It can take twenty minutes to move from the deserted-after-dark heart of Oakland to the salumi-scented clutch of SF Mission District restaurants, but it might as well take twenty years. It isn’t that the cooking at the East Bay’s top-tier restaurants hasn’t evolved. Plate by plate, the 510 has more than its per-capita share of brilliance. It’s everything else that seems mired in the premodern — big concepts backed up by big design, yielding lots and lots of opening-night buzz. In contrast, a genuine Oakland gem like Tamarindo had to earn buzz the old-fashioned way, long after opening, and without the benefit of its PR firm revving up the glitter machine.
So in early spring, when San Francisco’s Levende Lounge scored a prime corner in Old Oakland, observers immediately went on glamour watch. Levende Lounge is huge, stylish, and clubby, and its young chef has worked out a contemporary menu with a mostly Asian glow. Levende East might be just the place to kickstart Oakland’s glitter machine.
Six weeks after opening, Levende East feels like a party whose hosts are trying too hard to make everything fabulous. But hey, for any new restaurant, six weeks is the equivalent of a party’s awkward first hour. You know — before the sweaty effects of the sangria take hold, when everyone’s still on best behavior and the Costco sushi platter is as yet unravaged.
Levende’s big, loftlike space — formerly the Rex Bar — has sexy bones, including its wall of raw brick and scrim of windows separating it from Washington Street. Everything else is the work of co-owner Kiri Eschelle: blocky woods and bittersweet browns, a high communal dining table, lots of leather, and paintings by Peter Gronquist that look like children’s-book illustrations turned indefinably creepy. They’re part of the room’s adult edginess — take a second look at the ostensibly girly wire-and-crystal chandeliers, for instance, and you sense a certain bodice-ripping fetishism, like Jane Austen cavorting with Anne Rice. It all feels right, given Levende’s triple role as late-night DJ den, and a bar that features serious mixologists shaking up serious cocktails.
The third role, of course, is edible. Executive chef Arren Caccamo’s rather pricey dishes have the tricky task of surviving all the glitter that threatens to bury it. The music. The room. The dulling effects of pomegranate margaritas and pineapple-upside-down martinis. What does Caccamo do? He flings his own glitter.
Take the bluenose-bass ceviche, an item on the so-called chef’s fresh list, a stand-alone menu of ceviches and raw oysters. It arrived over dry ice, wafting white vapors in a haze of theatrics worthy of Trader Vic’s. The presentation skewed cheesy, even though the ceviche itself was perfectly respectable. Spiked with lime juice, the tomatoey macerating liquid had stiffened the bass’ gray-white fibers to a texture simultaneously tense and lithe. The fish packed a slow burn and bristled with various chips. Only the plantains — they’d absorbed oil in the fryer — weren’t worth the trouble.
Ordering the guava-glazed baby back ribs one night, it was clear that corny wasn’t limited to dry ice. Or to the kitchen. Before you could say “cheesy,” our waiter stomped his foot hard against the wood floor. For a startled second I thought he’d killed a roach, but there was no roach. “Go like that,” he said, “and the meat is just gonna fall off the bones.” It was a maneuver straight from the TGI Friday’s playbook. We held off giggling until he left the table. And we kept on giggling, even though, okay, the supertender meat did have only a tenuous connection to its gray bones, as well as a delicately blistery outer surface. Cheesy waiter was right.
You have to hand it to Caccamo for putting the ribs on the menu in the first place. Only the ceviche and four other dishes made the trip across the bridge from the Lounge, an acknowledgment that the clientele here is different from the city’s mix of real and would-be hipsters.
Still, the chef works in a broad palette of sweet and spicy that would work in any bar, even a classy one like this. A fried calamari salad tried to make up for undercrispy squid with a salad whose sugary-tasting balsamic dressing and sweet carrot shavings gave the whole dish an oversize, sunny presence. Likewise the Levende “Ruben” sandwich we ordered at lunch one day: Its housemade slaw had a genial sweetness, and the whole thing was warm and rich and easy to love. Caccamo told me he doesn’t design dishes to go with cocktails. But both things seemed like natural companions to such tangy and darkly syrupy drinks as the so-called traditional margarita, with its aged tequila, Grand Marnier, and whiff of orange juice.
Sweetness got the better of coconut-miso soup, a dish with a handsome arrangement of bunched daikon sprouts and enoki poised at a right angle. The delicately milky broth had plenty of coconut perfume, but after half a dozen spoonfuls it began to cloy, never mind that the lobster-and-wonton-skin ravioli it contained seemed to suffer from some overly bready filler.
Mini tuna burgers relied on aioli spiked with wasabi and Sriracha sauce for character, since the burgers themselves were ground patties grilled beyond the point of pinkish — it represented a squandering of tuna’s charms. A blast of heat overcame the open-face curry naan sandwich with optional mini lamb burgers. I think it was the spread of hummus whose blast of chile fire eventually overtook the dish, damn near overcoming even the lamb.
Dishes that swore off sweet and spicy had a density of flavor that the cocktail-friendly dishes seemed to lack. A panzanella of semisoft baguette toasts arranged on slices of sweet, lush tomato and housemade mozzarella was seriously tasty. Rocolla, arugula’s sturdy cousin, was shiny under a welter of various drizzles that included a garlicky, emulsified pesto. The mozzarella had a slightly spongy texture a bit like soy cheese, but it almost didn’t matter.
The Levende surf & turf, an apparently perennial verbal special, radiated flavor from the inside out. The surf part featured grilled shrimp threaded onto a whittled stick of sugar cane; turf was a section of seared lamb loin, its cap of breadcrumbs turned rusty brown in the pan. It rested on a pestolike green sauce that contained mint and capers. It was a dish whose simplicity was startling. And one that, by meticulously brushing away Levende’s ambient nightclub glitter, shined brighter than anything in the room.