For decades, Oakland’s Uptown was a ghostly, decrepit shadow of those early-20th-century glory days when the streets were lined with bustling bars and restaurants, shoppers descended on I Magnin and Capwell’s, and the Fox and the Paramount set new standards for opulence. But after several years of wind-swept parking lots and empty street corners, the avenues and boulevards north of downtown have evolved into an up-and-coming community bustling with energy, redevelopment projects, and upscale cafes and apartment complexes. Now there’s also an anchoring restaurant worthy of the neighborhood’s aspirations.
Picán, a strikingly elegant eatery at the base of the new Broadway Grand residential complex, celebrates the neighborhood’s rich African-American heritage with a menu of classic Southern and soul-food specialties reimagined in a sophisticated California setting. Owner Michael LeBlanc, a New Orleans native, comes to the restaurant business after 26 years in the business world and, more recently, cofounding Brothers Brewing Company, the country’s first African-American brewery. His restaurant serves the time-honored dishes he grew up with in a setting reminiscent of an antebellum mansion, an airy, high-ceilinged expanse of pecan wood, French doors, wrought-iron filigrees, and the timeless sound of jazz.
The first thing you notice when you walk in the door is the handsome thirty-foot bar of limestone and crushed pecan shells, and the Bay Area’s widest-ranging array of single-barrel bourbons. You can sip ’em neat with a water back, as God and Faulkner intended, but many a classic cocktail employs corn liquor as its base, and this is the place to enjoy two or three of them. Picán’s mint julep, for instance, features silky Evan Williams black label and just enough ice, rock-candy syrup, and fresh mint leaves to transport you southward, porch swing, sultry weather and all. (Beware the Mint Julep Minis though, harsh, overly sweet little shots poured from a bottled julep mix.) Another time-honored Southern libation, the sazerac of New Orleans, is even better: a smoothly balanced, light yet potent rendition fragrant with cognac, bitters, rye whiskey, and orange peel.
A luscious way to kick off your meal is with a bowl of she-crab soup, the South Carolina specialty that employs the roe of the female blue crab for its mildly sea-foamy flavor. Picán’s rendition was terrific, a silky-creamy bisque touched with fresh crabmeat, a potent dollop of sherry, and just enough chili pepper to leave a pleasant afterglow. The “Southern Foie Gras” is actually pan-fried chicken livers, densely textured, a bit overdone, and tastily if heavily accented with shallots, bacon, and a marsala-scented gravy. But the maple-glazed pork belly was a sweet, smoky slab of beautifully charred bacon meat, crisp on the outside, lush and juicy within; a runny poached egg; and a brisk salad of pea shoots and tender little black-eyed peas accenting things nicely.
Two classic Southern dishes lead off the entrées. Cliché notwithstanding, the tender pigmeat on the barbecued ribs literally fell off the bone, and its sauce — sweet with molasses and redolent of hickory smoke — left just a bit of tongue-tingling heat on the palate. Sharing the plate was a generous helping of spiky jalapeño-edged coleslaw crunchy with peanuts. The fried chicken, meanwhile, was brined for three days before its date with the buttermilk batter and deep fryer, resulting in wonderfully succulent meat and a light and crunchy crust. But what really made the dish special was the honey. For an extra $2 your server will drizzle your drumsticks with truffle-infused bumblebee nectar, and its earthy, grassy, smoky-sweet flavor made a marvelous contrast to the subtly spiced fowl. The chicken came with a tiny iron skillet of creamy mac ‘n’ cheese with a crunchy crust and the sweet, sharp flavor of smoked gouda.
The Corvina bass, was perfectly seared until moist and meaty, but outshone by its accompaniments, a bed of buttery stone-ground grits rich with crabmeat, and a fresh and lively salad of shaved al dente asparagus tips and a citrus vinaigrette. With our entrées we had squares of feathery cornbread ribboned with meal and a platter of the restaurant’s California Collards, a misguided attempt to sauté greens the healthy West Coast way instead of simmering them for a nice long time with ham hocks and fatback; the result was a plate of tough, chewy leaves and pot likker not worth the dipping.
Given the flair and élan of Picán’s savory dishes, the desserts were surprisingly lackluster. The sticky-bun bread pudding, while serviceable, didn’t offer that voluptuously succulent level of comfort usually associated with this Creole classic. The restaurant’s name demands that the Georgia pecan chocolate tart should be the pecan pie to end pecan pies, but it was prim, polite, low on the nutmeats, and barely touched with chocolate. (That crowning scoop of buttermilk ice cream sure was nice, though.) Our favorite dessert was the good old root beer float, not only for its yummy root beer (Abita’s fizzy, robust example of the genre sweetened with raw Louisiana sugar cane) but its totally complementary sassafras ice cream. The float came with two big pecan pralines that were all buttery, bourbon-y, brown-sugary goodness.
Picán shows off its California side with an extensive selection of vegetarian-friendly menu items. Starters include a spring mix with toasted pecans and cornbread croutons, a cucumber salad with feta and arugula, and a hybrid Caesar involving fried okra and parmesan-grits croutons. Among the entrées are an elaborate vegetable plate with fried green tomatoes, buttermilk mashed potatoes, and an array of local seasonal veggies; or you can make a meat-free meal out of the menu’s half-dozen side dishes (mac ‘n’ cheese, California Collards, peanut-jalapeño coleslaw, grilled asparagus, buttermilk mashed potatoes, and stone-ground grits).
There are several hidden treasures on the 64-item wine list. Picán also has its own pale ale on tap, bottled Abita Turbodog and Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager from the old country, plus fifteen other top-shelf brews. And then there’s all that bourbon.