The Name:

A duende is a fairy- or goblin-like mythological creature in Spanish folklore. Duendes are believed to be of a small stature wearing big hats, whistling a mystical tune, while walking in the forest where they dwell. One view of folklore would have you believe they are mischievous and furtive, luring young girls from their paths deep into the woods; in another, they are quiet and kindly aides to people lost in the forest, helping them find their way home.

Duende is a difficult-to-define concept in Spanish art, including performing arts. The closest English translation of “tener duende” (having duende) is “having soul,” and is an idea often applied in an attempt to describe the mysterious powers, both light and dark, of flamenco. Duende may be described as the force that animates art, deeply related to emotion, expression, and authenticity.

“All arts are capable of duende…” Federico Garcia Lorca, “The duende, then, is a power and not a construct, is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old guitarist, a true virtuoso, remark, “The duende is not in the throat, the duende comes up from inside, up from the very soles of the feet.” That is to say, it is not a question of aptitude, but of a true and viable style – of blood, in other words; of what is oldest in culture: of creation made act.” Federico Garcia Lorca”The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.” Federico Garcia Lorca [From the Duende website]

The Restaurant:

Clearly, the folks at Duende have put great thought into their concept. The blending of food and music is a siren call to their customers, one they succeed in elevating to an impressively high standard.  There is nothing quite so enchanting as the work of an artist, or group of artists, who understand their message and express it clearly.  If you allow yourself to be open to it, a meal at Duende is as spiritually rewarding an experience as hearing Izaak Pearlman play the violin, or watching a perfectly paced film.  While dining there, you are an actor in their play of life.

Upon arrival, I expected good food, having read the many favorable write ups by critics, and been counseled by friends who had preceded me that a meal at Duende made for delightful dining.  I was not disappointed. Rather, I was blown away. Having worked in the arts for decades myself, I am familiar with the spirit of the artist.  In my experience, I have found that while many can sing, few can do so with an honesty that allows the listener to hear the emotion within the song, thus experiencing it themselves.  The ability to convey truth as well as tune, is rare.  It is a gift from whatever greater power one might believe in, the actor must tap into his or her own essence or experience, and be willing to share it in the moment.  This act of exposing the soul for one’s art poses a risk many will not, or cannot, attempt.  If you have the gift, only a fear of failing can hold you back.  But for those who have conquered that fear, the product that results is an unparalled gift.  At Duende, that gift extends to the kitchen.  They are fearless.

Everything about Duende resonates their concept.  The space is inviting, with high ceilings that evoke high goals.  The walls are decorated beautifully with just the right splashes of art, the color choices perfection.  Reach for the stars, it says.  We’ve got your back.

Visitors are greeted with smiles, cocktails resplendent with intriguing flavor and food that is blissfully transcendent.  When I visit a place that is so clearly dedicated to creating a dining experience, as opposed to merely feeding the hungry, I read the menu with an eye to selecting that which may be out of my comfort zone.  Rather than selecting the familiar ingredients or choosing from a list of that which I have experienced as enjoyable in the past, I try to select in a manner that will allow me to experience whatever culinary journey my hosts may see fit.  I sensed Duende to be a place where this would be a safe course of action, and I wasn’t wrong.

Duende: cocktail

The TIERRA QUEMADA – Baccanora – Cocchi Rosa – Grapefruit! Cheers

The Food:

The Hubs & I ordered from every category: TapasRaciones and Platos Familiares.  All can be shared, each representing a slight increase in portion size to allow maximum flexibility to the patrons.  From the Tapas we selected the Bocadillo de Congrejito and the Pescado Crudo.  The first was a magnificent soft-shelled crab, served in an airy battered crust and fried to perfection.  The sauce, titled simply mayonasa picante, was killer good.  Complex and flavorful, it made the perfect foil to the delicate toothsome goodness of the fried crab, which was not at all greasy or heavy, its consistency reminiscent of an airy tempura.  This is my kind of fried food.

Duende: crab

Soft-shelled crab, battered and served on soft roll with a lovely dollop of spicy mayo

Likewise pleasing was the Pescado (salmon ) Crudo.  The dish was two lovely morsels of perfect fish, the edges of which had been seared by a hint of flame and accompanied by the addition of crunch in the form of verdant spring peas.  The finishing touch a delicate, citrus-y, sauce which made each bite unforgettable, the taste reminiscent of being kissed by dappled sunshine on a perfect Spring day.

Duende: salmon

Salmon bites with avocado, and vibrant green spring peas

The next plate they presented was a hearty lamb sausage atop a garbanzo torta.  The light bean “bread” was similar in consistency to a polenta cake, and was as delightfully rewarding a mouthful as all the others.  The rich, earthy lamb was abundantly juicy and the moist bean cake captured the natural juice to perfection, not a drop escaping in the consumption of the dish.  By this point my palate was singing, so I ordered a second cocktail to celebrate.  (Oh, come on, they were SO good!)

Duende: lamb

Lamb Sausage with Garbanzo Torta

We completed our savory exploration with a shared favorite, seafood Paella.  Theirs was as bright as 24 karat gold, and laden with Saffron. Its delicate notes of buttery goodness and delightful tang, played off the lightly spiced chorizo and manila clams, all individual ingredients having been cooked to perfection.  Paella is a dish I fell in love with when I first attempted to prepare it in the mid-seventies using an elaborate recipe in Bon Appetit.  I’ve never forgotten the complexities of its construction and the subsequent and lasting reward of its consumption.  In the hands of the folks at Duende, the dish was both elevated and hearty.  Duende’s kitchen turns out a magnificent version of this Latin classic.

Duende: paella

Paella – food of the gods!

By this point, the Hubs and I were feeling overwhelmed (in the best and most positive meaning of the word) by the savory courses, so felt compelled to sample a dessert to complete our culinary journey.  The hardest part of the evening may have been in the choosing of a single offering from the pastry chef, as all options on the menu beckoned irresistibly.  “Pick me,” they said, echoing the call of the Duende siren.  After painful deliberation, we settled on the Cherry Galette.  (I must confess, I’m a sucker for stone fruit.) Within moments, we were presented with a flaky pastry laden with a mound of mouth-watering rich, black cherries, swimming in a perfect dollop of creme fraiche as light as clouds.  The cherry flavor of the dish was so robust that at first bite I found myself transported to the hot, lazy summer afternoons of childhood, when the world has slowed to a whispered heartbeat of promise and possibility.

Duende: cherry galette

Cherry cherry cherry galette! FABULOUS!

I should note that the service was stellar.  Our team was always at hand when needed, everyone cordial and enthusiastic about showing us a good time.  As we were on our way to see the Broadway tour of Fela! at the Paramount, we’d asked to be out by seven o’clock.  They managed to meet our deadline without ever making us feel rushed.  Nicely done.

All in all, ours was the perfect meal. Great company, enlightening exploration of flavors and beautiful surroundings.  When establishments like this dot the corners of her streets, it is clear that Oakland has truly arrived as a culinary mecca.  One can walk a block in any direction and eat as well as in any major capital of the world.  Elevated food, beautiful music and lovely surroundings abound.  Duendeis indeed, as magical as its name. If the Duende siren calls you, answer.  To fail to do so is to miss out on the meaning of life as seen through true culinary genius.

Check it out, bring some good friends or find them there, and make a lasting memory of your own.  Life is short, mangia!

Duende Oakland
468 19th Street
Oakland, CA 94612

(510) 893-0174

About The Author

Angela F. Lazear is an Oakland native and the author of EAST BAY FOOD SCENE: Essays on the Ritual of Dining ( 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

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