, and he is never afraid to speak up. He knows the tastes of his own upbringing, the richness of flavors, the specific foods that recall for him the best the region has to offer. To that end he insisted on having a variety of fried chicken on the menu. While skeptical, Chef Dean complied and the rest was history.

LeBlanc also shared with me a story of the origin of my personal favorite, a "fried peach pie" that was on the menu the summer right after Picán opened. At one point he found himself discussing Heubig’s pies with Dupuis. Heubig’s is a freshly baked version of a fried pie turnover packaged and sold throughout the South. Michael LeBlanc wanted his kitchen to produce an upscale variety. LeBlanc jokingly told me of his conversation with the kitchen and his efforts to convey how the pie was shaped and prepared. Not a cook, he guessed that the edges of the half-moon crescents would be forced into closure with a fork, much like my grandmother’s apple pie. "I don’t know how to make ‘em, but I know what they’re supposed to taste like!" LeBlanc joked. He is indeed a man with a hand in everything.

LeBlanc’s plan seems to be to bring them in with the food, give them great service, then wow them with the camaraderie of his great nightlife scene. When the company is good and the experience is unique, folks will naturally want to return for more. The decor of the restaurant is welcoming: open and sweeping, it’s lines evoking something very old and Southern, yet clearly modern at the same time.

Picán’s high ceilings create a sense of the columnar architecture throughout the South, reinforced by perfectly placed high doorways, while its comfortable overstuffed lounge furniture would fit perfectly within the hippest Manhattan Club. When glancing at the high doors at one end of the dining room, one is reminded intensely of the Old South — a whispered rustle of heavily starched hoop skirts whirling in a cotillion waltz. At the same time, the bulk of the restaurant’s decor is quite chic and current. LeBlanc has used shades of copper, a buttery tan and a brown that is so rich it appears almost black, all of which mingle to give the restaurant a distinctly urban feel. LeBlanc calls the decor "Modern Antebellum," which, in my mind, is a perfect description for conjuring a mental image of Picán’s interior. From its inception, Picán was intended to be a place that evoked Southern charm, Southern flavors and Southern hospitality, while exorcising the more unpleasant ghosts of her past.

Picán is a lovely place to visit. Familiar and welcoming, inspiring and exciting. Frankly, my dear, they had me at "Fried Peach Pie."

Picán Restaurant

2295 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 834-1000