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Parlour Trick 

Wednesday, Oct 7 2015
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If "under-promise and over-deliver" is a great mantra for anyone looking to outfox a boss, the equivalent for restaurants is for a place to look just like everywhere else but serve food like you've never had. One glance at Parlour — Chef Jason Tuley's rustic and mostly Italian kitchen, next to Bar 355 and just east of downtown Oakland — reveals a run-of-the-mill hipster endeavor. It functions as a cafe during the morning rush, and it doesn't look anything like what you'd imagine a parlor to be — and that's the Parlour trick, as it were.

There were a couple near-misses, but several dishes stood out as among the best things I've eaten all year. And considering how affordable Parlour is, it should immediately be on everyone's list. (And if you've been, go again; the menu changes often.)

Things started off the right way, with high-quality bread. Parlour's wood-oven levain toast was perfect: It's moist on the inside, the crust is dry, and it's served fresh and hot with salty butter. (I'm aware that in the rest of North America, it's a given that bread is free, but this felt underpriced at $5.)

The plate of burrata ($11) that followed it could have used some of that salt, however. While presented nicely, enveloped in eggplant and sitting on a gorgeous oil slick of vincotto, it was crying out for more seasoning to keep it from being a big hug of blandness. Apart from the noise level (into which we will delve later), that was one of the few blemishes.

It's a good thing I had a dining buddy, because I probably would never have ordered the impeccable kabocha squash soup (with chorizo oil, cilantro, and almonds; $8), and that would have been a shame. More like a mousse, this soup held its shape after I scooped out a spoonful, and the chorizo oil drizzled on top and left unincorporated was subtly perfect. Creamy-grainy polenta ($9) was even better, full of toasted hazelnuts and Grana Padano cheese. Polenta is a funny thing, still slightly exotic despite being the Mediterranean version of grits. (Grits are slightly exotic too, I guess, but only because they originate far from California.) And it's usually relegated to the side dish category, but this example more than stood on its own as an appetizer.

A beet tart ($13), sexed up with a goat cheese sauce instead of ordinary chevre, did a good job of reimagining a tired dish, but the crust underneath was unfortunate, crumbling like the bottom of a pumpkin pie from Safeway. The wood-oven octopus ($15) perked things right back up, though. I order octopus every single chance I get, and this was one of the very best, so tender and flaky it was almost like crab meat and sitting on some peppery potatoes. If I ever make peace with my arch-nemesis (mayonnaise), it'll be because of the aioli on dishes like this.

When we visited, Parlour had half a dozen pizzas, and we gravitated towards the housemade sausage pie (with charred broccolini and cream, $18). You can add an egg, prosciutto crudo, or wild arugula, but we kept things simple: I added dried chilies, discovering right away that the sausage was already spicy enough, but the cream helped me out. Ultra-thin, and spotted like a jungle cat on the bottom, it was a terrific pie and a solid validation for restaurants that stack their wood piles on the dining room floor. A bowl of chitarra carbonara (with house pancetta, Pecorino, and black pepper, $17) was well-cooked and perfectly good, but screwed by having to follow all those magnificent dishes, the way James Corden's Late Late Show is screwed by having to follow Stephen Colbert. For dessert, we dug into buttermilk panna cotta with blackberry jam and pistachio biscotti ($8), and while it might not be to everyone's taste, I enjoyed the tangy funk, like an elevated yogurt.

The string of successes continued with the drinks. The frothy Uptown Dogg (Botanist gin, grapefruit, egg white, Cointreau, sea salt, $11) was mild and pleasantly saline, but the St. Chile (St. George chile vodka, Chartreuse, lemon, and that mixological fetish object, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, $11) was spectacular, light and perfectly balanced. I switched to wine and got a perfectly nice California pinot (from Meiomi, $13), but the Côtes du Rhône (Alain Voge's Les Peyrouses, $14) was everything you could want in an Old World red. Inky and concentrated, it had deep flavors of red fruit and, as with so many other items, felt underpriced.

On the basis of food alone, Parlour blew me away. But every rose has its thorn, and Parlour's noise level is, well, parlous. I'm going to go full grandpa-shakes-fist-at-cloud on this one: Parlour was so fucking loud I almost couldn't believe it was possible. It was, at best, half-full in there, and not only could we barely hear one another at the table but the server had to lean in close. There was music playing, but it wasn't especially high-volume. All it takes is for one giddy group to get a little raucous and suddenly everything is reverberating off the concrete floors. Apart from that, while Parlour falls squarely in the white-tile-and-strung-lightbulb camp, the décor ain't bad, with wood-inlay benches and a mesmerizing old-timey map of Oakland opposite the restrooms.

Noise aside, it was one of the best dinners I've had this year. Having now said at least three times that Parlour is underpriced, I feel like that dork in social studies who reminds the teacher she forgot to give the class homework. Get to Parlour before it's discovered, so you can say you knew it when.


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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