.Familiar Flavors

Oakland is poised to lurch toward restaurant maturity in 2008.

It was the year downtown Oakland was scripted to bust out — a critical mass of Jerry Brown’s 10K ambitions, San Francisco restaurant saturation, and the boredom of north-of-Grand foodies with a Rockridge gone stale. Did 2007 usher in the promised restaurant revival among the tidy blocks of Old Oakland, or an Uptown perpetually “pwned by Luka’s Taproom? Like Ron Dellums’ Model City, the Oakland of bustling new eateries and a grassroots food culture with hella local flavor is, well — still mostly an aspiration.

And if a couple of disappointing openings (Levende East’s so-so bar food sexed up as culinary statement, and a Flora mired in what promises to be a drawn-out dress rehearsal) reminded everyone of the rule of baby steps, all signs for 2008 point to an Oakland taking toddler lurches ever closer to restaurant maturity.

Late in 2007, of course, Rick Mitchell and Jake Alioto of Luka’s quietly ushered in Franklin Square Wine Bar, a place with the confidence to urban pioneer the right demographic of dress-shirted charcuterie-and-Syrah aficionados. And in February, Tanya Holland launched Brown Sugar Kitchen on Mandela Parkway. Her neo-soul flavors reference West Oakland, and the chef’s ingredient-driven approach is already packing the place with diners from north of Macarthur.

The new wave of Oakland restaurants on the cusp of breaking promises a similarly targeted demographic. In place of sleek and bombastic — grand establishments promising to define some new Oakland — expect eateries that reach out to existing constituencies.

Show up in Temescal most days just after noon, and you have to pick your way through the line of young moms and unshaven, drivers-cap-sporting hipsters patiently queued up in front of Bakesale Betty — a line often stretching three storefronts down Telegraph. By Thanksgiving, a second Betty’s location at the edge of Uptown might relieve some pressure on the painfully jammed bakery and fried-chicken-sandwich phenomenon — or merely coalesce demand for a brand new queue.

Last fall, owners Alison Barakat and Michael Camp signed a lease on a corner storefront at Broadway and West Grand, right across from Luka’s (and catercorner from San Francisco restaurant Ozumo’s planned izakaya bar food joint slated for the Broadway Grand building). Despair not, lovers of the crammed and quirky original, with its black tile, icing-pink walls, yellow roses, and rickety, vintage ironing-board tables: Camp promises that the Uptown Betty will be the spitting image of the Temescal shop. That includes the size (250 square feet, roughly), despite having room to expand.

And don’t worry about the Temescal case filling up with stale scones baked off site — Camp says that each location will have its own production kitchen. The new facility will handle large special orders and farmers’ market business. Plus, Camp adds, they’ll launch a cake shop next door in Uptown, set up stools in nearby Franklin Square for coffee and espresso, even launch what he calls “hot breakfast options.”

And, though Camp warns this is premature, he says he and Barakat are looking into opening an adjacent pizza shop. “Kind of like Cheese Board style,” he says.

Barakat and Camp may represent the forward march of the city’s food scene — seasoned operators with a handle on what Oaklanders actually find delicious. That’s what Chris Shepherd and Elizabeth Frumusa aspire to. They’re the Oakland couple behind Aperto, San Francisco’s well-loved neighborhood Italian on Potrero Hill across the bay — solid, un-flashy, and with an awareness of organic and sustainable.

Aperto’s sister restaurant in Oakland, Bellanico, is slated to open on Park Boulevard on March 24. The name’s a fusion of the couple’s daughters’ nicknames. With a location right next to Blackberry Bistro and entrée prices with a ceiling that’s a bit below $20.00, Bellanico is positioning itself for families and weeknighters — essential constituencies for Glenview — but with a dressed-up Italian aesthetic that aims higher than red sauce and foil-pan tiramisu.

Shepherd, who will act as both executive chef and general manager, has stitched together an opening menu that relies on simple preparations and vivid flavors — think grilled pork loin chop with medjool date sauce and creamy polenta. There’ll be offerings of what Shepherd and Frumusa call cicchetti, tapas-like snacks such as fried Sicilian olives and salt cod mantecato — a category not on Aperto’s menu.

Frumusa is cobbling together a fifty-bottle wine list (with about 25 selections by the glass, and six flights) that will emphasize Italy, naturally. But in a move that’s pure 510, the beverage selection shuns soft drinks containing corn syrup. Sorry, dude: You’ll have to step outside to sip that Sprite.

If Bellanico seeks to become essential for Glenview, Montclair, and beyond, then Hisuk Dong is laying plans to attract a yeasty collection of artists, early adopters of style, and the generally fabulous. It’s 11:30 in the morning, and Dong — glass of white wine in hand — is conducting a tour of Mua, the restaurant, nightclub, and artists’ space he hopes to launch in May. With his wife, Sanju, Dong is co-owner of Soizic, the French fusion place at the base of Broadway. But Mua, a 6,500-square-foot space with ceilings that soar to 24 feet (an L-shaped swath of the Oakland Rim and Wheel building at 2442 Webster, a former garage), represents something very close to Dong’s life vision: A free-form venue with food, where artists can show up and participate in, well, whatever shit happens to be going down.

Dong is a painter himself. He’s been using Mua as his own studio as he’s been designing it and overseeing the build out — boards with calligraphic scrawls occasionally swelling into horses or scribbly, Dubuffet-like figures, line certain walls. With a tightly pulled ponytail and finely wrought rectangular eyeglasses, Dong looks every bit the eccentric auteur with business plan more intuitive than researched.

“A lot of undergrounds are being closed out,” he says. “Uptown. West Oakland. The artist community is being squeezed out. I’ll bring everyone together again — maybe even people from the city, too.”

He picks his way around scroll-edged Chinese monastery tables and the detritus of construction to peer inside a private room framed with recycled wood. “We can accommodate the overflow from Soizic,” he says.

His brother came up with the name, which Dong describes as Korean with Chinese roots. “He traveled to monasteries. ‘Mua’ is a place where few attain — it means people who are here, but they’re in another place.” Plus he likes that it mimics the French word “moi.”

“It’s pretty close to crazy,” Dong says.

And the food? Dong says Sanju — chef at Soizic — will probably keep her focus there. He’s already interviewed a few chefs for Mua, but none of them seemed to get his vision. “I don’t want to make it fancy,” he says. “Affordable, but good food. Maybe French, maybe Italian. Definitely some random things.”

Dong designed the railings for the L-shaped mezzanine, as well as cage-like frames for monitors where he hopes to show video art. The concrete walls are unadorned. Dong wants to keep the plywood shear walls (necessary for structural integrity) as they are. “Some of my friends want me to fix everything up. My mom said, ‘Aren’t you going to paint that?’ But these walls have been like this for fifty, sixty, eighty years. Why would you want to change that?”

“I said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to change you either,'” Dong says.

If Mua plays out the way he sees it in his mind, Dong hopes to effect something like a renaissance of Oakland’s art scene, by opening the doors and essentially getting out of the way. The whole local flavor thing can pretty much take care of itself.


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