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Style Over Substance 

OakTown Cafe

Wednesday, Jul 5 2000
I went to OakTown the other night with three women versed in the intricacies of haute couture, and their first impressions were positive indeed. The voguishly austere nature of the décor --futurism with a soupçon of industrial eclectic -- was commended without reservation. The layout of the place drew kudos for its airy yet cozy nature, an effect achieved via a warmingly vicinal kitchen and other subtextual elements. Our waitress' haircut was especially remarked upon, as were her jeweled accouterments and stylish Capri pants. Even the menu -- a spare, simple listing of New American bistro fare in e.e. cummings-esque lowercase -- was applauded for its hip, post-ironic brevity. The fashionable final verdict: "Stylin'," "Happening," and "Totally Melrose!"

OakTown is restaurant as fashion trend, a cool, suave emporium of postmodern sustenance where pizzas are strewn with shiitake, the oven burns with wood, and T-shirts are available in burgundy, forest, and maize. Ceiling-high plate-glass windows look out on a particularly fervid stretch of downtown Oakland, allowing you to become an observant aspect of the passing parade without leaving the comfort of your arugula with pecorino. And despite the modishness of the surroundings, the overall ambient effect is a warm and welcoming one, complete with attentive and insight-ful service and a disarming absence of the robotic.

But couture is by its very nature less than skin deep, and like the man said, you can't judge a restaurant by its haircut. The most enduring fashions are founded in simplicity, and so it goes at OakTown. There are salads and pizzas and desserts on the menu; enjoy them. It's when the kitchen enters the bouffant-and-boa realm of entrees and main dishes that it stumbles. Take the oven-roasted lamb chops ($16). Not only are they overcooked and tough to the tooth, their marinade renders unto them a strange cloying-salty flavor, and the three cornmeal-potato pancakes nestled alongside are thick, dull, and lukewarm. The risotto ($14), ribboned though it is with herbs and mushrooms, is similarly ponderous and bland. And the grilled sea bass ($16), while tender enough, has an uneven dry texture to go with the desiccated rice sharing its platter.

The salads, however, are big, fresh, and verdant with earthly flavors. The Caesar ($6.50) isn't afraid of the bracing pungency that is the dish's traditional glory and which is absent from many a modern-day, culinarily correct rendition; its oil and anchovies are present and triumphant. The spinach salad ($6.50) features a varied supporting cast of baby beets, toasted walnuts, goat cheese, and a nice lemony Dijon vinaigrette, all of them positively harmonious. The aforementioned arugula ($6.25) is pleasantly and surprisingly subtle in flavor, with sweet little tomatoes and shards of tart pecorino adding their particular contributions. Only the iceberg salad ($6.50) is questionable -- an unwieldy chunk of the dull, cold lettuce scattered with blandly redundant bread crumbs and unpleasantly invigorated with a sweet-strong blue d'Auvergne dressing.

The pizzas are enjoyably imaginative, with thick, fresh, fragrant crusts supporting (or, in the case of the calzones, enfolding) seven varieties of topping, including corn-pesto-scallion ($9.75), three-onion-raclette-bacon ($10.50), and eggplant-spinach-caper ($9.75). One of the best is the linguiça ($9.50), in which the garlicky Portuguese sausage perfectly checks and balances such complementary flavors as sweetly pungent roasted onions and bland, milky mozzarella. The three-mushroom ($9.50) is equally impressive, with the distinct textures of shiitake, cremini, and oyster interacting pleasantly with sweet-tart goat cheese and fresh thyme. (All pizzas are available in calzone form for an extra 50 cents.)

As one might perhaps expect, the desserts are the best part of the dining experience; the confectionary nature and seductive appearance of a meal's final chapter fit especially snugly within OakTown's mise en scène. The strawberry shortcake ($4.75) is lovely to look at: a golden biscuit, split through and brimming with ruby-red strawberries at their seasonal peak, with several dollops of alpine-white whipped cream crowning the whole. It's almost anticlimactic to report that the biscuit is dry and a bit tough, but the strawberries are juicy and the cream is lush and unsweetened. Split vote on the ginger-lemon sorbet ($3.75; raspberry and coconut also available) -- some of the weenies at my table found it to be too sharp and aggressively gingery, but damn it, I liked it. (Bonus: an accompanying shortbread cookie that's as rich and buttery as the ice is keen and crisp.) No quibbles with the crème brûlée, though ($4.75). OakTown's version is a welcome change from the lumpy, saccharine renditions I've been encountering lately -- this one's blessedly pure and simple, creamy and cool, with a good thick top crust of caramelized sugar to hammer through on your way to the goodies: a little bit of Joseph Campbell to go with your cream and sugar.

The chocolate tartlet ($4.75) is dreamy despite its rather brawny crust: a buttery amalgam of caramel and crunchy walnuts, with just enough of a chocolatey undercurrent to lend a hint of the diabolical to the enterprise. Best of all is a dish as simple and as unaffected as a summer frock: the hot fudge sundae ($5). Some joints pour on the toasted pecans and jujubes to distract you from the unworthiness of their ice cream; here it's just top-quality ingredients in all their gooey glory. Why get fancy when you've got satiny whipped cream, chewy-dense vanilla-bean gelato, and thick, bittersweet, endorphin-rich hot fudge at your disposal?

The wine list is impressively eclectic and reasonably priced, with vintages available by the 5-ounce glass (27 from $3 to $7), the half bottle (29 from $9 to $20.50), and the bottle (32 from $17 to $37.50), many of them from the trendy vineyards of Oregon. Among the notables are Rex Hill's '98 pinot gris ($5 per glass, $12 per half bottle, $24 per bottle), Caibourdin's '97 pouilly fumé ($17.50 per half bottle), Rivetti's '98 moscato ($27 per bottle), Willakenzie's '97 gamay noir ($5.50 per glass, $26.75 per bottle), Seghesio's '98 sangiovese ($20.50 per half bottle, $37.50 per bottle), Rosenblum's '92 cab ($30 per bottle), and Kiona's '97 late-harvest white riesling ($4 per glass). There are also two hard ciders -- Daron Normandy ($11) and Sonoma's Rhyne ($12) -- as well as 10 kinds of beer (including Ommegang's delicious Trappist-style ale at $4 and Mendocino's sublime Black Hawk Stout at $3.75) and a nice, refreshing house-made lemonade ($1.75 including refills).

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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