Mockingbird brings simple, elegant, destination dining to downtown Oakland.
The charred Brussels sprouts, background, and the Moroccan spiced chicken, foreground, have become signature dishes.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
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A lot of cool stuff is happening food-wise in downtown Oakland these days. There’s the Japanese-style fried chicken of Abura-ya, the vegan sandwiches at Analog, and the falafel bar of Liba’s. There’s the delicious bounty inside the revitalized Swan’s Market in Old Oakland, while a cool new eatery seems to open every other day in Uptown.
But one thing the area has lacked is a signature restaurant: A place that can serve as a finer-dining destination that feels current but not stuffy (still a nonstarter for what remains an unpretentious East Bay dining crowd). You could make the argument for Flora, but if we’re being honest, the iconic eatery is showing its age a bit and recently stopped serving weekday lunch. No, despite the beehive of downtown activity, this is one culinary prize that remains very much up for grabs.
Enter Mockingbird. Or, re-enter I guess.
William Johnson and Melissa Axelrod stake their claim with their impressive restaurant, newly reopened in June on 13th Street across from the Tribune Tavern. The husband-and-wife team pulls off a neat balancing act: The vibe is upscale but still accessible, the food refined but still comforting, the service knowledgeable but still friendly. And it all seems to come about effortlessly.
But don’t be fooled: A lot of blood and sweat went into getting to this point. Longtime industry veterans Johnson and Axelrod spent years working at well-regarded San Francisco restaurants, including classics Delfina and Zuni, and set about creating something similar when they decided to open their own place in Oakland. They launched Mockingbird inside the New Parish music complex in 2013. Things were going smoothly when disaster struck: Due to a mix-up with the New Parish liquor license, it turned out Mockingbird could no longer sell beer and wine, a significant source of revenue.
They could, however, serve beer and wine. And so the couple doubled down on their food and took the rare step of allowing customers to bring in their own beer and wine free with no corkage fee. It was a bit of a Hail Mary but—locked into their lease and with a baby on the way—they didn’t have much of a choice. And against all odds, they survived, buying time for Johnson and Axelrod to find a new location, which they finally did in the former Ba Vo space downtown.
And perhaps because they spent so much time in a less-than-ideal setting, Johnson and Axelrod were better equipped to conceptualize and execute the kind of place they do want. Because they seem to have hit the ground running, packing in the downtown lunch and happy hour work crowd—I saw what looked to be more than a few business meals—while drawing steady dinner service.
First of all, the restaurant is a beauty. The renovated interior gives off an industrial-Scandinavian vibe, mixing accents of blonde wood, exposed brick, colorful oversized Keith Haring-esque paintings, and, prominently, two huge A-framed steel beams fronting the bar. There are a few options for seating, including the open main dining room and a small back mezzanine overlooking it, plus a bar and “lounge” section with high-top tables facing front windows that fold open on warm days. (It should be noted that the bar and lounge chairs, while pretty, are a bit too short for the dining surfaces, to the point where I half considered requesting a booster seat.)
As for the food, Mockingbird serves what I’d consider modern California cuisine with French, Italian, and North African influences. And it does it really well: Dishes are fresh, uncomplicated, light but full of flavor, comforting, and expertly prepared. A couple of starters in particular are worth the visit by themselves. First, is the duck liver mousse: The custard-like texture and not-too-rich, buttery finish spiked with sea salt and olive oil is an absolute pleasure. On my visit, the dish included a side of macerated strawberries, which contrasted the liver beautifully. The second must-order app is the Brussels sprouts, justifiably one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. They are fiercely flash fried, loosening up the dense layers of sprout leaves and adding a flavorful black char exterior while leaving the interior pale-green and moist. Sharp elements like creamy garlic aoli, tangy blue cheese, and sweet saba (cooked-down grape juice similar to balsamic) compete for attention but meld together into addictive harmony on the palate. Yum.