The most fabulous Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made, Charade is a 1963 screwball-suspense caper pairing Cary Grant with Audrey Hepburn. It takes place mostly in Paris, but if in their quest to avoid the criminals on their tail the protagonists had jetted to California, they probably would have dined at someplace like Bardo Lounge & Supper Club in an underappreciated neighborhood along Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue.
Simply put, there’s almost no better atmosphere in any restaurant in the Bay Area, old or new — especially compared to Bardo’s downstairs lounge. Somehow, maybe because of all the little arrangements of couches and tables, it avoids that mustn’t-touch-anything feeling, but it’s also not so casual that everybody’s getting served food on mismatched granny china from Goodwill, either. Their musical performances seem a little irregular, but there is a unity of vision here that’s really impressive, from the glassware to the mirrored objets to the walls. That framed print of a black panther sleeping on a tropical branch that’s set against another, clashing tropical print? Pretty sneaky, sis.
Mad Men has become a tired trope, but this is Joan liberated from the den of vipers in the secretarial pool. It’s the best of circa-1964 America without any tackiness to speak of. If you want to play fancy-pants date night with your significant other, get dressed up real pretty-like and come here. I do not entirely understand the name, which suggests the misty Tibetan Buddhist limbo between life and rebirth. But if husband-and-wife owners Seth and Jenni Bregman mean for us to eat here and then fling ourselves back into the wide world feeling rejuvenated, then OK.
If you prefer carne to reincarnation, there’s plenty for you, as chefs Anthony Salguero and Brian Starkey’s menu modernizes the components of a dinner party from the last days of black-and-white TV. The pleasure of hunting for bones in the grilled bass collar ($15) is very real, and the garlic-fennel notes to the farro provide support without fighting the star attraction. That it’s all in a fish jus only intensifies the bass-iness without imparting excess fishiness. It wouldn’t be out of place at Angler. Salguero and Starkey are very adroit at drawing what they need from long and sometimes bizarre permutations of ingredients — porcupine meatballs with grilled lettuce? OK, hit me — and without overdoing it.
“Country-fried” is the ultimate signifier of rusticity, but there’s nothing down-home about fried quail over lightly truffled grits and intensely bitter mustard greens. If anything, the seasoning reminded me of the fried chicken at Roy Rogers when I was a kid, a reference that few people in San Francisco will probably appreciate but which I mean as a compliment. Plus there’s pork jowl in there — maybe that’s the country part — although somehow, it, too, doesn’t feel in any way intrusive.
The broccolini casserole ($12)? There’s so much gruyere and mustard in there that it’s practically a gratin. Even a salad melange ($14) gets imaginative, tossing plenty of tarragon onto a rectangular log of bleu cheese with a lovely if artificial texture, next to soft-boiled eggs of the kind that usually come with ramen. Only occasionally do all these risks fail to pay off, as in the pork shoulder with vadouvan curry, XO sauce, and some too-crisp brassicas, all of which was somehow tender and dry at the same time. Flecked with too many sesame seeds, its vaguely Asian flavor went every which way. But at least they’re taking those risks.
Upstairs is a little different. The three-course, $59 prix fixe — from which the lounge’s a la carte dishes are taken — gives you three-to-five options to choose among for each. Set opposite a yogurt-y horseradish pudding, a dish of grilled beets red-shifted toward pomegranate in the form of fresh seeds and anardana, their powdered equivalent. As if foie gras couldn’t make cacio e pepe supremely creamy on its own, Bardo’s is also made with Beemster — and yet the effect is umami-gentle rather than cloying. And if you assumed ingredients as disparate as lobster and cocoa nibs would produce dissonant notes, they cohere in an oxtail ragout that, by the way, also has sunchokes. The downside, if this bothers you, is that it the harmony doesn’t always extend to all five senses. The “ragout” is basically a pile of ingredients in a broth — delicious, but inelegantly presented without even the crutch of “deconstruction” to fall back on.
Who’s bold enough to serve soup for dessert? Bardo is. The brown butter cashew soup ($8) is almost comically decadent, not least because a server or bartender will patiently pour the soup on thick. It’s almost too rich to handle, sticking to your teeth like toffee brittle and full of chocolate and poached pears. By all rights, it ought to implode, but it doesn’t, grounded as it is by the nuts and the crème fraîche. Everyone involved is digging deep into vintage cookbooks, brushing aside those postwar dessert horrors made with Jell-O and mayonnaise.
Mid-century cocktails are a hinge, because the reappraisal of martinis at the dawn of this century is what set everything we drink today in motion. But at Bardo, they’re separated into shaken and stirred categories, with the actual mid-century list pared down to only three, including a razor-sharp Vesper (vodka, gin, Cocchi Americano, and grapefruit bitters) next to a Harvey Wallbanger that walks back the I-dare-you quotient with dill simple syrup. Seth Bregman tended bar at Stookey’s Club Moderne on Nob Hill, another venue that sticks the landing without overshooting, and so even the non-alcoholic drinks have a strong pulse. The $8 Above the Clouds combines almond coconut milk, lemon juice, and a citrus-agave nectar into a milk punch with hints of nutmeg and only a trace of sweetness.
In all, Bardo is basically an instant classic that succeeds in channeling the classics. Only after multiple visits do you catch any glimpse of a restaurant too married to its own conceit. You might have to hear the same version of “The Girl from Ipanema” twice in 45 minutes, for instance. But for sophistication and joie de vivre, this is the place. There are probably mistier netherworlds to stagger around.
Bardo Lounge & Supper Club, 3343 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland, 510-836-8737 or bardooakland.com