Picán Lets the Good Times Roll

Upscale Uptown

Once your taste buds have overruled your budget-consciousness, and you’ve gotten over the fact that you’ve paid $23 for two pieces of fried chicken, you can’t help but

appreciate what Picán brings to Oakland’s dynamic dining scene.
Make that Oakland’s upscale dining scene. The chicken does come with a side of smoked Gouda macaroni and cheese, and the first-rate cornbread is complimentary. But supplement your main course with a side of the not-to-be-missed “California Collards ($6),” and have your server add a sweet and musty accent with drizzles of truffled honey ($2) over the chicken, and you’ve already put $31 on your tab.
Precede your dinner with a cocktail made with one of Picán’s nearly 100 bourbons — the inventive Picán Old-Fashioned, say, sweetened with maple syrup ($9) — throw in a salad or one of the half-dozen small plates or the Charleston she-crab bisque ($10), and finish with an Abita root beer float, Mardi Gras moon pie or peach fried pie (all $8), and, well, do the math: You’re nearing $60, before tax and tip.
Faced with that prospect, your mood might need a little lubricating. Ours certainly did on our summer evening dinner visit. The hostess who showed us to our table was deadpan to the point of dour, and when she pulled out a chair for Robin, she failed to notice the litter of crumbs on the seat. We thanked her nonetheless and she responded with a curt “no problem.” I’m always curious: a problem for whom?
But a rye Sazerac ($10), much too citrus-y up front but better balanced after a few sips, and a Revolver ($9.50), made with Tia Maria coffee liqueur and orange bitters, and not nearly as sweet as expected, did the trick. Something else must have done the trick for the hostess: When, on our way out, Robin complimented the striking gold ornamentation on her black blouse, she was all smiles and laughter, radiating the unaffected good cheer that’s the rule rather than the exception at Picán.
Robin and I did economize somewhat that night. We shared a big Southern Caesar ($9) with garnishes of fried okra and “croutons” of fried grits, and a Georgia pecan chocolate tart ($10) that was (as advertised) plenty for two, especially topped with buttermilk ice cream and bourbon-laced butterscotch. In between I gave in to the temptation of fried chicken and, yes, the truffle honey and collards. It was only a leg and a breast, but the moist and flavorful chicken — brined, buttermilk drenched, breaded and fried to perfect crunchiness — makes pilgrimages to the iconic Casa Orinda less alluring. Robin ordered the pan-seared corvina bass ($24) and declared it one of the best pieces of sturdy fish in recent memory.
Other “Southern Traditions” and “Southern Specialties” conceived by chef Dean Dupuis include barbecued pork ribs ($25), bourbon and molasses lacquered duck ($24), a “garden harvest” vegetable plate ($17) with fried green tomatoes, a Berkshire pork chop ($25), black pepper–crusted salmon ($23), and a rib-eye steak ($31).
Much of Dupuis’ success on the plate owes to the scrumptious sides. The “mac ‘n cheese” is crusty, creamy and smoky, and the presentation in a little cast iron skillet is a nice touch. The roasted garlic grits and citrus vinaigrette–dressed grilled asparagus salad enhance both the look and the flavors of the bass. And the collards, sautéed with chile and garlic, fully deserve their literal trademark. One could put together a substantial meal ordering only sides, which include peanut and jalapeño cole slaw, Carolina plantation Hoppin’ John and buttermilk mashed potatoes (all $6), and small plates such as “Southern Foie Gras” (chicken livers with bacon, scallions, shallots and gravy, $11), bourbon and chile cured salmon ($12), crispy smoked pork belly ($12) and Low Country shrimp and grits ($13).

Grits and greens show up on the Sunday brunch menu as well: the former (creamy and cheesy) as part of the Southern-style breakfast of two eggs, bacon, sausage or meatless patty, and biscuits ($11) — Robin had it with excellent crisp bacon; the latter (deliciously stewed) on a groan-inducing platter called the Biloxi Brunch Barbecue Plate ($18), an omnivore’s bounty of slow-smoked meats. I’ll still commute to Bo’s in Lafayette for brisket and ribs. Picán’s are fine, although I like less glaze on ribs when the meat is so good, and a moister mouth-feel to brisket. But with the plate fleshed out by a pile of succulent chopped pork and a heap of coarsely salted yam
fries that stayed crisp for the entire meal, I felt like I got my money’s worth.
That’s the rub for Picán — delivering value, or at least a sense of it. Sharing the ground floor of the Broadway Grand condos with Ozumo, the sharply decked 120-seat restaurant has a lot going for it. There’s the kid-friendliness at brunch. There’s the innovative take on Southern cooking. And there’s the décor, which balances urban chic with New Orleans Garden District stateliness: The century-spanning elements — from a splashy foyer and bar, polished concrete floor, exposed high ceilings, soaring windows and open kitchen to decorative wooden shutters, crown molding, tall rattan-back chairs and recessed display cases of boutique bourbons — are soulfully tied together by piped-in ’70s R&B.
Chef Dupuis, owner Michael LeBlanc, a founder of Brothers Brewing Company, and their hospitable crew have already convinced a mixed and moneyed multitude that $7 is not too much to spend on a plate of beignets. Some may even be forking over $65 for three 1-ounce shots of Pappy Van Winkel bourbon. Most evening patrons are inspired to put on the Ritz in tune with the draped fabrics, sexy lighting and refined table settings; many women wear their swankiest outfits, and this side of Mad Men, you never see so many gentlemen in hats.
If Picán can keep those good times rolling, it may long set a standard for what “uptown” means in Oakland.

Picán. Southern. Serves lunch 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Mon.–Fri., dinner 5 p.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Thu., 5 p.m.–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat., 4 p.m.–9 p.m. Sun., brunch 10:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun. 2295 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 834-1000, picanrestaurant.com.  Credit Card accepted, Full Bar, Reservations Accepted, Wheelchair Accessible, $$-$$$

This article appears in the November 2009 issue of Alameda Magazine
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