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Oakland’s red-hot Uptown District now boasts Oliveto’s former chef

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It’s news when a bigtime chef like Paul Canales leaves his longtime restaurant, Oliveto, after many years. It’s even newsier when his new stomping ground is Uptown. This gritty and fast-blossoming neighborhood (which happens to be where I’ve made my home for 25 years) is the new restaurant capital of the Bay Area, as low rents, an urban-core feel, and the availability of localized ingredients (not to mention the cuisines of almost every country on Earth) draw adventurous chefs to this side of the Bay. I met up with 51-year old Chef Paul (whose food at Oliveto I’ve enjoyed for many years) at his new Duende. Set to open in September, right now the inside of the space consists of raw concrete and piles of dirt. But, as Chef [who also is a performing musician], explains the floor plan, I get excited.

How would you describe Duende?

It’s a restaurant, bar, wine shop, music venue.

You were most recently where?

Oliveto Restaurant.

For how long?

Fifteen years, and executive chef the last 7-8 years, something like that.

So why Uptown?

Well, I wanted to go where the action was! I wanted to go where people were more like me. And I wanted to be able to create a more relaxed, accessible vibe than what I’d been able to do before. And I wanted more diversity from my creative side and also from a guest side.

What is happening in Oakland culinarily that people don’t know about?

People misunderstand Oakland. The thing that’s great about Oakland is you can be whatever you want. There’s no overriding dogma. We pull from all the dogmas in the Bay Area, because there are definitely a few of them around! But Oakland is definitely its own thing. It’s very much a do-it-yourself esthetic. Kind of reminds me of punk in the late Seventies, or classical music in the Fifties with [John] Cage, that kind of scene. And Oakland’s like that. It’s kind of a Brooklyn moment here. You see amazing stuff, like Hawker Fare. That’s a really cool Siamese vibe. [Hawker Fare is the new restaurant of Michelin-starred Commis’s owner/chef James Syhabout, also in Oakland.] Go to True Burger [also in Uptown, from the former sous chefs at Bay Wolf], or to Plum, where Daniel Patterson’s [from San Francisco’s two-Michelin starred Coi) doing his thing. There’s so many places that are not trying to fit one esthetic. And yet, it’s all coming from markets, it’s all happening, all the stuff we think about Bay Area food is built in. People are leading with their creative experience and expression.

Duende won’t open until late summer or early fall, but what is your thinking about the menu?

We’re going to use Spain as a cultural touchpoint, but that includes south of France, over towards Italy, down in North Africa, over to Turkey. So Spain is a melting pot for the Mediterranean. [Chef is of Basque descent, by the way.] It’s also not going to be museum food, like “Let’s do the greatest hits of Spanish cooking,” because who gives a shit about that? What I care about is the meal, that the menu is very flexible, and it allows people to eat as little or as much as they want, and it gives me maximum flexibility to make smaller or larger plates that express what’s happening in the markets and on the farms.

Now, we just had lunch at one of my favorite local restaurants, Ensarro, which you hadn’t known of, and you loved the food. How would you incorporate a discovery like that into Duende’s menu?

Well, first of all, all good cooking is the same, in the sense like, those [Ensarro] guys know their food, they know how to cook their food, they know how to season their food, but to me, what made that better than any Ethiopian place I’ve eaten, ever, for how many years, thirty? was that there was someone with a point of view creating that food. And so when you taste that green salad, it’s not like some vinaigrette or whatever. That salad was bright, and exciting, tucked into the middle of a beautiful plate of injera [flatbread] and all this other stuff. That was cared for, that salad. It wasn’t just kind of like, “Oh, this is the way we make Ethiopian salad.” So in that sense, there’s a lot of translation, because there’s someone who had a point of view and cared about it. Also, that kid, Solomon [our host] is very passionate. He wanted us to taste certain things. That [beef] tartare? What was so cool about it is, Ethiopia and Italy are pretty tight, culturally. And to me, that was very much like an insalata di carne cruda you would get up in the Piedmont, except that influence of the Ethiopian spiciness, which was beautiful. But he never lost the flavor of the beef in that. The trippy thing was there was this other flavor, and at first it seemed a little off, like “Something’s wrong here.” And it was a little bit warm. It wasn’t cooked, but a little warm. And all of a sudden, it occurred to me, it was butter!

Clarified butter.

Clarified butter! Which was the coolest thing, because it was that caramelly kind of flavor. So I might say, Wow, I’ve never done a warm, raw salad of any sort. I’ve never had anything like that ever before. And I’ve made so many types of crudos: fish crudos, lamb crudos, goat crudos, beef crudos. You name the protein, I’ve done it. But to have it in that context, where he warmed it and used a different kind of fat, and he created a whole new experience–that was unique.

Finally, what about the wine at Duende.

So we’re going to definitely have some Spanish wines. We’ll have some California wines. What we’re looking for is distinctive wines that work with food, as opposed to wines that are like beverages. We’re not tasting for the classic things people talk about in some wine circles, where it’s jammy, or big fruit, or whatever. It’s more about distinctive wines. Many natural wines we’ve been tasting are amazing. I think we’re trying to find wines that people maybe haven’t tried, but are not so far away from something they’re familiar with that it just creates havoc in their mouth. Like if people like Rombauer, fine; people do. But if we have something that is unique and interesting, we’d like to offer them that experience. So we want a highly curated list. And sherry is a really amazing wine.

Love it.

And [partner] Rocco [Somazzi] has been pairing sherry throughout a dinner, and it’s crazy! And even sherry cocktails; we’ll do that kind of vibe as well. We’ll find out along the way things we don’t know today, so that will be part of the fun.

Duende,, 468 19th St., between Broadway and Telegraph, in Uptown Oakland. Opening September 2012.

  1. “It’s kind of a Brooklyn moment here”
    Yeah, it’s starting to feel that way. It will be nice to get a new sherry-booster besides Cesar. Thanks for the tip on Ensarro, sounds great. Have you tried Cafe Colucci (good Ethiopian with warm vibe, on Alcatraz and Telegraph)?

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