The saddest news I could share is that the best, most delicately fried soft-shell crab I’ve ever tasted has already come off the menu at Mägo, Mark Liberman’s new bistro on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. Out, out, brief eight-legged candle; those wretched sea bugs have had the unmitigated gall to grow new carapaces. Desperate, I ordered soft-shell crab with my cousin at a waterfront bar-and-grill in New Jersey a week later, and of course it was a wan comparison, obviously defrosted as well as over-battered and basically flavorless, but every other crab is going to be flavorless compared to Mägo’s, because guess what? It was a Nashville soft-shell crab, fiery as Nashville fried chicken, served over stone fruit to cool you off at the end.
Oh well. In fact, almost everything from two weeks ago is off the menu already, because the concept behind Mägo is that the kitchen rejiggers things on a weekly basis for the 52 micro-seasons that Northern California affords us.
That level of hyper-local hyper-temporality sounds like it could result in total chaos. And Liberman had a rough go of it in San Francisco the last few years, with SoMa’s splashy AQ closing in 2017 after a respectable run but adjacent Fénix sputtering out quickly after its predecessor, another Liberman project called TBD, fell victim to a fire. But he’s tough, which is maybe why he put an umlaut over the a in the name of this newest endeavor, which is Spanish for “magician.”
A better name for it might be “Träbajo” or “Öbrador,” because what you’re really tasting is hard work and thoroughness, right down to a website that thanks everybody that toiled on it — even the soap purveyor. Take a summer bean salad made with bafflingly underused dragon beans, a soft-boiled egg, some kelpy greens, and “strawberry mojo” (which sounds like a vape pod, but really it’s more of an essence). It’s a fantasy of textures, wholly unlike any other summer salads out there, and if it could talk it probably wouldn’t shut up about where it was foraged and sourced. A charred squash with just a whisper of anchovy and plenty of tahini had the intriguing mouthfeel of ripe apple, while a sweeter-than-any-cantaloupe Sharlyn melon salad came stacked like Lincoln Logs or maybe a bonfire with a jalapeño relish acting as the kindling. Unbelievably, it’s only $5.
There are a handful of errors, like a ratatouille toast that’s more of a wet cake, or the annoyingly under-ripe chunks of tomato in an heirloom tomato salad that was otherwise a great melange of bacon and cherry. A couple of the cocktails are a bit steroidal, like a kombu martini that wants to play up the herbaceousness of gin only to drown it in seawater. (“Brine” is an ingredient.) And another thing: The Otra Cosa, made with mezcal, sweet chili, a house-made version of Chartreuse, egg white, and lemon, was much saltier than those ingredients would suggest — although in an appealingly palate-prepping way.
Liberman and head chef Ben Serum’s emphasis on seasonality isn’t absolute, as a gnocchetti with five-hour pork sugo time-traveled from bleakest February and everyone who got some of those little potato pillows was the better off for it. A mushroom brodo — still on the menu! — is not what anyone would have expected, an enoki broth beneath a black truffle-flecked cream-of-mushroom soup. Dessert does the shrewd thing, offering “ripe cheeses from near and far” — the province of Liberman’s wife and co-owner, Theresa — plus gratifying and immensely seasonal treats like a corn pot de crème with blueberry and a lime granita. It’s crumbles on top of other crumbles that merge together so that you almost think you’re eating a really good pie filling.
Too ambitious to be purely a neighborhood restaurant, Mägo might also be characterized by what it lacks, which is lily-gilding or money-grubbing ostentatiousness like you increasingly see in San Francisco. A $22 black truffle supplement seems to come and go, and if the one large-format dish happens to be a $100 rabbit, it could be a $48 chicken al mattone weeks later. The vibe is friendly, with a bar opposite the open kitchen and overt camaraderie among the staff (whom you might bump into next door at The Lodge after they get cut). A big purple mural crowns the space, of a woman in a top hat who looks slightly like Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. She’s conjuring some sort of sea creature with pink thistles in its purple tentacles. But maybe “conjuring” gives the wrong idea, since it suggests trickery or deceit, and there’s none of that here.
Mägo, 3762 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-344-7214 or magorestaurant.com