Chef/owner Octavio Diaz brings Oaxacan-flavored delights such as pizzalike tlayuda.
Octavio Diaz hits sweet spots with Agave Uptown.
When word came down that a Oaxacan restaurant would open in Oakland’s Uptown, only a few blocks from the still new and very popular Calavera, I wondered what owner/executive chef Octavio Diaz was thinking. How much “Mole & Mezcal,” as goes Agave Uptown’s motto, can the dining market bear? For that matter, how many cocktail-centric elevated Mexican restaurants will Oakland be able to support? As the old fortune-telling Eight Ball used to say, “Outlook good,” at least judging by our dinners in July and August, after Agave had been up and running for a month or so.
Neither as big nor as ambitious as Calavera, Agave occupies the north end of the Kapor Center for Social Impact’s ground floor. Its clean, low-ceilinged design is modestly sleek, emphasizing the lengthy, Mezcal-stocked bar at the corner entrance, the open kitchen at the opposite end of the main dining room, a bank of windows that follows the curve of Franklin Street as it meets Broadway, a mix of low and high-top tables (many positioned to take advantage of the expansive sidewalk view), and, above a curving banquette, a mural of four characters representing Oaxaca’s culinary, musical, and festival traditions, including the city’s annual Guelaguetza celebration. The long swoops of the windows and the mural wall soften the right angles of the tables and square pillars and the hardness of the wood and stone surfaces. An additional wood-paneled dining room is tucked behind the bar, available for private parties.
On our initial early evening visit, Diaz seemed to have most systems well coordinated. He was working the floor, but inconspicuously; we had to ask our server who it was that delivered our molates appetizer—little dumpling-shaped masa pouches filled with chorizo and potato, plated on black bean paste with cabbage and queso fresco—and gave us such an elaborate description of the restaurant’s signature mole negro without revealing any of the family recipe’s 20-plus ingredients, many of which were fetched from Oaxaca. Dressed casually, without a traditional chef’s coat, Diaz conveyed the congeniality and authority that comes from his years of experience at his original Agave in Healdsburg. When we ordered guacamole and chips, he made sure we also received a small bowl of mole with a couple of warm corn tortillas for dipping and sampling, as if he hadn’t already talked us into ordering main dishes with his mother’s magical sauce.
We found the chips less than compelling—nothing more than vehicles for scooping and dipping. But we could have eaten the soft and slightly coarsely textured tortillas all night. And the molates will become regular accompaniments to our cocktails—if we can find Robin the right cocktail. She’s not a mezcal fan, so the slightly smoky mezcal drinks I found wonderful on two visits—the Oaxaca Moderna, with vanilla honey, mole bitters, and Luxardo cherries, and the El Manja De Los Dioses, with chamomile-infused mezcal, Carpano Antica, cocci rosso, and Campari—didn’t appeal to her. All the specialty cocktails, shaken and stirred, were mezcal-based but can be made with tequila, and the slightly confounding range of ingredients included smoked hibiscus, pineapple syrup, ginger beer, cardamom bitters, chartreuse, and lychee syrup. Robin will likely stick to a house margarita, although it didn’t surpass versions she’s had elsewhere or from her own shaker at home.
Mezcal cocktails (and more than two-dozen mezcals by the glass) and molates were hardly the only things that bear repeating at Agave. There was the tlayuda, a “Oaxacan pizza” with a crisp masa flatbread topped with black beans, cabbage, avocado, and quesillo, plus optional add-ons of tasso, chorizo, grilled chicken, or vegetables. It was big enough to be shared by four or six people, although we managed to polish one off by ourselves. And there was the cecina, lean pork sliced scaloppini-thin and marinated in Oaxacan adobo and grilled several notches shy of dry. Three slices were ample, especially alongside Mexican rice, superbly pasty black beans, and a small, pretty salad with chicories, mango, and pomegranate seeds. The menu wasn’t huge but was wide-ranging, with four kinds of salads, enchiladas in red sauce, enmoladas (tortillas in mole folded around braised chicken), empanadas, tacos, oysters, ceviche, prawns diabla or in a cocktail, various grilled beef, chicken, and vegetable combinations, a whole fish of the day, and a half or whole herb-crusted rotisserie Rocky’s chicken.
There’s no doubt, however, about what Robin and I will reprise. Robin, a bit of a chile relleno snob (or aficionado), said she can still conjure the tantalizing tastes of the stuffed poblano pepper half-smothered in rich mole and topped with avocado and queso fresco. And until the kernel of vegetarianism grows inside me and strangles my love of pork, I will always gravitate toward carnitas, and the special Agave version drenched in that addictive mole negro de Oaxaca pulls on me like a black hole of ecstatic oblivion.
Food photographers and art directors have been known to wax apoplectic when forced to shoot and print lots of brown food. But the dark muddiness of Agave’s mole and black beans was no hindrance to beautiful presentations on the mixed-and-matched Oaxacan ceramics. The rice was shaped into attractive, tidy pyramids, and garnishes of sliced carrots, julienned peppers, and slivered radishes added vivid color as well as snappy flavors and accenting textures to many of the dishes.
Of the desserts, which include rice pudding, churros, and a “Oaxacan ice cream sandwich” made with fried sweet dough and tequila ice cream, we tried only the flan, which strayed pretty far from traditional simplicity by having the cakelike custard cut into four triangles and arranged around a smear of caramel sauce, blackberries, raspberries, a carved strawberry, mint leaves, and two dollops of nanche-scented whipped cream.
Fussy flan and ingredient-profuse cocktails notwithstanding, overreaching was not a characteristic of Agave Uptown. Diaz’s restaurant hit menu, price, design, service, and attitude sweet spots in a burgeoning Uptown dining scene that should embrace its balanced approach to foodie and family friendliness.
Mexican. 2135 Franklin St., Oakland, 510-288-3668. Botanas (snacks, appetizers) $4-$13, del mar starters ($13-$39), especialidades (entrée specialties) $12-$19, rotisserie chicken $18 and $34 (add $6 for rice, beans, tortillas), desserts $8, house cocktails $12, beer $6-$7, wine $8-$10 by the glass, $22-$41 bottle, tequila, mezcal $8-$40 glass. Serves Sun.-Wed. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Thu.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. AgaveUptown.com. CCG☎$$-$$$$
Published online on Oct. 21, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.