Tough Times for the Oakland Museum of California’s Blue Oak Cafe

The cafe pales in comparison to Babette at Berkeley Art Museum. Plus gluten-free bread goes mobile.

If you fail to be at all charmed by bike-powered entrepreneurship, then your little black heart may well be beyond redemption. Whether it’s an eco-powered three-wheeler serving up tacos and breakfast burritos (El TacoBike) or shade-grown coffee beans delivered by former Wall Street Guys (Bicycle Coffee), bike delivery gives a twee boost to any product’s appeal.

Bread Srsly, the vowel-impaired new venture by Sadie Scheffer, gets further charm points with its “meet cute” backstory. Scheffer, a former engineering student, started tinkering with gluten-free baking recipes to win the heart of a boy (awwww). She shared “many a lunch of uninspiring GF toast” with the object of her affection before finding a recipe that worked.

Later, when she got more serious about baking, Scheffer started having unpleasant reactions to some of her ingredients, namely tapioca starch, potato, and garbanzo. This spurred her on to a new mission, creating bread for people with all types of dietary restrictions. Her breads are now free of wheat, dairy, egg, nut, soy, potato, and tapioca. She also bakes custom loaves for customers with uncommon sensitivities.

I recently tried some of Scheffer’s apricot cinnamon bread, and some lemon poppyseed muffins. They’re dense, heavy-duty numbers, subtly flavored and not too sweet. A bit hearty for my taste, but they weren’t too bad toasted up for breakfast with a little butter (I’m sure a non-dairy substitute would work, too). Also: Nothing beats an old-timey home bread delivery.

Scheffer bikes her goods all over the East Bay on Thursdays. Visit to pre-order.

Tough Times at the Blue Oak Cafe

This week’s review was initially going to be a battle royale between Oakland and Berkeley to determine which city has the best museum cafe. The contest would have pitted Babette at the Berkeley Art Museum against the Oakland Museum of California’s Blue Oak Cafe. As it turned out, they weren’t playing in the same league.

During the Oakland Museum overhaul in 2010, Blue Oak was installed with Chef Robert Dorsey (Bay Wolf, Blackberry Bistro) running the kitchen. “The way to the heart of the Oakland Cultural Renaissance may well be through the palate,” said Dorsey in a loquacious press release. “What an amazing affirmation of the importance of food to the stories of our state to have a restaurant … embedded in the beautifully refurbished museum.”

The Blue Oak Cafe would offer items like Dorsey’s signature shrimp and grits, Thai curry noodles, and grilled portabella mushrooms, a welcome departure from milquetoast museum food. Ingredients would be sourced locally (of course), with some coming from a community garden Dorsey planned to start.

But when I arrived at Blue Oak on a recent Wednesday afternoon, I got “cafeteria food” vibes from the start. The first thing I saw was a refrigerated cooler filled with pale, packaged salads and soda. Behind the counter, small, pre-made sandwiches sat shrink-wrapped on sheet pans. An industrial vat of potato leek soup burbled near the cash register, next to a basket of green bananas.

I ushered my lunch date outside to the sunny patio, for a meal that was … singularly unremarkable. Cold grilled chicken and tri-tip sandwiches were served on dry, food-service focaccia squares. The red tint of an achiote marinade gave visual personality to the otherwise dull chicken in a sandwich you might get at Starbucks. The tri-tip fared about the same.

The soup was fine, if a bit gummy, followed by the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of side salads. It was teeny-tiny, soupy with vinaigrette, half the greens were wilted, and the one gigantic tomato wedge was rock-hard. The meal’s brightest spot was dessert: a moist vanilla bean cupcake with buttercream frosting and white chocolate bits, and a tangy little lemon bar flaking off light, buttery shards of crust.

When I asked to speak with the chef, I was directed to a woman who said, “Are you from the newspaper? I have a story for you!” This woman, who gave only a first name of Niloufer, had taken over as manager after Dorsey left in December. She said the departure had come as a shock, as his food had been popular and he was much-loved by everyone in the kitchen.

Dorsey is still listed as the Blue Oak chef on both his personal website and the Oakland Museum’s, so I had expected his cuisine on my visit. Now the standard-issue cafeteria food seemed more understandable; Niloufer said she’s still learning how to run her own kitchen, and she clearly deserves a little room to grow. (Dorsey told me by phone that he’s now working on a community garden at the Lake Merritt Garden Center, as well as an undisclosed project in Orinda.)

So if you find yourself hungry at the Oakland Museum anytime soon, baked goods are probably your safest bet — Niloufer interned at Chez Panisse’s pastry program before coming to Blue Oak.

Gluten-Free and Bike-Delivered

Editor’s Note: A prior version of this story misstated that Niloufer took over as chef at the Blue Oak Cafe after Dorsey’s departure. In fact, she took over as manager. This version has been corrected to reflect the change.

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