Dine About Oakland: PicánJune 5, 2009
Picán, one of the newest additions to the Uptown foodie scene, has been ridiculously hyped since it opened, so of course we had to go check it out. The only problem is that it’s apparently been discovered, and you have to make reservations waaaaay in advance to have a prayer of a chance of getting a table. We finally lucked out last month, though, when we were headed to TV on the Radio in the gloriously beautiful (but sadly still in need of a better sound guy!) new Fox. (D. is still resisting Ozumo, which he thinks “looks like a yuppie scene” based on a few bike-bys during happy hour. Yuppies hanging out in DTO?? Bring it, I say!)
So anyway—Picán. The theme here is Southern, though it’s got a bit of a California twist and has definitely been taken up a notch (or two, or ten) over your standard Southern comfort food joint. There’s a huge selection of drinks, too, with an emphasis on bourbons, so even D. was inspired to forego a beer for a cocktail (at least for round one!) The setting is lovely; we sat near the food counter where orders were being called out so waitstaff were constantly coming and going, but they had set up the tables in such a way that it was completely unobtrusive. (It was actually even fun, since we got to ogle all of the plates as they sat under the warmer waiting to be shuttled to the tables!)
We’d heard rumors about a dress code (which is pretty much unheard of in these parts, even at the most upscale of East Bay dining spots!) but decided to risk it with nice-ish jeans and t-shirts, since we were headed to a show afterwards; while we were a bit underdressed compared to the general crowd, no one blinked or said a word about it, so I think that rumor’s been exaggerated. Which is good, given the proximity to all the Uptown music venues.
And the meal? AMAZING. Honestly, for once the hype is right on the button. Service was perfect; food was excellent; we could hear one another but not to a fault. It is an expensive place, but prices still seemed appropriate for what we got. As we neared the end of our meal, I observed that it was probably the best meal we’d had in a long time. D.’s biggest issue? He just doesn’t like Southern food quite as much as Mexican, which we’d had in a fabulous Tamarindo meal not long before.
Here’s what we had:
Honey buttered cornbread: Complimentary, and soooo tasty!
Picán Magnolia salad with cornbread croutons, toasted pecans and balsamic honey dressing: Simple, but good. The dressing was a bit thick for D.’s taste, but I was a fan. The one thing the menu might benefit from is a few more salad options to balance all the heavy Southern goodness—there were only three options for salad the night we were there, and one involved a heavyish dressing while a second included fried okra. We’ll give the cucumber salad a spin next time since it sounded light, but it included feta, so we thought it might be overkill on the dairy front with the chedder fritter and mac ‘n’ cheese on the way. One bonus: after I ordered and our waiter asked if D. wanted a salad as well, he noted that he’d be having some of mine. When the salad showed up, it had been beautifully split and plated on two plates. There are a few places around town that make a point of doing this when they hear you’re splitting a dish—Wood Tavern in particular has always impressed me with the practice—but I’m always so pleased by it, since it makes sharing a dish just a little classier.
Buttermilk southern fried chicken with smoked gouda mac ‘n’ cheese: The chicken, which our waiter explained is marinated in buttermilk and other spices for three days beforehand, was pretty much perfect, though neither of us was a huge fan of the smokiness of the mac ‘n’ cheese. (The consistency and other flavors were excellent, though, so if you like the slightly smoky aftertaste, you’ll be all good.) We skipped the tableside truffled honey service that you can get with this dish, though D. was tempted to ask if it would come in a little locked box à la the French Laundry…. (Okay, the truffle box there didn’t actually have a key, but it really should have with all the hoopla around it!)
We had a fried chicken-themed month and had Farmer Brown‘s version of this dish with a friend just a week later and Ben and Nick’s wannabe-Bakesale Betty sandwich a few days after that (plus I’ve had enough Bakesale Betty sandwiches to be able to taste it in my dreams). D. and I agreed that the Picán chicken takes the cake—although at $23 (versus Farmer Brown’s $17 dish, Ben and Nick’s $12 sandwich, and Bakesale Betty’s $8 bargain), it’s priced accordingly. We’re also long overdue for a visit to West Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen, which purportedly serves a stellar fried chicken too, so one of these days we’ll see how theirs compares.
Bourbon & molasses lacquered duck, collard greens with chiles and garlic, and white cheddar fritter: This dish was off the beaten path for us—we’re not usually duck people—but the bourbon-molasses combo was so intriguing that we decided to take a chance. Probably the best dish—and best decision—of the night. D. proclaimed the fritter that comes alongside it (I think the waiter said it was grits-based, but not sure on that) the prime piece of the entire meal—soft and warm on the inside with just enough crunch. The duck is served medium-rare, and was tender with a bit of sweetness and kick.
Grilled asparagus with sea salt: Simple but well done. I tend to resist vegetables-as-sides, mostly because they’re often similar to sides I make for dinner at home and tend to come at a hefty price, but D. is a fan, and made a compelling case for more green things this time. And it was good, so I guess I should shut up about it….
Lemon chess pie: The dessert menu has a lot of Southern classics (banana pudding, pecan tart, moon pies, root beer floats, and more) but we went for the one vaguely light-sounding item, which was a special that night. It’s been years since I’ve had lemon chess pie, which is basically a simple custard pie infused with lemon juice and lemon zest. This one seemed to measure up, but the whole dish was just a bit heavier than in my childhood memories of it, and we were already stuffed, so we probably should have just skipped dessert….but I wanted to see how it was, since who knows when we’ll get back there. Lesson learned: swap out an appetizer for one of the entrées if I really want to end the night with pie!
We also tasted several things off the cocktails menu:
- Kentucky Crusta (Makers Mark Bourbon; Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur; fresh lemon juice; rock candy syrup; served in a sugar crusted glass): A little sweet for my taste, but the bourbon was excellent.
- Sazerac (Rye Whiskey; sugar cube; bitters): D. tried this one out, and dubbed it solid but not a true Sazerac in his book since it was missing the absinthe swirl—a little strange since they do have absinthe on the menu in a couple of other drinks. Ah, well.
- Picán Pale Ale: Yes, a house pale ale! After quizzing the waiter on exactly where this beer came from (it’s brewed locally by Oakland-based Brothers Brewing Company), D. tried it out—pretty good!
So, yeah. A pretty terrific meal overall. The only downside is that it is a bit pricey—we spent just over $100 for two before tax and tip with two drinks apiece, but splitting a salad and a dessert—so we’re not likely to be regulars here. But if you have a special occasion coming up, head to Picán. It’s exciting to have such a solid anchor for the Uptown restaurant scene—but don’t forget to make your reservations long in advance (at least a month for Friday and Saturday nights, it seems!)