Michael LeBlanc Lands in Hayward With PLāYT
The New Orleans native puts a ‘Sideways Southern’ comfort food spin at the heart and soul of his Picán-bred PLāYT menu.
Photo by Lori Eanes
As owner Michael LeBlanc made his way from table to table at PLāYT Bar & Restaurant on a January weeknight, most of the restaurant’s business was taking place in the bar and lounge, separated from the main dining room by a low wall and a see-through chain-link curtain. The stereo in the bar was blaring contemporary R&B and dance music, much too loudly at times, but it was an old Leon Russell song that was playing in my head: “Stranger in a Strange Land.”
It was impossible not to recall LeBlanc making similar rounds, greeting a dapper and sophisticated crowd, during the heyday of Picán, the fashionable California-Southern restaurant he operated at Broadway and Grand in Oakland from March 2009 until June 2017. Part of an upscale Uptown renewal that came to include Ozumo, Plum, Calavera, and Agave, as well as a host of fast-casual eateries, Picán, like Ozumo, fell victim to the neighborhood’s success, its 6,000-square-foot space eventually proving impossible to fill consistently.
Although LeBlanc has said he hopes to reopen a downsized but equally refined Picán in Oakland in the future, the New Orleans native cropped up with PLāYT in Hayward almost immediately after Picán’s closure, transplanting as much of Picán as he could in the former home of Bijou Restaurant and Bar, which seats 65 in the dining room, 15 in the lounge, and 10 at the bar. LeBlanc brought along Picán chef Jerome “Spike” Williams, a Brooklynite who’d also cooked in Oakland at Chop Bar and FuseBOX; manager Trevor Little; a slew of familiar recipes and dishes; a bit of surplus stock from Picán’s encyclopedic library of American bourbons and whiskeys; and, judging from the hugs he shared with a few of the diners during our first visit, some of his former Picán regulars.
Gauging and accommodating the new neighborhood’s tastes is a work in progress. “We’re finding that Hayward’s not a whiskey town like Oakland,” Little told me. “It’s a vodka and Hennessy crowd, and more of a cocktail culture. But we’ll aim to offer 20 to 30 American bourbons, and at some point, we’d like to introduce a few flights.” But some things will take root and thrive just about anywhere, and that includes the “Sideways Southern” comfort food that’s the heart and soul of the Picán-bred PLāYT menu.
When I reviewed Picán in October 2009, I had to balance my wariness of the prices against my admiration for the elevated down-home cuisine and Picán’s identity as a welcoming hub for an Oaklandish affluent African-American and multicultural clientele. At PLāYT, it’s easy to drop $90 to $100 or more per couple for an indulgent repast of appetizers, entrées, drinks, and dessert, but is also easy to fill up for far less; cocktails are discounted to $7 during weekday happy hours, and none of the six or seven main dishes break the $25 threshold. Everything we ate at two dinners hit a sweet spot somewhere below Picán’s fine-dining aspirations and above what former Lafayette ribs-and-brisket king Bo McSwine called “suburbecue.”
“One of my customers calls this ‘Picán light,’” LeBlanc said when he chatted us up on our first visit, an accurate assessment that takes into account the scaled-back menu — no truffled honey to drizzle on the fried chicken, no complimentary cornbread, no Charleston she-crab bisque or pan-seared sea bass, a miniscule wine list — and the more casual vibe and service (precise and professional one night, hit and miss on another). Execution was consistently high and portions were reasonable to generous with everything we tried, from cocktails (a PLāYT Manhattan made with James E. Pepper rye, a classic Sazerac, a peach sidecar) through small plates (deep fried pickle spears, served with a Creole ranch dip and chili-pepper-spiked slaw; cornmeal-battered Carolina fish fingers, made with mild Asian catfish) to main dishes and dessert.
The fried chicken — boneless breast with wing attached (add a piece of dark meat for $3) — was tender, moist, and perfectly crusted. It sat on a white platter with a large dish of creamy, smoked Gouda mac ’n’ cheese and a side of pucker-inducing braised greens. The Sunday Supper meatloaf, served with garlic mashed potatoes and a heap of bright, spicy slaw, was a rich blend of ground beef and pork belly. A thick, dark, tangy, molasses barbecue sauce almost overwhelmed the meat, but it was addictive. I’m of the no-sauce, spice-rub-only school of barbecue, but I didn’t mind finding that sauce slathered all over my order of slow-smoked, meaty, St. Louis ribs (served with a cast-iron skillet of red beans and rice). I scooped up every remaining gooey drop after I devoured every scrape of super-tender, unctuous pork. For Robin, the highlight of our meals was the Georgia Wedge (one of five salads offered, all available with chicken, steak, or shrimp extras). The cold, crisp iceberg lettuce, abundance of crunchy bacon, passable winter tomatoes, and creamy blue cheese dressing added up to the best wedge she’s ever had—“like a BLT without the toast.”
When it came to dessert, we were told the options were bread pudding or chocolate lava cake, and we were too full to try either. LeBlanc later asked if we had tried the banana pudding. If only we had known … So on our second visit — during which the dining room was busier and the music had calmed down to classic soul and blues — we asked about the banana pudding, but it hadn’t been made that night. We “settled” for bread pudding, which was a block of crunchy and soft bread, apples, and huge scoop of soft vanilla ice cream, garnished with blueberries, centered on a sunburst of caramel, and dusted with powdered sugar. It put a wow-factor exclamation point on the dinner.
To some, trekking to downtown Hayward for dinner might feel like a stretch. But our commute down Interstate 580 was rewarded by all that we ate and drank at Picán in exile; I mean PLāYT. And much that we didn’t try — crispy Cajun calamari, Jamaican chicken skewers, shrimp and grits, Sideways gumbo, Bourbon St. burger with bacon jam and fried green tomato, Beaux Bridge flatbread with Andouille sausage and tasso ham — hold similar promise. Sometimes you have to drive south to get southern.
Southern,1036 B St., Hayward,
510-888-1092. Small plates, salads, flatbreads $9-$16, sandwiches $13-$16, mains $18-$24, desserts $8-$11, house cocktails $9-$11,
beer $6-$11, wines by the glass $8-$14, by the bottle $30-$45. Serves dinner, Tue.-Thu. 5-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-10:30 p.m., Sun. 3-8 p.m.
Happy hour Mon.-Fri. 5-7 p.m. PlaytOnB.com