Chefs tame open flames beneath a backlit glass awning. Like Camino, just a few blocks down on this strip of Grand Avenue, Penrose is carved from brick and wood, and highly skilled hostesses maneuver customers around tables as if it were intermission at the Orpheum.
Open since January, Charlie Hallowell's third Oakland restaurant is theatrical. Noisy. Gorgeous. Even servers and staff are striking in appearance. And everyone's eyes are on what's coming out of that red-hot open kitchen.
The focus of the food is small plates with an emphasis on meat, fish, veggies and flatbreads from the grill. With the exception of a pork loin and the roasted quail, nothing on the menu costs more than $20.
With the restaurants Pizzaiolo and Boot and Shoe Service, Hallowell focused on wood-fired pizzas and rustic, Cal-Italian accoutrements. But at Penrose, he and his team are experimenting with Middle Eastern and North African flavors: preserved lemons, za'atar and charmoula. The cooking feels riskier, sophisticated.
Take the lamb kefta flatbread ($12) studded with currants, candied pistachios, cilantro, yogurt and fried Iraqi wheat berries. The crunch from the berries and the sweet and sour notes from the currants, which to me had the zing of Persian dried limes, was beyond delicious -- and gorgeous to look at.
They had simple flatbreads, too, with sea salt and extra-virgin olive oil ($4) or za'atar, tahini yogurt, charmoula and harissa ($8), so order to your liking but definitely tear into one of these breads as a starter with friends.
To supplement, we chose the avocado and blood orange salad ($10) dotted with darling spring onions, black olives and toasted sesame seeds. It was tasty, but struck me as odd that a simple salad would cost about the same as that fully-loaded, protein-rich flatbread.
I have a feeling I would've loved the little gems and pomegranate crunch lettuce ($10). Pomegranate crunch is essentially a red-leaf romaine, and it's scarce on menus. Penrose's comes with pounded anchovy, shaved fennel and grana. Likely worth the 10 bucks, too. Oh, well, next time.
Actually, maybe not. Penrose's menu changes daily, and we were lucky to strike gold on two entrees. The buttermilk fried quail ($16) was a revelation, if only because I never knew our state bird could taste so good (sorry, Chez Panisse). Think thin, crunchy skin over flavorful dark meat with a simple schmear of parsnip puree and a generous portion of lemony herb salad with kumquats.
The slow-cooked king salmon ($15) was also very good. The chef had feathered off rectangles of fish and scattered them about Belgian endive, English peas, Meyer lemon and green garlic oil. It had an addictive zing, and tasted like "spring on a plate," as our server said. Man, she was good at her job. It is typical practice at a Hallowell restaurant for all staff to taste every dish before dinner service so they can talk intimately about the food. It showed.
Unfortunately, I found the Don Watson lamb ($18) disappointing compared to the other dishes. It was pink and undercooked and the lemony chickpeas -- referred to as a ragout on the menu -- didn't have a stewed or simmered quality to them at all.
On the bright side, the lamb was accompanied by lamb's quarters, another hard-to-find leafy green. It had a delightful, earthy quality reminiscent of chard. Thanks to Penrose, I got to try it for the first time.
I also indulged in a rather fancy s'mores, or chocolate toast ($8), a slice of grilled levain bread drizzled with olive oil, grated bittersweet chocolate, cinnamon, salt and an Italian meringue that was a dead ringer for marshmallow cream. Gooey greatness.
My complaint about Penrose was the seating. Our table had thick, curved legs jutting out from under it that prevented us from crossing our legs. It didn't bother me, but my friends mentioned their discomfort more than once. The other options -- high communal tables or teeny low tables -- didn't look any cozier.
But it won't prevent me from going back. I'm a sucker for a good show.
WHERE: 3311 Grand Ave., Oakland
CONTACT: 510-444-1649; www.penroseoakland.com
HOURS: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays (bar until 11 p.m.); 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays (bar until 11:30 p.m.)
CUISINE: Open flame farm-to-table
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including flatbread with za'atar and tahini yogurt or scarlet and Tokyo turnips with sea salt and olive oil
BEVERAGES: Brand-name spirits and farmers market cocktails plus craft beers (seven on draft; 10 imports in bottle). Wine program leans heavy on the Old World with a few Nor Cal gems, like Mary Elke North Coast sparkling.
RESERVATIONS: Not accepted
NOISE LEVEL: Loud
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Hmm. They'd probably go for one of the flatbreads or the buttermilk fried quail.
PLUSES: Delicious, inventive, balanced cuisine and star service
MINUSES: Don Watson lamb was undercooked
DATE OPENED: January
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Under $20
$$$ Under $30
$$$$ Under $40