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Basque Ambition

Josh Sens | March 14, 2013 | Story Restaurants

According to Paul Canales, his buzzed-about new restaurant in Oakland’s Uptown district takes its name from a Spanish word referring to “the spirit of evocation, soul, and creative expression, of which the core elements are irrationality, earthiness, heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolical.” So much for just going out to grab a bite to eat.

Sure enough, though, when you step into Duende, located in an art deco–era building with ceilings high enough to house a climbing gym, you come upon the makings of a theatrical—if not exactly diabolical—evening. The outsize space is home to a bodega with a wine bar, a cocktail bar–cum–lounge, and a dining room composed of deep, dark wood booths fringed with detailed ironwork. One wall is given over to a large, tribal-looking mural and another to installations of found object art that lend the feel of an urban gallery. A mezzanine in back doubles as a stage for live music.

When we last met Canales, an energetic chef with a Dr. Evil pate and doctoral-student eyewear, he was running the kitchen at Oliveto, the landmark Rockridge restaurant where he spent 15 years. This new move takes him from a corner of the city with a slumbering nightlife to a neighborhood whose residents have been known to stay up past 10 p.m. It’s not quite Madrid, but it’s as good a place as any in the East Bay for the kind of place Canales has in mind.

Canales, who has some Basque in his bloodline, says that he isn’t out to do “Spanish museum” food. But there are enough x’s and accents on his menu to pinpoint the inspiration for a lot of what he serves. The offerings are divided into tapas and pintxos (snacks traditionally “pinched” together by a toothpick), midsize raciones, and large platos familiares, so that a meal can be a graze or a no-holds-barred feast.

No matter what you order, you can taste Iberia—in the sobrasada, a mild, spreadable chorizo plated with little toasts and housemade pickles, and in the sea bass crudo starter, the sweet, barely seared fish spiked with espelette pepper and tossed with grapefruit and tempura-fried seaweed (which crunches even more from the herring bottarga beneath its batter). True to the chef ’s intent, though, few of the dishes are rigidly Spanish. California comes through in the savory goat cheese brûlée, a creamy, caramelized half moon shining on a garden of new onions, brussels sprouts, and beets. And the ensalada de col—a delicious tangle of savoy cabbage, green olives, pistachios, and nutty Mahón cheese—smacks as much of a Berkeley farmers’ market as it does of the Mercado de San Miguel.

Duende operates with a lot of moving parts, and not all of them function smoothly. The bodega, for instance, is meant to be a hangout for light bites and lubrications, but getting your hands on them takes more work than it should. It is counter service here—but the food and wine are sold at separate counters. And if you want a beer or cocktail, you have to troop across the restaurant to the bar. On my first visit, getting my wife a lager, myself a glass of sherry, and both of us a platter of overfried, underseasoned patatas bravas required three transactions at three different locations. OK, so it’s not the coal mines. But I really should have ordered the Suffering Bastard (brandy, gin, lime cordial, ginger, and bitters) because by then I felt like one.

Life is more relaxing in the dining room, where the service is superb and you can get any menu item without leaving your seat, from the pork tongues and ears—the ears all salt and texture, the tongues smoky and tender, their meatiness cleansed by a plucky herb salad and peppery salsa diablo—to an olive oil cake that’s moist but not too rich, pleasantly grassy, and sharpened with a scoop of candied-blood-orange ice cream.

However you progress, I suggest landing at some point on the paella, a dish that’s done disappointingly at many restaurants, but stands out here. As tradition calls for, it’s fired over an open flame and brought to the table in a still-hot paellera, the rice a crackling shell at the bottom of the pan but closer to al dente toward the top. Canales studs his version with clams, rabbit, chickpeas, and cipollini onions—a mix of earth and sea that blends beautifully with the scent of saffron and the bite of lemon that you squeeze on top. On the night that I had it, the dish arrived, along with a perfectly paired glass of sherry, just as a young Segovia was warming his guitar strings on the mezzanine level, and the strains of his music mingled with the dining room’s festive clatter.

The cumulative effect was impressive and helped crystallize my take on the restaurant as a whole. Given the pedigree of its chef and its own grand ambitions, Duende sets itself up for lofty expectations. If some components occasionally fall short, it still amounts to something greater than the sum of its parts.

The Ticket

A recommended dinner for two people (before drinks, tax, and tip).

Pescado crudo...$13.50
Ensalada de col...$9.50
Caña de cabra...$12
Lenguas y orejas...$10.50
Paella (for two)...$36
Olive oil cake...$9


Duende 468 19th St. (Near Telegraph Ave.), Oakland,
Three Stars

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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