Succulent Panko-Crusted Pork Strips

Succulent panko-crusted pork strips

I grew up in Oakland. I’ve seen a myriad of change, some good, some not. The streets of my childhood were constantly changing, adapting. To progress, to the passage of time, and even, on occasion, to the forces of nature beneath the earth’s crust. I mark many of these changes with the establishments that offered the foods I’ve loved and lost.

The incomparable Lakeshore Deli, where I would accompany my grandfather for snacks of sliced prosciutto and fresh-baked foccacia. Grand Avenue was home to Mitch and Jim’s, a steak joint awash in red leather upholstery and dark-paneled interior. It was classically Mad Men, the atmosphere so thick with the testosterone of the sixties that it wrapped around you like the ribbons of smoke that curled dreamily from my Grandfather’s cigars at the end of a meal. Mitch’s served this fantastic salad of beefsteak tomatoes, purple onions and anchovies. I savor it still in my memory. As time passed, new places have replaced the old. The Pewter House, the Victoria Station on the Estuary. Each held some special dish that I would return to experience again and again. All are long gone.

If Oakland wasn’t currently alive with new culinary adventures, I might have time or inclination to mourn them. But I don’t. In my hometown these days, the options for dining are myriad and delightful.

These “ghosts of restaurants past” have made way for a new kind of progress. Penrose, the embodiment of the modern restaurant, is located on Grand Avenue. It is next door to The Alley, one of the last icons of Oakland’s vaguely dusty past. Unlike its antiquated neighbor, the decor at Penrose is open and airy, the delicately vaulted ceilings suggesting more the interior of a Tahoe ski lodge than the occluded and secretive trysting dens of the fifties that lingered well into the Disco Era. The only smoke in the air at Penrose is the delicate scent of wood burning slowly, in the cavernous ovens in which they prepare, well, just about everything, except maybe the ice cream.

The food was remarkable. I’m getting used to that, in this age of fresh and local and carefully crafted bites. Our meal was simple, and perfect in its simplicity. There were no complex flavors murking up the flavor profiles, the ingredients were in the forefront of each bite.

The Meal

We were starving, so we ordered the flatbread and dips to get things started. The bread was remarkable. Simple, the heat from the oven still kissing its surface, the streaked brown crust bubbling with the delicate flavor of the smoky oven. It reminded me of the food to be had at a campfire, all that much better for having been prepared over an open flame.

Quail on a bed of Spring Greens & Peas

Quail on a bed of spring greens and peas

The trio of sauces were solid, consisting of a delicate harissa, a spicy charmoula and a creamy tahini yogurt. We promptly ordered a second round of that fantastic bread with which to consume them, and with the bread arrived a lovely helping of house-made ricotta, which is a bit like a slightly dense buratta in texture, as well as taste.

We followed the bread with a plate of the panko-crusted pork strips. Those puffy golden fingers of air were hot enough to make one take notice. There is something about food that’s piping hot, cooled only enough not to burn the soft palate, that carries the flavors to the tastebuds in a palpable way, a way a lukewarm bite cannot.

The options on the menu at Penrose are graduated, going from share-sized portions, to heartier options, meant to be enough for an individual main course. The ahi tartare my son-in-law ordered was a light, delicate serving of beautiful fish, the consistency of not-quite-room-temperature butter, and just a hint of citrus to round things out.

My daughter ordered the game hen, which had been boned and roasted to perfection. I had the quail, which was moist, with a beautifully roasted, golden crust of a skin. Hubs had the salmon, which was likewise buttery and moist. Every dish had a thread of simplicity running through its preparation.

We all hear about “local, fresh ingredients” making the difference. How many talking heads at the Food Network have repeated the meme that we must let the flavors of the foods speak for themselves? Having tasted the theory in its best practice, I finally understand the idea on a primal level. The fowl tasted like fowl in its best iteration, an exterior crisp from the grill, the meat still juicy and moist. The vegetables tasted like the colors in the rainbow, a green that resonated with spring, the yellows sweet and sunny with flavor. I found myself marveling all the way through dinner at how the chef had captured their essence and left it on the plate. That’s not to say I don’t like complicated food, but simple food is spectacular when done correctly. Sublime, even.

Luscious "French Toast" Bread Pudding, with Strawberries

Luscious “French toast” bread pudding with strawberries

Given that we were celebrating, we ordered several desserts. They did not disappoint: a glorious buttery pound cake with fresh glazed strawberries, a magnificent citrus granita, a bread pudding that was a cross between french toast and pudding, and a light crispy meringue floating atop a creamy pudding. Every one of them was just sweet enough without being so saccharine as to grate on the teeth after our savory courses.

By the time we finished, we were blissed out, which is the way one should always leave a restaurant. Stepping out into the familiar street, I was reminded again of the evolution of Oakland into a real contender in the food scene. We’ve gone straight from the familiar comforts of the past, into the surprising and artistic entertainment that is our culinary present. Perhaps the restaurants that went before were meant to set the stage for what we have become. Perhaps they were the best we could do at the time, given how small the repertoire was for a local chef before the food of the world’s cuisines began to bleed together into something unique and completely now. Either way, Penrose is a must-visit stop in Oakland’s ever growing list of places to break bread. So check it out, make a lasting memory of your own. Buon Appetito!

Penrose
3311 Grand Avenue
(510) 444-1649
www.penroseoakland.com

About The Author

Angela F. Lazear is an Oakland native and the author of EAST BAY FOOD SCENE: Essays on the Ritual of Dining (www.eastbayfoodscene.com). Launched in 2007, East Bay Food Scene was established to pay homage to Oakland’s fascinating history, while chronicling the city’s rebirth through a vibrant, ever-changing landscape of food offerings. Many of Angela’s fondest childhood memories involve accompanying her grandparents to Oakland’s finest restaurants and sitting with them at the “grownup” table. Twice a month her grandparents would take her out for shrimp cocktail and filet of sole, at what was then The Sea Wolf, on Jack London Square. It was on these occasions that Angela discovered that collective dining brought with it the opportunity to make lasting memories. To this day, a perfect “old school” shrimp cocktail will bring to mind one of her grandfather’s fascinating and colorful stories of Prohibition, bootleggers, and run-ins with “wise-guys” seeking to get alcohol to the masses. These colorful stories were a kind of live theater. When Oakland began its dining renaissance, Angela saw an opportunity to honor both her family’s legacy and the city of her birth. Contrasting Oakland’s past to its present, her essays focus on how sharing great food experiences with loved ones can enrich one’s life immeasurably. Food is more than sustenance, it serves as a landmark for recalled experiences with loved ones and family. It is this connection between food and family that drives Angela to experience and chronicle the current generation of chefs and restaurateurs, as they re-invent cuisine and elevate it to an art form. Her mission is to share with her readers the stories of an Oakland that was, and to connect them to the Oakland that is becoming, that its inhabitants might remain in touch with the City’s past, as they inevitably meet with its promising future. The ritual of dining is an experience so entrenched in our collective personal history that we run the risk of missing the point if we fail to savor the experience as much as we do the myriad of flavors. Each morsel has the ability, at a later date, to recall moments from our past as vividly to the senses as if actually captured on film. A self-titled “Philosophoodie,” she would encourage her readers to savor every bite as it comes, take the time to engage with one another over every meal, and “make a lasting memory of your own.” Twitter: @foodaprecianado; Instagram: Foodapprecianado Facebook: EastBayFoodScene

One Response

  1. Bridget

    Ooh, the focaccia at Lakeshore Deli was BOMB! So devastated when they closed 🙁

    Reply

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