Trust Paul Canales to create something magical in Oakland's Uptown: Duende's Basque-inspired pintxos, tapas and shareable platters are served in a stylish warehouse near the Fox Theater. It's loud, lively and pretty much all-around awesome. Also, loud.
You can see Duende's distinctive, retro sign glowing from down the street. Inside, it's all dark, thick slabs of wood and immense girders. Near the bar, a high communal table offers dining space for any walk-ups. Make reservations -- as you most definitely should -- and you'll score a booth or table tucked against a wall.
The place is a celebration of rustic Basque and Spanish decor and food. The lighting is dim, the tables and chairs crafted from thick planks,
The cocktails ($9), served in small, antique glasses, are inventive -- an Airmail boasts white rum, lime, honey and cava; a Buried Mirror mixes mezcal, oloroso sherry and pineapple gomme syrup. There are sherry flights, cava by the glass or the bottle and wines on tap, by the bottle and glass. Don't want booze? House-made sodas ($3) include vanilla-citrus, Earl Grey-lemon and lemon-ginger.
It's a menu designed for sharing with a tempting array of 14 different Basque pintxos and Spanish tapas, a few slightly larger raciones and several platos familiares, larger platters designed for two or more people. We started with buñuelos ($11.50), light, irresistible shrimp fritters made with Meyer lemon and, we were told, mango. We couldn't taste the latter, but the dish was sensational.
Patatas bravas ($6) -- crispy potatoes with a spicy allioli, Spain's aioli cousin -- were fantastic, too. At other tapas bars, including Berkeley's Cesar, the dish typically arrives as large potato wedges coated in sauce, and the first (second, third) bite invariably drips allioli and potato bits on my shirt. Here, the potatoes were done in bite-size cubes -- and my dry cleaner sends his thanks. The potatoes were beautifully crispy outside and tender within, and the sauce offered a beautifully balanced, gently spicy contrast. Just remembering them makes me want more.
There were plenty of nonfried pintxos options, too, including a swordfish escabeche ($13.50), lamb-stuffed piquillo peppers ($12.50), baby octopus with pork belly and black truffles ($16) and a quince and Spanish cheese platter ($13) that the 60-something next to us poked at and her 20-something companion described as "awesomely delicious."
Prefer something more unusual? The tapas array also included pork trotters and cheeks ($10.50) and pork tongue and ears with salsa diablo ($10.50). If you're dining with a vegetarian, the cana de cabra ($12, bruleed goat's milk cheese, beets and lollipop kale) and ensalada de col ($9.50, savoy cabbage, pistachios, olives and mahon, which is a Spanish cheese) are good bets.
We are helpless to resist when albondigas ($17.50 on the raciones menu) are involved, and these -- made with green garlic, pork and hedgehog mushrooms -- were flavorful, generous and delicious.
Plates to share
We're loving the family platter trend we're seeing more and more often in restaurants these days -- at Berkeley's Comal, for example, and Port Costa's Bull Valley Roadhouse, where a platter serves two or three people generously. Here the platters, whose ingredients vary with the seasons and come in two- or four-portion pans, include paella with rabbit and txistorra sausage ($36/$72), arroz negro with yellowtail and crab ($38/$76), and fideua with duck and wild nettles ($38/$76) -- and chuleton, a 48-ounce steak that serves four ($80).
The paella was great, the rabbit and sausage mixed with Manila clams and garbanzos -- and too-slippery cipollini onions that I avoided after the first bite, but which my dining partner enjoyed. (The leftover paella was great the next day for lunch, too.)
The dessert menu offers six possibilities, ranging from a traditional flan with citrus ($9) and quince and cheese platter ($13) to a pistachio-almond turron ($4.50) and a chocolate torte with coffee ice cream ($9). The latter sat in a pool of mocha anglaise, which made for an extremely sweet, very soft dessert. The cacao nib-flecked ice cream was the best part, offering a little crunch and the pungency of unsweetened nibs.
The only misstep in an otherwise warm and charming evening: Our server forgot to put in our flan order. She offered to bring it after we'd finished the torte, but by then, the sound level from the live music in another room had reached such volume, we were ready to call it a night.
One of Duende's attractions is a brisk lineup of live music in the lounge, performed after 9 p.m., something we normally adore, no matter what the genre. That said, the sound dramatically increases in the dining room when the band starts playing, and something strange happens to the music as it travels through whatever baffles and walls stand between band and dining tables. Or perhaps the pianist really was playing with highly amplified elbows.
Live music, loud
Our server kept coming to check on us, even before the flan fiasco, because the sound levels were so high. We're not saying live music is a bad thing -- we're giving Canales a standing O for including it in his offerings. But if you were planning to converse over dinner, eat before 9. And if you want to listen to the music, don't do it from your table. Pay the door charge and go listen properly in the lounge.
In any case, the evening ended on a sweet note. Our server brought us a small plate of pistachio-almond turron, a very sweet, nut-studded nougat candy much like its Italian cousin, torrone, as an apologetic gift with our bill. We had paella for lunch the next day. And we're making reservations to go back. We hear buñuelos calling our name.
* * *
FOOD: * * *
AMBIENCE: * * *
SERVICE: * * *
WHERE: 468 19th St., Oakland
HOURS: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday,
Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
VEGETARIAN: Several options
on the pintxos and tapas menu,
including a bruleed goat's milk
cheese and beets dish.
BEVERAGES: House-made sodas, creative cocktails, craft beer and Californian and Spanish wines on tap, by the bottle or glass.
RESERVATIONS: Available through the restaurant website and strongly recommended
NOISE LEVEL: Loud to extremely loud
PARKING: Scattered street parking; take BART to 19th Street instead.
KIDS: Teens with adventuresome palates might enjoy this. Leave the little ones home.
PLUSES: Stylish, warehouse decor and terrific tapas and Basque dishes make for a memorable night out.
MINUSES: The tapas tab adds up quickly -- as it does in any tapas place. Live music after 9 p.m. amps up the noise level in the dining area to high levels.
DATE OPENED: January
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