It’s the Place for Vegans and Vegetarians
Jack London Square’s identity crisis — part tourist Mecca, part budding residential neighborhood — can be contagious. Fortunately, Encuentro has caught only the mildest case of split personality. “Encuentro” means to “encounter” or, as the red script on the back wall declares, “gather,” and this new cafe and wine bar, which opened in December 2009, has already established itself as a local hangout. Its biggest test will be coping with the fact that its superb vegetarian and vegan menu tips the restaurant toward destination status, which may eventually challenge the way Encuentro defines itself.
Situated a stone’s throw from the Oakland Amtrak station and the forever-forthcoming Jack London Market, Encuentro occupies the glassed-in corner of a modern industrial loft building. Founding owner/chef partners Eric Tucker, Lacey Sher and Linda Braz went for an unfussy look by keeping the raw concrete floor, leaving pipes and ducts exposed along the high black ceiling. They added a standup lamp and square box floor lamps to augment the lighting provided by pendants that hang from a white dropped ceiling above the bar.
The seating is informal as well — at two rectangular tables with wall benches at opposite corners of the room, at small cocktail tables with circular black stone tops and at the bar, where six tall chairs provide the best seats in the house. If you’re dropping in for a glass of wine and a snack — from goat cheese–stuffed prunes and marinated olives to plates of “real” (Humboldt Fog) and vegan (cashew and pumpkin seed) cheese — it may not matter much where you sit. But if you’re coming for a full dinner, as we did on two visits in February, and if your approach is to share a variety of “small bites,” salads, small plates and sandwiches, as ours was, then the ice cream parlor–style tables prove inadequate. The competition for real estate grew comical
when three of us and our server tried to find room for wine glasses, water glasses, small plates, large salad dishes and a soup bowl on a surface barely big enough for a game of solitaire. Robin and I fared slightly better when we returned by ourselves, mainly because we now knew to pace our ordering and were able to share just a dish or two at a time.
For serious eating, the laminated bamboo bar offers a deep surface, plenty of elbowroom and ready access to the gracious but sometimes overtaxed servers. And whatever else it might be, Encuentro is a place for serious eating. Tucker (executive chef at Millennium Restaurant in San Francisco), Sher (who owned her own restaurant in Red Bank, New Jersey) and Braz work magic with celery root, beets, mushrooms, beans, cauliflower, potatoes, cheeses and seasonings. (Watch for an explosion of green veggies and tomatoes on the menu as the seasons turn and the bounty in local markets expands.) They don’t go out of their way to emulate pork, chicken or beef — although there’s tempeh bacon in a sandwich with sun-dried tomato jam and romaine ($9); seitan sausage in a polenta special ($9) with kale flowers and butternut squash; tempeh sausage stuffed into mushrooms ($7) — because they know how to achieve richness and heartiness with ingredients that never had to confront the business end of a meat cleaver or boning knife.
We made our first visit on a wintry Friday night, when the outdoor chill and interior body heat made the floor-to-ceiling windows steam up completely. We got off to a good start with two halves of Uncle Eddie’s wild hen deviled eggs ($2), simply blended with chives, paprika and salt and pepper; four round seed-studded cheese crisps ($4) (think of the browned overflow from a grilled cheese sandwich); and a bottle of VinaRobles Red ($34) — a Petite Syrah/Syrah blend that our server accurately described as “red to the fourth.” We’d planned a deeper probe of the menu, but our next courses filled us up: a winter greens and blood orange salad ($8), with hazelnuts and hazelnut-vanilla oil; a farro and smoked goat cheddar salad ($8), with scallion, carrot, sun-dried tomato, shaved fennel and little gem greens, which Robin declared one of the best salads she’d ever had; a bowl of the “Soup of the Moment” ($6), delicious, chunky split pea with fennel, dill and macadamia crème (OK, I did miss ham); half a heavenly crunchy, seedy cheesestick ($1.50) from Alameda’s Feel Good Bakery; a serving of crispy smashed potatoes with smoked pimenton and aioli ($7); and the aforementioned polenta special.
On our second visit on a busy Tuesday night, while Robin and I waited 20 minutes for a table, we stood at a window counter and shared a generous pour of Eno Syrah ($10). It paired well with the truffled mushroom pecan pâté ($10), plated with caper berries, seeded mustard, date chutney and wafer-thin crostini (also from Feel Good). Once seated, we shared another big salad — winter panzanella ($9), with bread cubes, beets, roasted celery root, Gorgonzola and pine nuts, and a delicious peppered portobello mushroom bocadillo ($9) with caramelized fennel and onions and smoked goat cheddar. We finished with Braz’s ethereal butterscotch pudding ($6), topped with whipped cream and Brazil nuts. Except for the trio of artisan Vice chocolates ($5), desserts change frequently, ranging from apple cake to tiramisu.
Even without a full kitchen, Tucker, Sher and Braz turn out complex and satisfying dishes in a tapas style that perfectly complements the intriguing list of boutique local and Old World wines: 12 reds, nine whites, plus sparkling and rosé, available by the glass ($6–$11) and by the bottle (four times the price of a glass). There’s also a good selection of microbrews ($4–$12.50), non-alcoholic “grown-up” sodas and ice tea ($2.50) and press pot coffee and special teas ($3).
Service and plate presentations can be more casual than the sophisticated cuisine calls for. But the fare exhibits enough confidence and panache to assure that Encuentro can be just about anything it wants to when it grows up.
Encuentro. Vegetarian. Serves dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 202 Second St., Oakland, (510) 832-9463, encuentrooakland.com.
Credit cards accepted. Beer and Wine.Reservations accepted (for parties of five or more) Wheelchair accessible.