Oakland's Bardo Delivers Retro and Refined Fare
The ’60s-inspired supper club and lounge offers a dual concept infused with painstaking creativity.
Order a bite in the midcentury-themed lounge downstairs, or indulge in a multicourse meal at the intimate supper club upstairs.
The name Bardo is a play on “Zendo”—a place for Zen meditation—but the word also refers to an in-between state, like purgatory, in Tibetan Buddhism. After owners Jenni and Seth Bregman shuttered their Oakland eatery Michel Bistro last spring, there was a protracted limbo before Bardo Lounge and Supper Club opened in October (restaurant build-outs always drag on), making the name seem particularly apt (Seth studied and practices in the Buddhist tradition).
But there’s another sense to “Bardo” that really gets to the heart of the business: Seth sees its curvy downstairs lounge space—with its cushioned niches and come-hither couches, framed by exposed brick and anchored by a glamorous bar—as a “soft landing pad” for folks transitioning from work to bedtime.
The lounge is where drive-in–inspired burgers are slathered in Bardo sauce (aioli with fermented chili-garlic paste), topped with house-made pickles and silky aged white cheddar, and tucked into fresh-baked and toasted English muffin buns. It’s clear the chefs, Brian Starkey and Anthony Salguero (co-chefs at Michel Bistro when the Bregmans took over), are having a heck of a good time riffing on Mad Men–era hors d’oeuvres such as deviled duck eggs with crispy duck skin; porcupine meatballs (using kaffir lime, lemongrass, and mint pesto rather than garlic powder and watery tomato sauce); and a crusty, voluptuous dish of fresh roasted peppers and Castelvetrano olives, standing in for the Depression-era jumbo versions stuffed with cold cream cheese and canned pimentos.
Upstairs is a more meditative and celestial-themed dining room with twinkling, starry lights. It overlooks the sultry lounge and offers a refined yet imaginative set menu (à la carte options are available as well) with only the slightest nod to the Baby Boomer generation.
Two tables for two by the railing allow couples to soak up the lounge’s energy; our party of six sat at a handsome communal table in the center of the brick wall–accented room. (Reservations are recommended for upstairs dining on weekends.)
Our multi-choice, three-course, prix-fixe menu was mostly extraordinary and complemented by attentive if somewhat unengaged service from a thoroughly professional waitstaff.
My favorite plate (there are four choices on offer for each appetizer and entrée, and three options for dessert) presented as an ode to old-school fondue: ripe Camembert melted into cream and accented with briny sea urchin. It was playful and decadent, served on a platter with a colorful display of uniquely prepared seasonal veggies (including brilliant red, grilled Jimmy Nardello peppers and yam confit), marinated quail eggs, and crusty cubes of just-fried torn bread.
Shockingly good, too, was the chicken appetizer. Brined and boneless half chickens, smeared with jerk spice and rolled into tight bundles, were steamed, chilled, and sliced into tender rounds. The succulent poultry, enhanced with bold seasoning, was accompanied by caramelized ginger and crunchy garnishes, including house-puffed rice and rice crackers. A third option (the pumpkin tart) balanced sweet kabocha squash against shaved and marinated fennel, chervil, and nutty yuba (tofu skin). It seemed like a refreshing and delicate dish until we got to the pumpkin seed tart shell—so hard and dense, we were convinced at first it was a ceramic mold.
The vintage plates and glassware at Bardo bring a fun flair and set the tone of a bygone era. Seth has been collecting cocktail glasses for a decade and “bartending” since he was 10 years old, when he prepared drinks for his parents’ guests. The newfangled and old-fashioned cocktails, such as the bright green Grasshopper sprinkled with dehydrated parsley powder, reflect what Seth calls his “spirit of experimentation.” Meanwhile, Jenni—who works at Salesforce as the senior manager of strategic events—chooses the music, deejaying some nights and recruiting bands for the weekends.
I doubt any East Bay chef was cooking sous vide back in the ’60s, but Starkey and Salguero take full advantage of the slow and precise cooking technology. Triangles of pork shoulder, soaked in an aromatic Vietnamese–style marinade, emerged impossibly tender. Slabs of short rib steak, on the other hand, were surprisingly firm, cooked a perfect medium-rare edge to edge, and crusted to order with bone marrow hash browns. And the cod, fried in a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer batter, was prepared brilliantly, the crispy crust set off by piquant elements of a deconstructed gribiche (a classic French mayonnaise-style sauce).
Clever but disappointing were the period desserts; as part of a $59 prix fixe, they should make diners swoon. The lonely-looking bananas foster semifreddo, however, was more of a meringue pudding-cake: cold and overly sweet, and seemingly sliced from a sheet pan rather than flambéed to order.
Still, less than a month in, Bardo was remarkable in almost every sense. And though the servers and owners appeared harried during our anonymous visit, the lounge crowd was grooving, oblivious to the 1,001 details it takes to run a great restaurant.
3343 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland, (510) 836-8737, bardooakland.com. Dinner Wed.–Sun.