By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
I missed a certain élan in execution and excitement in conception that I'd experienced with the dishes I'd had at Gordon's, but my fellow eaters weren't subjecting their dinners to invidious comparison; they were enjoying their meals on their own terms, instead of saying to themselves, "Well, this is quite a good braised lamb shank, but not as voluptuous as the three long-cooked meats I had at Gordon's last week." The grilled prime flat-iron steak was full of flavor and came with a rich potato-Gruyère gratin. One sister loved her plump, house-made spinach tortelloni under a light tomato-rosemary cream, though the other thought her "bouillabaisse" of sea scallops, Manila clams, and calamari was not really a bouillabaisse, nor particularly good on its own merits. I was happy with my roasted chicken tinted pale orange with achiote and served with salsa verde. As good as anything I had at Gordon's was the grilled pork tenderloin, two daringly rosy, huge hunks of it, paired with an impossibly light garlic flan and a freshly made Bosc pear chutney.
Our contentment continued with dessert. The pistachio baked Alaska, ringed with buttery caramel and chocolate sauces, was impressive with its carefully browned peaks of meringue, and, under a too-thick crust, the Kahlúa crème brûlée was perfectly fine. The star was the panna cotta, snow-white, barely gelled, cooked cream faintly perfumed with lemony verbena, flecked with black specks of vanilla bean, and decorated with bright pomegranate seeds and segments of cara cara oranges, a new one on me. (I find that they're also known as red navel oranges, with "a bright orange peel and pink-raspberry colored flesh." Very pretty next to the custard.)
It's happened that I've dined at restaurants on their very last day of existence, but it's not a practice that I would recommend. I remember an especially uncomfortable evening at Nickodell's, an old-fashioned eatery near the Paramount Studios in L.A., when the waitresses were tripping over TV cables as network field anchors shoved microphones into hapless diners' faces as we supped on badly shucked, warm oysters and Caesar salads that were the shadow of their former selves. Gordon's was still a couple of weeks away from its shuttering when Cathy, Jay, and I returned for our valedictory dinner; no slacking was evident in the food we ate, though the service suffered a little. (Our charming and hard-working waitress did tell us that the restaurant was short-staffed; "I think they may have found other jobs.") With every yummy mouthful of the crisp-crusted seafood hash topped with cold green beans and sided by a hot, spicy fresh tomato sauce that Gordon's called "tomato butter" (a wildly original plate of food), and the tofu stewed with baby bok choy and shiitake mushrooms in a coconut-milk red curry fragrant with lemongrass (the best rendition of that dish I'd tasted), I mourned the loss of this delightful restaurant. The second plate of fresh doughnuts and a tiny apple crumb pie that was better than any other apple crumb pie of my acquaintance riled me rather than soothed me.
Oakland, CA 94607
Region: Jack London Square
Smoked chicken and vegetable barley soup $6.50/lunch, $6.75/dinner
Portobello mushroom sandwich $7.95
Achiote roasted half-chicken $15.75
Grilled pork tenderloin $15.50
Prime flat-iron steak $17.95
Panna cotta $5.95
Restaurant open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner Monday through Wednesday from 5 to 8 p.m. (last reservation) and Thursday and Friday from 5 to 9 p.m. (last reservation)
Bar open for snacks Monday through Friday from 3 to 5 p.m.
Closed Saturday and Sunday
Reservations accepted for parties of two or more
Parking: Verbena validates after 5 for the City Center Garage at 11th and Clay streets, easy at other times
Noise level: moderate
But then an impromptu lunch at Verbena with Cathy and her mom cheered me up quite a bit. This time the room was entirely full -- as good a sign as Cathy spooning up every bit of her smoked chicken and vegetable barley soup with toasted pine nuts with exclamations of delight ("This is a really good soup!"). I surprised myself by likewise finishing every morsel of my peppery, well-dressed watercress salad ennobled with bright chunks of poached quince and candied pecans. The kitchen sweetly made us yet another, yes, Brussels sprouts salad, which we'd inquired about on the phone when we called that morning (the staff had already prepped the ingredients for dinner). I wasn't thrilled with the cracker crust on my chorizo pizza, but the grilled portobello sandwich was as meaty as any I've ever had, cleverly dressed with chopped red cabbage and accompanied by freshly made potato chips dusted with allspice and chili powder. I remembered that brilliant pork with the garlic flan and the Bosc pear chutney with pleasure. And the lovely panna cotta. Verbena isn't Gordon's, but it's good.