One won’t wither away after getting the bill
Even if one has recently tried a burrata appetizer, Lovely Day’s version ($16) is worth revisiting the dish. Already smashed and spilling out its center, the plate looks like a busy painter’s palette. The white cheese is lined with candied strips of neon orange kumquat skins and lies in a dark green sorrel pesto nest thick as pea soup.
Two messy piles of well-dressed arugula, studded with halved cherry or toy box tomatoes, fill up both corners of the platter. The unidentifiable subtle but hard-to-miss extra flavor is mugolio, a pine cone syrup. Too much of the stuff can overwhelm the tastebuds. It’s a strange, sweet sap that’s reminiscent of what anise can do to ingredients. But here it’s a faint addition, a spectral presence that asks a question rather than providing an answer.
Winter’s still holding onto the Bay Area, but a few brave diners were seated outside, under heat lamps, on Lovely Day’s large front patio. When summer comes, the patio will be packed. But in the meantime, we were content to remove our bulky coats and settle down inside.
Instead of light fixtures or chandeliers dangling from the ceiling, the interior is illuminated by light sculptures that would feel at home inside a contemporary art institute or on a spaceship. The scale of the vast dining room is comparable to a country club’s with warm-toned walls and woodsy tables. Because of the spare décor, where the soft lighting comes to the fore, it also feels Scandinavian or Mitteleuropean.
Lovely Day opened in the spring of 2021 and is run by the owners of Grace Street Catering. For several months, it was on my list of new restaurants to try, but I’d forgotten about it, in part, because of the location. It’s easy to get dazzled by the goings-on in Temescal or Uptown. It sits on a corner lot across the street from a freeway entrance that seems like an unlikely spot for a neighborhood restaurant. But after trying The Rendez-Vous right down the street, a night out there made a convincing case that diners ought to also seek out its Lovely Day neighbor.
The golden brown polenta bites ($9) arrive densely packed into a bowl. They look like oversized croutons and could provide salads everywhere with a delightful, gluten-free crunch. Made with a heady amount of a parmesan or parmesan-adjacent cheese, a small pot of sun-dried tomato jam was a nice but unnecessary dipping sauce. The jam didn’t detract from the warm, salty bites, but it didn’t complement them either. Abandoning the idea of Mt. Lassen trout ($34) served with lentils and beets, we ordered soothing plates of a vegetarian cassoulet ($30) and chicken milanese ($30).
Bay Area chefs are using their imaginations to make inventive vegetarian dishes that rival the flavors of meat dishes. Sprouts and quinoa have become outdated signifiers of the genre. Made with a base of gigante beans, I didn’t miss the usual pork elements in the cassoulet. The bowl was an elegant arrangement of orange shapes and orange shades. Skinny French carrots and Japanese turnips rested atop slices of delicata squash and rutabaga squares. Every bite was tinged with garlic and perfectly molten.
We could have ordered beef bourguignon ($42), a flat iron steak ($38) or a brisket sandwich ($22), but a breaded and fried chicken breast proved to be the absolute right choice. Instead of drowning the protein out, a mustard beurre blanc, dotted with capers, brought welcome notes of acid and a brine to the plate. The cooks are paying close attention to proportion and balance.
We finished the meal with a lemon custard, an uplifting combination of cream and citrus. Served with two homemade sugar cookies, they provided the pleasing crunch and texture of a crème brûlée. The first part of Lovely Day’s tagline reads, “elevated comfort food.” In practice, that means the kitchen takes precision seriously, but not to show off a set of skills. They’re transforming familiar dishes to make them taste memorable and craveable rather than entirely played out. Every dish we ate was beautiful, well-balanced and satisfying in a way that evokes adulatory sighs and smiles.
Lovely Day, open Wed to Sat 5–9pm. 4629 MLK Jr. Way, Oakland. 510.523.1600. lovelydayoakland.com.