After a stint in Jack London Square, this Pan American restaurant has reopened in downtown Oakland
Bocanova’s new location at Broadway and 11th Street in Oakland is an urban oasis. An outdoor patio wraps around two corners on the building’s ground floor. Elevated above the bustling traffic, there are views of other skyscrapers and an adjacent park with concrete benches and a large public sculpture.
Down below, the sound of harried pedestrians and buses rushing by is muffled by the Latin music that echoes across the courtyard. The restaurant’s tall wide windows beam in natural light. Seating booths—covered in either aquamarine or marigold—anchor diners inside the bright white interiors.
Having closed its original space in Jack London Square in 2017, Bocanova has reopened in downtown Oakland with a spacious dining room and many cozy booths. After sipping drinks, trying a few dishes and catching up with an old friend, the hours passed by in complete comfort. It was easy to keep lingering, even though more people sat down at nearby tables.
Because of the high ceilings and open windows, the noise level in the dining room didn’t intrude on our conversation. The host, our server and the kitchen staff who brought food to the table were all kind and welcoming. Bocanova’s front of house gears are running smoothly as it settles into its first few opening weeks.
At this early point, the dishes coming out of the kitchen haven’t reached the same level of refinement. The cuisine is meant to represent Pan American flavors, with several seafood and heartier meat options. We started with a Mexican caesar salad ($14). The huacatay dressing was bland. I bit into several salt crystals, all of which left a gritty aftertaste in my mouth. An untreated avocado added little flavor to the plate. Each green sliver seemed to be crying out for a few drops of olive oil or an acidic vinaigrette to complement the creaminess.
An easier fix would have been to add tomatoes, cucumber or some other vegetable to amp up the colors and texture. The ingredients also promised boquerones, which turned out to be one anchovy filet split in half. If the fish had been mixed into the dressing, it would have given it a much needed kick. The tortilla strips were tiny, and they got lost and soggy amongst the lettuce leaves. The salad was the first indication that the kitchen was having trouble achieving bold flavors.
The shrimp were perfectly poached in our moqueca, a Brazilian coconut milk seafood stew ($26). While the broth was as creamy as, and reminiscent of, a Thai tom kha soup, it lacked any trace of distinctive spice. A moqueca is traditionally made with garlic, cilantro, lime and onions, but I couldn’t detect any of those flavors, just the coconut milk.
I also didn’t particularly like the pebble-sized bits of salmon and the other tiny pieces of an anonymous white fish that sank to the bottom of the bowl. Each time I make fish stew, I throw in filets or hefty portions of filets. The fish pebbles seemed to indicate a dedication to thrift rather than a bountiful bowl representing the sea of plenty.
A green curry sauce surrounding our plate of wild scallops ($27) didn’t end up saving the day. Again, I was expecting heat or spice from the sauce. It did, in fact, look green, but it tasted watery. The scallops themselves were seared properly and, despite having a golden crust, weren’t delicious. We left two of them untouched on the plate.
The carrot, radish and pea shoot salad served as decorative garnish rather than as an intended textural element. A crunchier slaw accompaniment might have included cabbage instead of pea shoots. Had the salad even been splashed with a dash of apple cider vinegar, something punchier would have landed on the plate.
While the dishes may still be in formation at this stage, the many diners there on date nights and familial get-togethers appeared to be enjoying the atmosphere. As a gathering place, this new incarnation of Bocanova has a built-in appeal for tourists, for business meetings over meals and as a place for locals to celebrate a night out on the town.
Bocanova, open Mon to Fri 8am–9pm, Sat 10am–9pm, Sun 10am–8pm. 1111 Broadway, Oakland. 510.497.1111. bocanovaoakland.com.