Chef, podcaster, and cookbook author Cal Peternell worked under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse for more than two decades. Considering the prodigious kitchen talent that that restaurant has distributed across the Bay Area and the wider world since the early 1970s, a 22-year stint there feels like it might leave a talented cook almost bursting with unrealized ideas of their own. So now that Peternell is flying free with his own project, Old Oakland’s The Lede, he ought to have a home for dishes that never wormed their way into the world.
Granted, it’s not as though Peternell was starved for outlets for creative expression. But The Lede is so ordinary, and with such a miniscule menu, that it’s hard to figure out even when you see how small the kitchen is. The 19th-century building that once housed Pacific Coast Brewing until a couple of years ago is just too large for it.
The interior and the patio are sociable, almost cafe-like spaces where you could find yourself playing board games with friends (or nerding out with a book at a bar, as Peternell says he’s wont to do) and the art is great. But you want more than what’s here: a handful of salads and entrees, although the plate of Belgian endive with Meyer lemon, chervil, dill, creme frâiche, and steelhead roe is beautiful, snappy, and plentiful.
You want more than a list of five $12 cocktails that includes a margarita, a Negroni, a Manhattan, a choose-your-spirit highball, and — the only one with any imagination — a take on a mojito with hibiscus and moscato. (It’s called the “Peligrosos!” Needless to say, try it.)
The cauliflower fritters are a fine bar snack, the sardines in their tin with pickles and toast are too, but the duck ciccioli (a kind of pâté) is too sweet for the marmalade on top to balance it. A mustard seed salsa with the Sonoma County duck leg confit guarantees adventure on what’s otherwise a commonplace dish, but the surest bet is the satisfying torchio pasta with Monterey Bay squid, capers, tomato, and rosemary.
Happy hour on a warm day is what this place is built for, and not just because $4 bars are getting very hard to come by at other places. But happy hour is just that: a 60-minute window from five to six. Sheesh! I held off on writing about Peternell’s five-month-old project because it seemed like a fuller menu was bound to come out sooner or later. Instead, The Lede buried itself.
The Lede, 906 Washington St., Oakland, theledeoakland.com
Meanwhile, Blue Sunshine is a schlocky horror film about LSD that makes you go on a murder spree, but Blue Desert, the latest incarnation of chefs Andrew Greene and Duncan Kwitkor’s pop-up Abstract Table, is clearly on something. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, GastroPig in Uptown Oakland once again lays the bacon dependency aside and these cerebral visual-culinary artists take over.
The menu’s title refers to the sea, although whether its aquatic aridity means the ocean’s barren surface or the result of human over-fishing is for you to decide. It’s seafood, most of it Japanese and much of it clever verging on ingenious, although a dish or two feels like cool ingredients situated on a plate without much regard for how they might harmonize. A spiny lobster salad conceals itself amid jicama and bursts of candied Fresno chili so that it almost looks as though you’ve been deprived, while the seafood “cappuccino” is like scallop-whitefish chowder that’s been pureed to a foam with a subtle heat.
Not even pickled mandarin and a fennel gelee can hide the fact that branzino is too fatty to savor as a crudo, and you chew it wondering if they tried a ceviche first and found that didn’t work, but the following course — a mackerel served whole, the way branzino often is — feels like a riff on another unused idea. Maybe that’s reading too much into it, but it’s hard not to feel like Blue Desert is encouraging exactly that just as previous Abstract Tables like “Blizzard” and “Fine Dining on Paper” did, although never in a self-serious way. In any event, the vertically presented mackerel, anchored in sea-urchin creme and negi (green onion) rice with a bit of yuzu marmalade, is the best individual item.
Ono atop noodles as crispy as La Choy is another dare, like a collision of nigiri and molecular gastronomy, that you will probably enjoy in direct proportion to your desire to be challenged again and again. That they’re serving sharp and even offbeat wines like a Gaintza Tzakolina from the Basque Country means there’s not really a safe harbor for people who need one.
The prices have nudged up to five courses for $70 and seven for $90, which still represents a genuine bargain in comparison to its peers. So why no brick-and-mortar for Abstract Table, which has done several menus over more than a year? There’s going to be, Greene says, but he can’t talk too much about it yet other than that it will be in a high-traffic area of Oakland. His and Kwitkor’s vision is so singular that penciling it out in a large, full-time space might require some dilution, but if anyone is up to a challenge it’s them.
Blue Desert, Thursdays-Saturdays at The Gastropig, 2123 Franklin St., abstracttable.com