That's the current narrative's hype, anyway. In reality, urban pioneers in places like Old Oakland and Uptown are taking a chance that high-end restaurants can help effect an Oaktown revival that'd draw the city's diverse mix to newly restored nightlife zones.
Enter Flora, the latest opening in Uptown, the area stretched along Broadway and Telegraph, as on tension wires, between downtown and Auto Row. The bar and restaurant took the name of its rehabbed corner storefronts -- the 1932 Oakland floral depot, mostly, a two-story facade with glazed indigo tiles and a kind of silvery architectural tiara along the roofline. The Hopper-era gem looks out onto a double whammy of neighborhood reinvention. At one end, the Egyptian Deco splendors of the Fox Theatre, still a year away from completion of its own extreme rehabbing. At the other, the sprawling Uptown condo complex in the latter stages of construction.
With all that renewal happening just beyond Flora's optimism-colored windows, it's almost impossible to regard the restaurant as anything but a symbol of Uptown's chances for a fresh start. Fortunately, Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky are hardly urban pioneer virgins. The two struck gold with Dona Tomas, the Nuevo Mexican eatery that garnered adulation from foodies and hipsters alike, sparking a Temescal revival that's still blazing.
Can Schnetz and Savitsky do it again in Uptown? Flora exudes that air of make-or-break of the long-awaited CD by some former breakout band. But whether the restaurant goes platinum or not, one thing is already clear: There's a certain modest scope to the venture that may surprise Uptown boosters who've been waiting for Flora to launch.
Forget any notion of some flashy urban brasserie -- Oaktown's equivalent of Zuni Cafe: Forget it. For all its anchor location and impressive facade, Flora feels more bohemian neighborhood cafe than big-city boite.
And while Flora's bar is already good enough to rate as a destination in its own right, the cooking still feels tentative, some two months after opening. That's unusual for a kitchen packed with seasoned talent, starting with Schnetz, who oversees things, to executive chef Jason Moniz, who racked up good reviews for his small-plate cooking at Nectar Wine Lounge in San Francisco and Burlingame, to experienced line cooks culled from both chefs' past experience.
A meal at Flora can seem filled with a random series of dishes that don't yield a recognizable personality. Service can be exasperatingly clueless. I waited nearly 20 minutes one Friday lunch for my server just to acknowledge me.
But first, the bar: Flora's urbane cocktail menu is part of the trend away from the vodka-dominant, soup-bowl-sized creations that seemed chic when "Sex and the City" was in first-run. Anyone still drink White Chocolatinis?
Created by Erik Adkins, bar manager of the Slanted Door, Flora's libations reference the golden age of the 1920s, a time of gin, bourbon, rye, and demure stemware you don't have to lift with both hands. The Flora Martini ($9) calls for Plymouth Gin and a preliminary glass washing with elderflower infusion -- a layering of flowery perfumes that seems particularly apt for the onetime flower market. With a name recalling the humor of a wiseguy age, Corpse Reviver #2 ($9) is both heady and tangy, a potent shakeup of Beefeater, lemon and absinthe.
Too bad the food doesn't have the same sense of fun, or a similar polish. The kitchen has a kind of arch determination to keep certain dishes so casual, they can seem slapdash. An appetizer salad of Little Gem lettuce, Red Thumb potatoes and hard-cooked egg in black truffle vinaigrette ($9) went out of its way to seem almost burly, the bed of floppy lettuce leaves (the outer layer most kitchens ditch in the compost bin) topped with what looked like a heap of cold home fries and egg slices. It's not that it wasn't tasty. It just came off -- I don't know -- willfully disheveled.
Likewise, a bowl of pasta Norma (with optional meatballs, $19) was awash in ham-handed rusticity. Strands of the thick spaghetti known as bucatini defined hearty, while thin half-moons of fried Asian eggplant were like blackened swabs saturated in olive oil. The hefty meatballs were crisp on the outside (as if they'd been dunked in the deep-fry), with a pure-meat persona that had little use for subtlety.
There's clearly talent here, a dedication to high-quality ingredients, and a recognition that the restaurant will need to offer a range of casual snacks and formal meals to a diverse crowd, especially once the Fox finally raises its curtain.
But the dressed-up dishes can seem over-conceived. That was the case with a piece of pan-fried prosciutto-wrapped swordfish set on top of green risotto ($19). The deliciously nutty taste of cured ham (from the Iowa artisanal curing house La Quercia) seeped into the swordfish like butter on a steak. Plenty of chervil in the risotto offered an anise-y background for the prosciutto to shine. But the fish was undercooked, and so-called citrus soup -- a ring around the risotto of grapefruit sections with their juices -- seemed refined to the point of fussy. It tasted very much like a dish worked out in some other restaurant. But in these surroundings, it felt stiff.
So did an appetizer of braised short rib with crispy potatoes and cheddar bechamel ($13), a dish done better elsewhere. At Salt House in San Francisco, it's called poutine, a French-Canadian take on cheesy gravy fries -- crisp spuds awash in molten cheddar and concentrated beef jus. But at Flora, it's bar food gone strangely architectural: a Lincoln Log structure of fries napped in cheese sauce, next to a single chunk of beef on a pool of thinnish braising liquid. It's a frustratingly finicky configuration, when all you really want is a big messy pile to dive into.
Not surprisingly, something as easygoing as the house burger ($16 with optional cheddar) may be the best thing here. Who cares if a place like Cafe Rouge does a similar burger (house-ground beef and an Acme bun) slightly better? An honest specimen still casual enough to feel relaxed fits Flora's vibe like a vintage suit jacket.
At dinner, the burger comes with fries and three-bean salad. But it's not a chef's reinvention of the suburban picnic fave; the version here is old-school with a straight face: green beans with canned red kidneys and garbanzos, salty, tangy and soaked with dressing.
Beans from a can? One day at lunch, I asked one of the cooks prepping in the open kitchen why they'd opted for canned. "They just didn't come out right when we were cooking them from scratch," he said. I liked his answer: Deli case salad is what they were going for, and they weren't trying to pretend otherwise.
If Flora succeeds, it'll be because of just such frankness: postmodern diner food done with sincerity and a bit of polish. With any luck, it'll be just the thing to sustain a whole neighborhood.
Reach East Bay writer John Birdsall at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Times does not let restaurants know that we are coming in to do a review, and we strive to remain anonymous. If we feel we have been recognized or are given special treatment, we will tell you. We pay for our meal, just as you would.
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