Veteran chef ups his cuisine to the next level
The industrious chef Carlo Espinas seldom has a day off. On Mondays and Tuesdays, he helps Sequoia Del Hoyo with Tarocco, her new “Mediterranean inspired lifestyle and meal program.” Del Hoyo develops the menus and Espinas cooks them. “Sequoia has a great palate and a lot of experience in the food industry,” Espinas says. “I’m able to contribute on the nuts and bolts, executing her vision, making sure that everything tastes good.”
From Wednesday to Saturday, Espinas runs his own restaurant in Oakland, The Lede. As the Bay Area and beyond acknowledge Chez Panisse’s 50th Anniversary this year, it’s not a surprise to hear that Espinas is part of the extended line of chefs related to Alice Waters’ enduring culinary and cultural influence. For many years, he worked off and on at Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain’s Camino, both of whom are Chez Panisse alumni. And he inherited The Lede from another former Waters’ protégé Cal Peternell.
Peternell, who’s become a podcaster and respected cookbook author since his Chez days, reached out to Espinas at the start of the pandemic last year. “He knew I was between gigs,” Espinas said. Peternell’s Lede was housed in Old Oakland, right across the street from Swan’s Market. Espinas explained that it made sense for him to close up shop there to look for a new space. “We eventually landed at 41st and Broadway and opened in the middle of May,” he said.
According to The Lede’s website, Espinas’ food “represents the geography, history and seasonality of California.” The latest version of a dish called “Three salads” marries Jimmy Nardello peppers, cucumbers and avocados on the plate. Each vegetable is seasoned simply, in its own particular way, but eaten together the flavors still complement each other. The chef dresses the peppers in vinegar, mixes scallions and chili with slices of cucumber, and adds turmeric and lime to the avocado. Three salads is a smart alternative to the idea that, to qualify as a salad starter, it must be built around either lettuce leaves or greens.
The succinct menu is divided into sections of Snax, Plates, Sweeties and House Cocktails, along with wines by the bottle, and beer. The heaviest item listed is likely a mushroom-and-havarti melt. Because it’s tomato season, I ordered a pretty plate of cherry tomato confit toast. That long, slow roast intensified the tomato taste. Espinas slathers the toast with chevre and finishes it with ribbons of freshly cut basil. I kept my half for the next course, to dunk in a plate of “Beans Beans Beans.”
If there’s one dish that epitomizes Espinas’ approach and accomplishments, it’s this bean dish. Shelling beans, Early Girl tomatoes and roasted peppers bathe in their own stewed juices. Though not exactly a soup or a stew, it is as hearty and comforting as one. I dragged what was left of my toast through the broth with a great deal of satisfaction. Had there been a piece of grilled or poached halibut nestled in this sauce, the dish would have been a substantial entrée.
But that’s not The Lede’s current modus operandi. Espinas describes this “personal project” as a neighborhood bar with more complex food offerings, including oysters and a charcuterie plate. There are also sly takes on snacks like maple-roasted bar nuts and the “Caesar Eggs,” devilled eggs with anchovy-and-sheep’s-milk cheese.
There aren’t many proteins on the menu, and that starts to feel like a loss when you consider how skilled the chef is with his vegetable preparations. If you’re hungry when you get there, better to think of The Lede as host to a tasting menu that’s easily paired with alcohol and dishes that should be shared family style at the table. The space is warm and welcoming, designed to encourage conversation. You can hang out on the outside deck or slowly dip your spoon into a cup of spiced chocolate mousse. The honeycomb sprinkles on top will excite your nerve endings in all the right places.
The Lede, open Wednesday to Thursday, 4–9pm, and Friday to Saturday, 4–10pm. 308 41st St., Oakland. [email protected] theledeoakland.com