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Spanish Lessons

Josh Sens | October 16, 2014 | Story Restaurants

To borrow from a Hemingway riff on bankruptcy, this is how a neighborhood hippifies: gradually, then suddenly. You wake up one day to find your local diner dealing in vegan doughnuts, the coffee prices doubled, the sandwich shop you once knew having swapped smoked turkey for snout-to-tail charcuterie.

In recent years, the commercial stretch of Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue near Lake Merritt has held strong against the currents washing all around it, the city’s rising tide of tattooed fashions having yet to flush out the old block’s blue rinse. And yet, you sense, the tipping point approaches. Not long ago, a Pilates studio launched on Lakeshore, selling turmeric-tinted almond milk as post-workout refreshment. Then came a French bistro. And now, there’s a new project from Jen Biesty and Tim Nugent, vets of both Scala’s Bistro and Top Chef.

It’s called Shakewell, a red herring of a name that conjures images of a Zumba class or a Danny Meyer burger shack. What you find instead is a Spanish- and Mediterranean-focused restaurant fleshed out with Moorish design touches, an energetic bar awash in sangria, and a soundtrack that, admittedly, is more Brooklyn than Bilbao.

With Nugent doing double duty as front-door impresario and pastry chef, the savory cooking falls to Biesty, who also worked under Loretta Keller and Traci Des Jardins. She seems at ease, cooking a menu that is relaxed, wide-ranging, and communal: Most items, built for sharing, pair well with that sangria or a pisco sour. A quartet of bacalao fritters make crisp kick-starters, their fried shells giving way to potato–and–salt cod centers that strike the perfect balance of starch and sea. Octopus, a dish often vulcanized in lesser kitchens, is poached here and turns up sweet and tender with olive salad and saffron aioli.

The Mediterranean genre allows Biesty latitude. She looks to Morocco for lamb kefta, lovely cumin-scented skewers of ground meat heated by harissa and cooled by cucumber yogurt sauce. She finds room, less successfully, for falafel impregnated with romesco sauce and chorizo. Though the chickpea fritters have the right nutty flavor, they’re undone by their desperate dryness. One touch and they crumble like sand.

At times, the menu roams so freely that it loses focus. Roasted cod, served whole, unfilleted, and spiked with cayenne pepper, comes dressed in a jumble of jicama, snow peas, cabbage, grapes, and salsa verde—the outfit of a disheveled tourist whose cruise ship was rerouted from somewhere else. But there’s nothing mismatched about the bombas, paella-like dishes that rank among the restaurant’s greatest strengths. The best one is a dark star, stocked with local squid and stained with their ink, its intense profile tempered by the roasted peppers, pickled chilies, preserved lemons, and aioli that brighten almost every bite.

The bombas are served in the cazuelas they’re cooked in and delivered by waiters whose tag-teaming of tables fits the pleasant informality of the place. Shakewell’s interior taps that laid-back spirit too. The bar, which runs along the restaurant’s right flank, helps set the tone—it’s lit by overhanging flower-petal fixtures and backed by festive mosaic-patterned wallpaper that mimics Spanish tile. A wall of loose rocks, held in place by welded metalwork, divides a dining room whose dark hickory chairs and oak banquettes stretch deep into the space, edging toward an open kitchen in back.

The ambience, festive and not for the hard of hearing, might just as well have sprung from Oakland’s trendy Temescal and Uptown districts. There’s even a waiter with a vintage Rollie Fingers mustache. But what warmed me more to Shakewell was its comfort with occasionally being uncool.

On one of my visits, as I waited for a table, I asked Nugent what inspired the restaurant’s name. The cocktails, of course. “But also because I do a lot of this,” he said, holding out his hand and shaking mine. He seated me in back beside a large party of Golden Girls caught up in the throes of a celebration, and I was seen to by a server who affirmed my menu choices with exclamations: “Excellent!” “Great decision!” “Spot on!” Not suave, perhaps, but an endearing show of sweetness that’s rarely evident at today’s smoother-than-thou bastions of hipster indifference. And the prices are likewise a sweet anomaly, with nearly everything, from the bacalao croquetas to that inky bomba, listed for $20 or less.

Nugent’s desserts, which lean toward unpretentious spins on Spanish staples, fall into step with their surroundings. The crust on a quince tart, offered with a generous slab of manchego, flakes on the fork but melts on the tongue. The bittersweet chocolate-pistachio torta, shaped into a bar and sprinkled with pistachios, has the lush, indulgent quality of mousse.

On the night that I had the latter, I arrived early and finished just as twilight was falling and the bar and dining room were starting to fill up. One of the white-haired occupants of the adjacent table also signaled for the check, and our parties wound up walking toward the door together. The sun had barely set, but for some of us, the hour was growing late—much as it seemed to be for the old neighborhood itself.

Two and a half stars
3407 Lakeshore Ave. (Near Longridge Rd.), Oakland, 510- 251-0329

The Ticket
A recommended dinner for two at Shakewell
Pisco sour...$10
Octopus salad...$8
Bacalao croquetas...$7
Cucumber salad with poppy seeds, cilantro, chilies, and rice wine vinaigrette...$5
Squid and squid ink bomba...$20
Lamb kefta...$18
Chocolate-pistachio torta...$8
Flan catalán with fennel pollen...$7

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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