When Jen Biesty and Tim Nugent left their previous gigs at an Italian restaurant to open their own place in Oakland, they made a conscious decision to look toward Spain, Greece, and North Africa — and not Italy — for inspiration. “The pizza/pasta thing has had its day,” Biesty said.
She wanted to serve a cuisine rooted in seasonal vegetables, fresh herbs, and olive oil — not loaded with butter and cheese. The resulting restaurant, Shakewell, is the latest addition to the Grand Lake neighborhood’s recent culinary boom, and features Biesty in the kitchen and Nugent running the front of the house.
Biesty and Nugent worked together in San Francisco at Scala’s Bistro, but they’re inextricably connected in people’s minds as “those two chefs who were on Top Chef” — a characterization that’s graced every press release and preview article ever written about Shakewell. As Biesty put it, “You don’t want to kick a gift horse in the mouth and all of that” — but, as much as the reality TV stint has boosted their careers, it’s a distinction both chefs are ready to move past. Fortunately, at Shakewell, the food mostly speaks for itself.
The small plates section of the menu, as with much of the food here, is only loosely based on what you might find at a traditional Spanish tapas bar. (Biesty and Nugent had wanted to simply say the place was “Mediterranean,” but were afraid that people would assume it was a falafel-and-shawarma joint.)
So, Biesty’s Spanish-inspired cuisine includes classic pairings such as melon and serrano ham, and potato croquettes with salted fish. But there’s also, in fact, a falafel dish, as well as other small plates that feature Greek and North-African spicing. It turns out that Biesty has an affinity for the deep fryer, and the trio of batter-fried dishes that I sampled included the rather Spanish-tasting fried olives (little buttermilk-crusted grenades that exploded their briny juices), as well as two dishes Biesty herself described as being “out of left field” — left field being somewhere around the intersection of Italy and Northern California.
Tempura squash blossoms had an extraordinarily crunchy Japanese-style batter, and because they were stuffed with feta and quinoa (rather than the more commonly used chèvre), the flavor of the cheese didn’t overwhelm. A bright-tasting raw-tomato vinaigrette drizzled on top completed a perfectly balanced bite. And a plate of fried “sausage-sage leaves” were as odd as they were delicious: Sage leaves were wrapped tightly around coarse, Italian-spiced bulk sausage and deep-fried, and served with a cool ginger aioli on the side. It was an addictive combination.
One of the simplest, and most traditional, tapas was the pan con tomate, or Catalán tomato bread — an appetizer you’ll find at every tapas bar in Barcelona. For Shakewell’s version, thick slices of baguette are toasted, brushed with garlic oil, then rubbed with smashed-up tomatoes until the whole thing resembles a ruby-red, glisteningly moist, open-face strawberry-jam sandwich. A drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt brought out each toast’s sweet, true-tomato flavor. You won’t find pan con tomate on the menu when tomatoes aren’t in season, so put in a few extra orders now when they’re at their most glorious.
If Shakewell has a signature dish, it would have to be Biesty’s take on paella, which is non-traditional enough that she didn’t even want to call it that — instead, the menu features three or four “bombas,” named after the Spanish rice varietal. Unlike traditional paella, which is cooked in an enormous round pan, Biesty cooks the bombas in ceramic cazuelas in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven. The result is a rice dish that lacks soccarat (the crispy crust that forms at the bottom of the paella pan), but compensates for that by being exceedingly moist (almost soupy) and flavorful. My favorite of these featured perfectly tender and crisp-skinned chicken thighs (marinated with dried black lime, for an extra-zesty kick), whole shrimp, green Picholine olives, and a few streaks of tangy aioli. On the other hand, despite the addition of pickled Fresno chilies and preserved-lemon rind, the black squid-ink bomba was disappointingly one-note and salty. It needed more heat and more acid — a dollop of that aioli would have been welcome.
One big perk: A plate of this non-paella, easily shareable for two or three diners, will cost you $5 to $10 less than a comparable portion at most traditional Spanish restaurants.
The rest of the menu is fairly broad. The “greens” section consists of somewhat elaborate salads, but if you want to add a less expensive — but still tasty — dose of vegetables to your meal, get one of the small side dishes. A buttery, sweet corn sauté, accented with dill and blistered padrón peppers, hit the spot, especially commingled with the aforementioned chicken-and-rice dish.
True to its Mediterranean theme, Shakewell’s menu is heavily focused on the fruits of the sea. But one of my favorite dishes was the land-based chicken albóndigas. These were rustic, odd-shaped meatballs, perfectly airy and flavorful, served in a bowl of smoky, pimentón-and-sherry based red sauce flecked with marjoram and tiny cubes of soft-cooked carrot. If they’d served the dish with noodles, it would be a Spaniard’s delicious reimagining of spaghetti and meatballs.
Based on Nugent’s appearance on Top Chef: Just Desserts, diners might expect elaborate pastry creations, but Shakewell’s dessert menu instead hews toward classics with only subtle tweaks. I wasn’t a fan of the joltingly savory fennel pollen dusted atop an otherwise uneventful flan Catalán, but an order of crinkled mini churros, served with a bittersweet chocolate sauce, was a knockout.
Shakewell also serves the kind of carefully crafted cocktails you’d expect at any of today’s trendy new restaurants, as well as a fizzy honey-and-blackberry agua fresca that I’m still thinking about. But, even if this isn’t strictly a Spanish restaurant, diners who enjoy a good sangria will be happy to know that Shakewell’s classic version — served in a glass tumbler over lots of ice — goes down dangerously easily.