Charmed by Rico Rivera’s Almond & Oak
The future bodes well for the former Penrose when diners discover Almond & Oak’s revitalizing charms under its new chef-owner.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
When Rico Rivera staked claim to his own restaurant, Almond & Oak, at the end of 2018, he had a few significant advantages over most first-time chef-owners. He was taking over a going concern, with uninterrupted service as the business changed hands, in a thriving neighborhood. He was inheriting one of Oakland’s hippest and most beautiful dining spaces with little or no need for redesign or refurbishment. He had been working in the kitchen for several months as the sale, announced last July, went through on Dec. 28, and some staff members from the previous operation stayed on while others followed him from his previous gig.
But Rivera also assumed an unenviable burden. The restaurant he bought was the once tremendously popular Penrose, which Charlie Hallowell opened in 2013 as the third eatery in an empire that has since been tarnished and broken up in the wake of dozens of accusations of sexual harassment against Hallowell. The beleaguered chef-entrepreneur sold his Boot & Shoe Service to a former employee and her husband in April 2018, and business had slacked at Penrose by the time he sold it to Rivera.
When we made two dinner visits to Almond & Oak in February, the name-change had not yet taken place on the signage, the menus, or the website. The top of check read: “PENROSE (soon to be Almond and Oak).” That may have accounted for every reservation time being available on Open Table for any day we checked and the restaurant lacking the clamorous din that had been unabated the previous five years. Nonetheless, our experiences on both nights boded well for the future, when diners — including those who still steer clear of anything associated with Hallowell — discover Almond & Oak’s revitalizing charms.
Rivera was clearly ready to run his own place. The East Oakland native graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, worked with high-profile chefs in Boston (Michael Schlow at Great Bay) and New York (Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern), and spent five years working for Hallowell at Pizzaiolo and eight years as executive chef at Flora. Now he can cook exactly how he wants, with his own staff of chefs, making maximum use of the wood-burning fireplace beneath the dramatic, translucent canopy that fans out over the open kitchen.
Rivera’s nightly offerings hover around two dozen items, featuring such snacks as spiced nuts ($4) and warm olives ($6), sides like mashed potatoes, marinated beets, and fire-roasted green beans or beet greens ($6-$7), and desserts that might include blood orange shortcake, chocolate semifreddo, or bergamot tart with black tea syrup (all $10). But the soul of the menu can be found in the sections of nine starters/small plates and six mains. That’s where we focused on our two visits. (Almond & Oak will likely attract crowds to its eclectic weekend brunches, which include eggs served with bacon, short ribs, or steak, pork belly benedict, fried chicken sandwich, shrimp and polenta, pozole, and vegetable hash ($14-$17).
We started our first dinner with grilled flatbread ($13), a Penrose staple that Rivera is wise to carry over, although in only one daily version. This one came with dollops of beet puree, eggplant purée, and yogurt for spreading or dipping, accented with a vibrant herb salad. We passed the plate back and forth, perhaps begrudgingly, and split a bowl of scrumptious, creamy roasted cauliflower soup topped with mushrooms and parsley oil ($10).
Robin found that the small plate of potato gnocchi ($17) served her well as an entrée. The perfectly cooked puffy pillows swam with delicata squash in a chunky beef and pancetta ragu. Grated pecorino Romano added tang, fried rosemary provided the herbal accent, and the crunch of crisp potato skins lent an element of surprise. I would have been jealous, but I was obsessed with my confit pork shoulder ($29), an elegantly rustic dish of fork-tender grilled meat complemented by the textures and flavors of spaetzle, roasted Brussels sprouts, and apples — raw shreds, roasted slices, and an apple sauce/cider reduction.
For bar manager, Rivera had smartly tapped the talents of his former Flora colleague Jon Prange. All through our first meal, Robin sipped a Sidecar with great satisfaction (she’s a demanding judge), and I nursed a Foreign Affair ($12), a kind of mezcal variation on a Sazerac and one of the gems of Prange’s then-newly-instituted craft cocktail program. I could hardly wait to try others, and on our second visit, skipping over the limited menu of interesting draft beers and wines by the glass, I did. We arrived early enough to partake of the 5:30-6:30 p.m. happy hour menu, which includes $2 oysters, a $10 martini and oyster combo, and a $25 “happy meal” of a burger, a shot, and a beer. I opted for a sweet, viscous $8 Old Fashioned, and Robin, a master margarita maker, was impressed by the bar’s $8 version. I followed up with a Harper Lee, a superbly balanced concoction like a Benedictine-tweaked Manhattan.
Rest assured, we did eat, and very well, indeed, starting with fried Brussels sprouts ($13) that stood out from the commonplace renditions with the addition of pears, frisée, Calabrian chile, garlic oil, pomegranate seeds, and grana cheese. Robin rated the hamburger, on a house-made pain de mie bun ($17, plus $2 for bacon), as one of Oakland’s best. It came with very good fries and bread-and-butter pickles. I was wowed by the fish and shellfish stew ($31), in which the natural flavor of the clams, mussels, white fish, scallops, and shrimp were allowed to shine — along with al dente bok choy and giant garlic croutons — in a light, absinthe-scented broth. We finished with a serving of subtle but intriguing toasted peanut ice cream ($8) that made me think we might have to try the other desserts, but only after testing Rivera’s crab cakes, pan-seared squid, barley risotto with maitake mushrooms, and overnight-brined chicken with mashed potatoes.
On both nights we left Almond & Oak very happy, a feeling boosted by the facts that the tables were well spaced, the music stayed pleasantly in the background, the servers were gracious, alert, and efficient, and one of Oakland’s most attractive restaurants was in good hands, finding redemption through chef Rivera’s vision.
Almond & Oak
American. 3311 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-250-9550. Serves dinner Mon.-Thu. 5:30-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sun. 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., brunch Sat. & Sun. 10 a.m.-2 p.m., PenroseOakland.com. $$$–$$$$