Shhhh. We have a new favorite restaurant, and we're afraid that if anyone else stumbles upon this warm, inviting place, tastes those vibrant Spanish flavors, crunches the croquetas or sips the stellar craft cocktails, we will never manage to score a table again. So this is just between us, OK? Jen Biesty's new Shakewell is utterly wonderful.
What this "Top Chef" alum has created in Oakland's Lakeshore district is a neighborhood tapas joint, with clever cocktails, fresh Spanish-Mediterranean fare and an ambience that invites you to not only chat with the people at neighboring tables but share your food -- not just with your own date, but the people two tables down. No clue how that happened, but we're still grinning.
Exec chef Biesty isn't the only "Top Chef" alum on hand. The pastry chef and co-owner is Tim Nugent, from the first season of "Top Chef: Just Desserts," and this was a Kickstarter-funded project. Consider everyone who invested very smart, indeed, because Shakewell is a winner from the moment you walk in the door and step up to the bar for a sangria ($8), a grapefruit and tequila Early Bird ($9), or a Smoking Gun ($10), a blended scotch riff on a Negroni. The orange zest is set afire, hence the name.
Shakewell may be stylish and sleek, but it's also grounded in the natural world, from the rustic blonde woodwork to the caged, stone-filled walls that divide the dining area from the bar, the menus printed on brown butcher paper and the local, organic and sustainable ingredients that grace your plate.
We started with a few small bites -- colorful, flavorful deviled quail eggs ($4 for two) with pimenton and serrano ham, and bacalao croquetas ($7). The fried cod croquetas were crunchy and crisp on the outside, meltingly creamy on the inside. I'd have liked more texture, so I'd know that was fish in there, but that's a personal preference.
There are so many enticements on the menu, decisions are difficult. The melon, serrano ham and basil ($6) tapa, drizzled with luxardo and finished with smoked salt, is on my "absolutely must try next time" list. So are the falafel ($6) with romesco and dried chorizos. We'd have done it at the time, but the bombas ($19-$22) proved impossible to resist.
Think paella, roasted in a wood-burning oven in a small cazuela, so the saffron-hued rice stays plump and moist and the embellishments -- Manila clams, chorizo, a carrot-jalapeno sofrito, green beans and olives ($20), in our case -- are all perfectly cooked. Our neighbors went the chicken and prawn route, with braised fennel, piperade and fino sherry ($22).
The other entree options include grilled fish -- calamari and charred leeks ($15) for example, or shrimp with a dried lime rub ($16), as well as braised pork shoulder ($19) and chili-chocolate braised short ribs ($19).
But we go weak-kneed over albondigas ($15), and these were made of chicken and served in a deeply aromatic sauce of tomato, pimenton and fino sherry. It was tempting to ask for a straw.
By the time we hit Nugent's desserts, plates were traveling back and forth across tables. Our Flan Catalan ($7) was flavored with lemon and fennel pollen, its caramelized syrup pooled at the bottom of the little pot. Topped with candied orange, the refreshing, brightly hued Grapefruit-Campari Granita ($6) evoked cries of "brain freeze!" followed by more spoonfuls. The Bittersweet Chocolate Torta ($7) ordered by the couple at the next table proved a decadent, deeply chocolaty indulgence -- and when the plate reached them, our neighbors on our other side agreed it was sinfully delicious.
Yeah, it's that kind of place -- convivial, communal and utterly delicious.
* * * ½
WHERE: 3407 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland
CONTACT: 510-251-0329, www.shakewelloakland.com
HOURS: 4-10 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and until 9 p.m. Sundays
VEGETARIAN: Several tapas options include pan con tomate, grilled flatbread with eggplant, a beet and burrata salad and summer squash-feta salad.
BEVERAGES: Craft cocktails, Spanish and California wines and agua fresca
NOISE LEVEL: Medium-loud
PARKING: Street parking
PLUSES: Vibrant Spanish flavors interpreted via local, organic and sustainable ingredients. And the bombas are the bomb.
MINUSES: We are hard-pressed to come up with any criticism, other than that some of the dining tables have benches that are too high for the table, even for a shorty like me.
DATE OPENED: July
We strive to remain anonymous. We pay for our meal, just as you would.
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
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40