Saffron and Soul
Canales offers Iberian-improv excitement with a jazz beat
It’s not nice to assume that you will hate a restaurant you haven’t yet visited, especially if it’s beautiful and friendly and you are soon to learn firsthand that it serves the best freaking meatballs you have ever eaten in your life—and you have eaten many, many meatballs.
It’s not nice; it’s not fair; but when stories started spreading about how acclaimed chef Paul Canales, formerly of Oliveto, had teamed up with jazz promoter Rocco Somazzi to create a 4,000-square- foot Spanish-inspired Uptown restaurant/bodega/ music club, a nightspot named Duende (next door to Oakland’s famous Flora) whose fashionably salvaged-wood tables are fashionably mere inches apart and which after its January opening has been thronged with paella-craving, Rioja-sipping hipsters, I thought: I will hate this place.
Put through the honesty filter, this means: I will be intimidated by it, because in its big- windowed, wooden-floored grandeur—the old space was gutted, with Oakland’s Arcsine Architecture helming the redesign—Duende joins that steadily increasing, ever-more-interesting Oakland league of Ersatz Elsewhere Hipster Hubs.
These are restaurants that evoke some cool, distant, trendy elsewhere: culinary magic carpets, if a little 1 percentish, in a Dahling, let’s do Barcelona tonight way. I am too cynical. A glass of sherry will help.
EEHHs are distinguished by hefty prices, exotic cocktails (for instance, Duende’s Buried Mirror: mezcal, oloroso sherry, pineapple gomme syrup), black-on-black color schemes (at Duende, dotted with murals), actual trash nailed to walls (in Duende’s case, used paint containers), exposed ceiling ductwork (hardware as décor)and edgy meats. Some of the most popular items at Duende involve pork trotters, rabbit and duck liver, and other animal parts not common to supermarket meat aisles, such as Duende’s in-demand lenguas y orejas (pork tongues and ears) served with salsa diablo.
Our table was mere inches from its neighbor, close enough to let us hear strangers saying that the rabbit in their paella really did taste like chicken. Our server patiently answered questions, described dishes, never acted condescending: Such behavior is not standard Ersatz Elsewhere Hipster Hubness, thus a plus. Despite the crowd that night (reservations are strongly recommended), our pintxos (Basque for tapas; Canales’ heritage is Basque on his father’s side) arrived soon: dazzlingly green-on-green-on-green ensalada de col—savoy cabbage, olives, muscular Minorcan Mahón cheese and pistachios. Earthy-tangy, frilly-firm, it conjures picnics on hot cliffs with ocean views. Pure EEHH magic. At Duende, whose name means “elf” or the state of having soul, it works.
The magic happens here through a vast variety of Spanish wines and an ever-shifting selección of Iberian-improv dishes merging local, seasonal ingredients and culinary open-mindedness with eye-poppingly bold, sun-soaked Spanish concepts—influenced, as Spain itself has been, by France, Morocco, Italy, and beyond. Which gives us sobrasada: paprika-pinkened spreadable chorizo, served with house-made pickles. Txipirones: crispy baby squid, served with a slow-cooked egg. Saffron-kissed marinated swordfish escabeche. Cured Catalonian-style butifarra sausage, crafted according to one of Iberia’s most ancient recipes.
In a huge earthenware vessel, pork-leek albóndigas jostled hedgehog mushrooms in a sea of broth so generous and meaty that you could— with the airy bread waiting in baskets—happily eat only that. Four cueball-sized meatballs: seared outside, meltingly tender inside. How can pork be so fluffy? How can meatballs make you feel majestically fed and about to float away?
Imagine mi sorpresa. Rather than hate Duende, I wanted to live there. Find a hiding place under the bar or in the black-on-black bathroom.
More magic in pintxo form: soft, smoky, scarlet pebrots farcits, Catalonian-style stuffed peppers. Red piquillo purses packed with cumin-spiked and currant-studded lamb, lending—in looks and taste—new meaning to the word “sweethearts.” Then came canalones, creamy Iberian blintzes stuffed with spinach, porcini mushrooms, and peak-of-the-season sunchokes. Satisfying, if one of very few meatless offerings. In his platos familiares—main courses, which must be ordered by parties of two or four— Canales flaunts the flesh: Bomba-rice arroz negro includes black cod, cuttlefish ink, allioli (aioli), and fennel. Toasted fideua noodles are made with duck, olives, and nettles. Rabbit-and- Manila-clam-crowned paella. Tomahawk steak.
Duende’s westernmost portion is restaurant and bar; its easternmost portion is mezzanine-level music venue and street-level bodega, a Spanish-style cafe that stays open from early morning until closing time. By day, the bodega serves Ici ice cream (Canales wife is Ici owner Mary Canales) along with house-baked pastries (churros, cake), satiny-smooth Verve Coffee (Blue Bottle, watch your back.) and Spanish wine, which is also sold retail. At a tasting booth, a polite Spanish sommelier gave me a sherry lesson. Like every employee I met at Duende, he was well-informed and friendly, discussing Amontillado and Moscatel with a gleam of pride, as one might discuss a secret club.
Furnished with several tall chairless tables—stand up, Señor, and sip your steaming cortado like a soldado—and two highly coveted tables-with-chairs, the bodega is a serene, sophisticated, sun-streaked, and casually comfortable retreat. (Also on sale is house-pressed olive oil.) At 5:30 p.m., when the restaurant opens, its fare can be eaten in the bodega—most likely, standing up.
Which is how we tucked into buñuelos (delightful shrimp-mango donuts shaped like cartoon clouds), terrina de conejo (exciting rabbit-and-duck-liver paté slabs, jauntily topped with scrumptious Meyer-lemon marmalade) and membrillo y quesos (Mahón, Idiazabal, and Valdeón cheeses with their perfect counterpoint: a wedge of smooth, sweet quince jam; this dish is available both as a pintxo and as a dessert).
Nestled in sharp-tangy allioli—Duende’s marigold-hued version of aioli—came a generous serving of patatas bravas: bite-sized crispy- outside, tender-inside potato morsels. How rare, in this Tater Tot nation, to actually taste potatoes in their semi-sweet, explosive tuberosity. In a restaurant that serves pickled herring and brûléed goat’s-milk cheese, not to mention trotters and cheeks, this pintxo is arguably Duende’s most familiar dish.
We finished up with flan. Flanked by juicy blood-orange wedges, this transcendent disc matched the albóndigas in its miraculous, inexplicable lightness. Putting down our spoons, we really could have flown home.
Duende Restaurant & Bodega Spanish
468 19th St., Oakland, 510-893-0174 | www.duendeoakland.com
Restaurant and Bar serves dinner
5:30–10 p.m. Sun.–Mon. and Wed.–Thu. and 5:30–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat.
Bodega serves cafe snacks
7 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon. and Wed.–Thu.; 7 a.m.–11 p.m. Fri.; 9 a.m.–11 p.m. Sat.; 9 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.