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Restaurants & Bars 14

Penrose, Oakland: Food & Drink Report

Jbirdsall | Dec 2, 201309:41 AM

My husband Perry and I met a couple of friends at Penrose Saturday night, 1 week after it launched. Got there late (9:30), no reservations, and snagged a 4-top immediately, though the place was packed.

I lived through the last days of Stars, chef Jeremiah Tower's exercise in building a grand California brasserie. I have to say: Penrose is sort of an amazing update of the enormous California brasserie, reinvented for a generation steeped in craft cooking and cocktails.

Penrose sprawls, vertically as well as horizontally. The main feature is an enormous frosted glass canopy over the wide, open kitchen, a reference to Hector Grimaud's art nouveau canopies above the entrances to classic Paris Metro stations. It feels like owner Charlie Hallowell's statement of purpose: welcome to the Paris brasserie, 21st-century NorCal version, a bustling place to people-watch and be seen, and where you can drop in for drinks and snacks or a more formal meal.

Cocktails (Cate Whalen is bar manager) were perfect, just as they are at Pizzaiolo and Boot & Shoe. Whalen's style is what they call spirit-driven: beautifully balanced mixtures that tend to avoid lots of tinctures, juices, elaborate bitters, etc. (the Vieux Carré was classic Whalen).

We had 5 dishes, all shared, none of them entrees in the strict sense. They were a bit up and down, but the kitchen's only been open for a week. A Little Gem salad with beets, citrus, and a tahini creme fraiche was only a slight tweaking of a Pizzaiolo/Boot signature. Tempura of butternut squash and Tokyo turnips was beautifully done (even though I only counted three small turnips in a pile of squash). Grilled squid is Hallowell's forté, and the version here with chickpeas was nice.

Two dishes needed work. Flatbread with ground spicy pork came across as, well, clumps of ground meat on a thickish cracker. And sautéed Brussels sprouts leaves with cider vinegar and hemp seeds was really, really sweet (it reminded Perry of General Tso's chicken). It was fascinating for the first couple of mini bites, then it just seemed cloying and strange.

Penrose is a scene, a place to go to catch a whiff of this particular moment in restaurant culture and to have great drinks. And the menu is definitely worthy of more (and better) exploration than I gave it. I'm going back when I can.

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