After reading all the lukewarm reviews of this place here and elsewhere, I was hesitant to try this place even after months of pressing my nose against the glass and hoping that the "Oakland Renaissance" wouldn't turn out to be a bust. Even with this doubt, I managed to eat Saturday brunch and last night's dinner there, and I was very happily surprised.
Brunch was the weaker of the two meals. The service was, um, very awkward, and the menu very standard. Hey, at least offer me some fancy compote or something on the french toast to make me feel like I couldn't just make this at home. That said, the two dishes we tried were the croque madame and the baked eggs. The baked eggs were in a bread pudding format with ham and a cheese that I can't remember now but delivered the effect of a tasty bechamel. The dish was surprisingly good, even if it wasn't much to look at. The ham was thinly sliced, not too salty, and the whole effect was rich without being heavy. As for the croque madame, I prefer the pressed-with-poached-egg version of croque madame at Caffe 817 (the other Oakland Saturday brunch option), but this grilled-with-fried-egg version was pretty good. We had the 16oz press pot of Blue Bottle coffee, which was excellent, and resisted the full cocktail menu available at brunch. I regret not trying the housemade "donettes," (cinnamon, jelly, plain, oh my!) but there's always another Saturday. What seemed strange was that we were offered the dessert menu after brunch (seemed to be same menu as after dinner). Maybe this is typical, and I just haven't experienced it before, but it confirmed the feeling that Flora has yet to work out how to make brunch feel special and different from other meals, i.e. not just dinner without the flattering lighting. Given how they seemed to have worked out the dinner kinks, I have high hopes that brunch will soon be smoothed out.
Okay, here's warning: I'm going to gush about dinner. Maybe I was bracing myself for being disappointed, but we had an absolutely fabulous meal. I'd say we enjoyed it as much as (I'm totally going out on a limb here) the one meal we've had at Zuni Café, without the difficulty in getting reservations. The restaurant was pleasantly full and energetic even on a Tuesday, and our hostess and server were very warm, friendly, and attentive. A nice detail was that the hostess took our coats before we sat down and hung them on the rack near the door. For some reason, I usually find this to be pretentious, but here it felt welcoming and elegant.
We started with cocktails, the Whiskey Fizz and the Last Word. The cocktail menu is nicely varied albeit a bit trendy (enough with the absinthe!), and our drinks were very well prepared. The Whiskey Fizz was especially good; it's been a long time since I've seen a bar attempt and successfully use egg whites in a drink. We split the hamachi crudo starter, which was presented thinly sliced on cucumber slices with serrano chile and (again thinly sliced) fried garlic. There were some purees on the dish, but I don't remember them because I was so enamored with the rest of the dish. The crunchy textures of the cucumber and the garlic sandwiching the creamy hamachi completely (cliché alert) blew my mind. With the success of this starter, I began to relax and think that the entrees we ordered (the quail and the steelhead) would not be a mistake.
I was right, the entrees were equally good. The steelhead was beautifully cooked with, uh, some kind of crust (the Whiskey Fizz was going to my head now). It was served with, among other things, a spectacular red cabbage braised with bacon, a nice foil(?) to the delicate flavor of the steelhead. The quail was juicy and tender, and although I don't have that much experience with quail, it also seemed carefully prepared. It was served with mashed potatoes (insert all the good things about mashed potatoes here – fluffy, airy, etc), butternut squash, turnips, turnip greens, and a brown sugar butter sauce. I'm not doing it justice here, but the mix of the sweet sauce with the bitter turnips and the meat was very satisfying. We ate every last bite.
Dessert was the only disappointing course, although it could have just been the dish we ordered. The menu was seasonal and had many tempting choices, with a range of dessert wines, ports, etc. We chose the salted caramel pudding, which had great flavors, but also had an unpleasant made-awhile-ago skin on top. The caramel of the pudding was nicely subtle, but the salt sprinkled on top of the whipped cream seemed like an afterthought that could have been better integrated into the dish. Our server suggested a nice dessert wine after describing all the choices - they had just done a tasting, and she could provide lots of detail. We enjoyed the wine in addition to a well-made cappuccino (Yes, I really find myself exclaiming "nice foam" these days. Let's hope it's never out loud). All of this in a beautifully remodeled room with a view of the Fox Theater.
So you can take this all with a grain of salt. I'm a lurker, not a regular poster (although honestly this was good enough to make me come out of the woodwork), and I live in and really like Oakland. Perhaps one's judgment is clouded by being able to walk home from dinner past the lake with all the lights that seem oh-so-sincerely romantic after a cocktail and two glasses of wine (oh, yeah, there was a glass of red wine in there somewhere), but let's hope not.
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