The master of pizza creates a fiery splash in Oakland.
Behind Penrose’s hot scene is a roaring wood-fired grill. You can step away from the busy bar and watch the grill master turn rainbow trout silvery black over shimmering coals. He garnishes the charred cold water fish with steaming red potatoes and a green splash of Moroccan-spiced oil. The finished plate is whisked away by a food runner, and the master turns back to the fire and his blistering meats.
Penrose is a departure for Charlie Hallowell, a Chez Panisse alum and owner of the pioneering Pizzaiolo and Boot and Shoe Service—where fires are stoked in a pizza oven. Penrose does boast a few flatbreads, including one grilled with sea salt—perfect for the stewy broth in saffron-spiked mussels.
Penrose’s menu is most distinguished by North African accents such as cumin, coriander, chili oil, and pomegranate molasses. It’s a soulful style that celebrates Hallowell’s lineage and passions. The restaurant is named after his great-great-grandfather, who was an “intense Quaker abolitionist.” And North African influences are what he loves most about the cuisines of Europe and the Americas. “I spent so many years cooking Italian, that to venture out of that is really anxiety provoking,” says Hallowell. “But this is my way of stepping out. Penrose is self-indulgent. I’m just going for it.”
A quick walk from Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, Penrose is easy to miss, despite its long street-front facade. There’s no obvious signage, and the warm wood and glass front has the tranquil sensibility of a downtown tavern. The restaurant comes alive inside, with tunes ranging from soulful blues to abstract flamenco.
Subtle artistic elements include dewdrop chandeliers and vintage mismatched plates and serving ware. More conspicuous are the bar’s stool-to-ceiling floating art piece and the dining room’s central feature: a jutting scallop shell installation as wide as the central exhibition kitchen.
Penrose’s menu is neatly divided into four sections—meat, fish, vegetables, and sides—with no distinction between small and large plates, other than price. Dishes arrive when they’re ready, allowing the kitchen crew to concentrate on cooking rather than coordinating.
A $4 bowl of green olives with preserved lemon and a martini perfume is a satisfying way to sink into the mood and ponder the menu. A juicy red wine—our waitress steers us to a fruity, affordable Tempranillo—also helps.
Most of the food here is either raw or grilled, and the dishes typically arrive in that order. Our delicate yet ragged slices of hamachi come draped over beet purple rounds of blood orange boosted by a pinch of sea salt and tiny bits of celery. This is followed by a crisped flatbread smeared with avocado and dotted with tiny rings of hot chiles.
Our expectations are high, but we’re impressed nonetheless. On a previous visit, I had slipped into the bar shortly after the restaurant opened. Both bar and dining room, including four communal tables of 10, filled in 30 minutes. (Penrose takes no reservations, so either get here early or be prepared to wait.) The black slate bar was lined with vials of tinctures and house-made bitters for swanky cocktails, but I was content with an Oakland brewery’s creamy black lager. It was fantastic with my meaty grilled sardines seasoned with lime, tiny turnips, and pungent herbs.
On that visit, as the women to my right chatted with girlfriends about a recent trip to Madagascar, as the couple to my left taste tested single malt scotches, and as the telegenic techies at my back reached past me for their drinks, I felt a bit provincial.
But on this current visit, as we finish our flatbread and plates of pink pork loin, succulent rainbow trout, and sweet-and-nutty roasted cauliflower, I feel as deserving as anyone in the booming dining room. As we head into dessert, our full attention is absorbed in the coarse-textured olive oil cake, the light persimmon panna cotta, and a plate of whole dates and unpeeled tangerines.
Penrose does have its adornments, but there’s something deeply familiar, even earthy, about it. The relaxed hostesses set this tone, as do the dining room’s hand-crafted tables. (We even found a drop of sap on our visit.)
In sum, it’s alchemy: the fire, the community, the good food and drink. From the outside in, it feels like home.
Contact: 3311 Grand Ave., Oakland, (510) 444-1649, penroseoakland.com. Hours: Thurs.–Mon. 5:30–10:30 p.m. Price: Small plates $4–$10; entrées $9–$30. Alcohol: Full bar.