The Soul of Spain
Duende: Chef Paul Canales follows his passion in Uptown Oakland.
Photography by Angela Decenzo
With the opening of Duende, it seems as if another whole planet has emerged, making Oakland’s Uptown that much more interesting.
Not that there wasn’t already plenty happening in this revitalized neighborhood—the spiritual home of Oakland’s thriving art and music scenes. Flora, Picán, Ozumo, and Plum are just some of the interesting dining spots to open in the last few years. At Duende, however, things have come together even more perfectly.
Located just a few blocks from the epicenter of the city’s popular Art Murmur, the restaurant has a rustic underground-gallery-meets-urban-loft interior filled with bold color and dynamic works by local artists. Within earshot of music venues like the Fox and Paramount theaters, the New Parish, and the Uptown Nightclub, Duende’s intimate upstairs mezzanine has already played host to critically lauded jazz acts.
But Duende’s biggest contribution to the Uptown party is, well, a party. Or, the potential for many spontaneous celebrations. Very special food and drink, in portions small and large, allow a group of friends to catch up over a glass of sherry and a few tapas—or to start in on pitchers of rum and brandy punch, cocktails, beer, or wine, working up to entrée-sized meals and even platos familiares made for up to four people. Various sizes of tables, including really big ones, and the art- and music-saturated atmosphere encourage a live-it-up approach. If you want formal or fussy, this is not your place.
Executive chef Paul Canales, who opened Duende with L.A. restaurateur Rocco Somazzi, is probably best known as the former head chef of Oliveto, where he wowed on many occasions with his inventiveness, his energy, and his attention to detail. Those characteristics—along with Canales’ Basque heritage—are on full display on the menu, which offers genuine delicacies that are a hybrid of classic Spanish tapas and local seasonal ingredients. Teeny baby squid are dredged in flour and fried, before being arranged on a berm of frisée, a slow-cooked egg nested in its center. The wholly distinctive combination of elements in the sobrasada—a cooled chorizo spread, sour vegetable pickles, and peppery baby arugula—made a strong impression. Gem lettuce garnished with avocado, piquillo peppers, and anchovy was obviously the pride of the farmers market. Patatas bravas, potatoes and spicy aioli, had us fighting for the last bits on their earthenware plate.
Strangely enough, the rabbit and Manila clam paella, which we expected to be the star of the show, somehow wasn’t. Perhaps Canales was going light and subtle to counter a fear that Spanish food, and especially tapas, can be too heavy, but the kind of richness that one often associates with paella hardly touched the rather bland bits of rabbit. Tiny clams, on the other hand, were little pockets of rich sweetness.
Duende has a collection of sherries like none other, and the wine list, which is nearly all Spanish, is also excellent, especially with the food. When our server recommended a white, a 2011 Viñas del Vero la Miranda de Secastilla Grenache Blanc, and a red, a 2009 Volvoreta El Vino del Buen Amor Tempranillo, he got it exactly right both times. Flavors melded with our food in a way that made us remember why people have been drinking Spanish wine since, well, before the Moors invaded Spain and tried to put a stop to it.
Now, don’t get the idea that it’s only about the savory dishes at Duende, even though there are so many—and so many good ones. Desserts, by pastry chef Michelle Lee, blew us away. The delicate, light cake in an almond torte provided a pillowy sweetness contrasted by crisp sliced almonds with a fresh, roasted flavor so delicious that it was as if we’d never tasted almonds before. A chocolate tarte had a layer of chocolate so dark and devilish that it was hard to share politely. The delicate dessert’s crust and tiny flecks of salt set off the chocolate perfectly. Churros, available during the day at the restaurant’s adjoining bodega, could get to be a problem if you live in the neighborhood—or even if you don’t.
All in all, Duende is yet another rocking planet in the Uptown galaxy. Artful and set up for maximum fun, it’s a planet definitely worth visiting.
At a Glance
What makes it special: A menu, drink list, and ambience that insist you relax and enjoy. The space: Designed by Oakland architecture firm Arcsine, the interior is high ceilinged and masculine, with plenty of exposed materials. Look for paintings by local artist Raymond Saunders, whose improvisational style feels akin to chef Canales’ own brand of creativity. When to go: Any evening except Tuesday because it’s closed. Check out the bodega during the day, again any day but Tuesday, for wine, churros, and a few other baked goodies, or to pick up a bottle of proprietary olive oil. What to order: A variety of tapas so you can get the feel of things while trying the sherries or wines by the glass. Bonus: The house-made sodas—try the Earl Grey and lemon—and the coffee alone are enough to keep you coming back. Another bonus: An upstairs performance space hosts live music with a focus on experimental jazz.
Contact: 468 19th St., Oakland, (510) 893-0174, duendeoakland.com. Hours: Dinner Wed.–Mon.; bodega breakfast through dinner Wed.–Mon. Price: Tapas $6–$13.50, entrées $13.50–$20. Alcohol: Full bar.