Walking energetically through the airy interior of his striking restaurant while greeting old friends and new customers, the bald and shaved, black-framed Occitania owner looks every bit like a hip Uptown Oakland chef.
Paul Canales, however, exudes a particular gravitas gained from decades as an independent and creative force on the city’s foodie scene – first running the show at the Rockridge institution Oliveto, then opening the Spanish hot spot. Uptown Duende. Particularly in the latter, where he had full creative control, Canales was able to marry his many interests – art and music among them – into a dining experience that often seemed to transcend food by tapping into the underground artistic spirit of ‘Oaklands. L’Occitanie truly feels like a happy hybrid of the two, combining the sophistication of Oliveto with the playfulness of Duende.
In short, it’s hard to think of anyone else who could have brought this project to life so successfully. Because Occitania looks like a big problem. Housed on the ground floor of the new Kissel Uptown Oakland hotel development at 24th Street and Broadway, it’s the most ambitious concept in years to launch in a part of town still struggling to establish itself as a regional draw. .
First, the location is a stunner. Abstract Picasso-style aerial sculptures – commissioned from Canales’ friend, Oakland artist Peter St. Lawrence – hang from high ceilings, towering arched windows allow in fantastic natural light and panoramic views of the people, and colorful details pop everywhere, from the brightly hued interior shelving above the bar to the plush forest green banquette that winds around the perimeter.
The food, meanwhile, rivals the decor. I admit I was worried when I first saw the menu. Befitting his effervescent energy and myriad interests, Canales could be accused in the past of overloading the senses. At first glance, the cuisine of Occitania seems much in the same maximalist vein, replete with rich offerings such as gratin and liver paste and sausage. But Canales features a relatively understated hand to match the restaurant’s elegant setting.
The gratin features layers of garlic and Gruyere smothered potatoes that are offset by salted cod mash and tangy capers. Yes, the earthy and chewy wild Burgundy snails are bathed in a buttery sauce enriched with parsley, lemon and garlic, but no more than you would expect for a classic French snail preparation – n Don’t forget to reserve this sauce for dipping the bread, which is half the appeal of the dish. The steak frites is refreshingly simple. A lean cut of New York Strip is grilled to a firm texture and topped with grains of sea salt and a herbaceous green sauce that doesn’t overwhelm the flavorful meat. Thin, crispy-outside, creamy-inside fries are the platonic ideal of French bistro fries, while a lightly seasoned lemony heap of baby arugula acts as a refreshing palate cleanser.
This purity of flavor and execution extends to cocktails. The vodka-based Waking Joseph is crisp and fragrant with Vietnamese accents of lemongrass, ginger and coriander. The addition of egg white and blackcurrant marmalade gives the gin-based sparkling Beehive Sour extra richness, but it’s no less balanced, with honey syrup, lemon juice and a garnish of bee pollen coexisting in perfect harmony.
Although it is mainly inspired by the regional cuisine of southern France, Occitanie refers to the Occitan linguistic region which also extends over parts of northern Italy and Spain, which gives Canales the opportunity to tap into its vast expertise in these kitchens. Both make cameos – mushroom pasta with Parmesan cream sauce nods to Italy, for example, while savory Spanish-style boquerón pops up among the sides. It also gives Canales carte blanche to highlight its house charcuterie – Duende’s basement is dedicated to this passion for pets – which occupies its own section on the menu. Canales eschews Italian meats like prosciutto in favor of richer French-influenced treats such as pork rillettes, duck liver paste, and saucisson. In particular, the terrine is a masterclass in technique, offering a surprisingly delicate mix of sweetbreads, veal, duck liver and leek coated in a bread of gelled fat. Likewise, the most complex and distinctive French dish, bourride provençale, is expertly executed: this regional variant of bouillabaisse features moist petrale sole and plump prawns in a smooth, creamy stew enriched with aioli and cuts. coarse slices of fennel, leek and artichoke.
Ultimately, Canales strikes a delicate balance in Occitanie, creating food (and atmosphere) that comes across as upscale but not strained. “People [who] followers of me for a long time know that I like to play that line between rustic and refined,” he says. “I didn’t want to do something super white tablecloth or just do a standard French bistro. The challenge is to present this food with a bit of finesse and a lyrical presentation that isn’t too precious.
Canales recognized the need for touchstones like French onion soup, snails and steak frites. It is these dishes, and the general Occitan theme, that provide the basis for expressing his culinary creativity. “I like a context, a sense of place,” he says. “All of this is useful and important to me, because the heart of my culinary philosophy is improvisation. It’s like jazz musicians: they have standards, but then they take those tunes and improvise from them. occitaniaoakland.com.