An Uptown Oakland restaurant integrates more than California and Southern cuisine.
Photography by Cedric Glasier
The fried chicken can be topped with truffled honey.
Restaurant opening parties, like weddings, are prone to disasters along the lines of too much alcohol and not enough food, crises of timing in the kitchen, and glitches with new equipment. But at Picán’s opening party last spring, staff greeted every attendee warmly, the bar turned out expertly made drinks at a timely clip, and tables throughout the dining room groaned with food. And that was before Big Chief Tanawaka and the Gumbo Band rolled out of their bus from Louisiana and snaked through the room in their bright feathered costumes, creating a joyous Zydeco sound.
That’s how Picán hit Oakland: like a trumpet blast, but one that hit its note. Within days, it was bustling, instantly adopted like a new family member by local food lovers. This impressive launch was not happenstance. After dreaming and planning, proprietor Michael LeBlanc nailed it, combining business acumen from years as an executive at Polaroid and a love of food from a childhood in New Orleans.
“I really like the California cooking of Alice Waters,” he says. “I like the freshness. Picán’s food is a combination of California and traditional Southern.” LeBlanc is quick to point out that his chef, Dean Dupuis, formerly of Atlanta’s South City Kitchen, is committed to making Picán’s style unique. LeBlanc notes that chef Dupuis was struck by how highly diners regard subtlety at restaurants such as Chez Panisse and Boulevard. “We’ve taken a different stance,” says LeBlanc. “We’re going to be bold, but bold in balance.”
Take the collard greens, a dish the restaurant has trademarked as “California Collards.” The greens are sautéed rather than slowly cooked for several hours, as Southern tradition prescribes. They have a vibrant green color, and—tossed as they are with sautéed onions, garlic, and red chilies, as well as a splash of vinegar—they are indeed bold. Diners love them, says LeBlanc, but he concedes that a few still hanker for the old-school version.
LeBlanc tolerates such dissent but isn’t cowed. His exacting approach with respect to the most popular dish, buttermilk Southern fried chicken, has also caused an uproar. The chicken is incredibly tender and juicy, even the breast, and its crunchy dark-golden crust is full of salty, savory flavor. But it takes three days to make, and the kitchen has the capacity to make only about 60 orders a night. “It’s a quality-control issue,” says LeBlanc. “I want the first order of the night to taste exactly like the last.” He’s looking into adding another fryer because during Picán’s first seating, it’s not uncommon for nearly half the diners to order the chicken and wipe out the restaurant’s supply. “If people are going to be upset with me, they’ll be upset with me, but consistency is so important.”
The commitment to consistency and detail shines through in much of the food, from tender, meaty pork ribs, which are smoked in-house and finished with molasses barbecue sauce; to deeply flavored crispy smoked Berkshire pork belly, paired with a delicate cornmeal hoecake and pickled peaches; to the Low Country shrimp and grits, with lightly sweet Worcestershire-garlic gravy, toothsome Logan Turnpike grits ground in Georgia, and a showering of sharply flavored arugula.
Any quibbles with the food—heirloom tomatoes not fully cored, orecchiette clumped together in the jambalaya pasta, or corn bread that might have a crisper exterior and be served warm—are far outweighed by the hits, including silken bisques of sweet corn, she-crab, or Vidalia onion; rich, creamy-on-the-inside, crisp-on-top smoked gouda mac and cheese, which comes in a miniature cast-iron skillet; and fresh lemon buttermilk chess pie, its top foam baked crisp like meringue.
The experience of Picán goes beyond its bold food and even its showcase of handmade, single-batch Bourbons. Designer Tonya Bellusci incorporated salvaged 19th-century French wooden doors, wrought iron gates, and restored shutters reminiscent of an old Southern estate. LeBlanc is sensitive to both the beauty and poignant legacy of the form: “I hate to use the word plantation,” he says. “I hate all the slavery stuff associated with that, but I wanted to have that grand feeling. It’s not postracial yet because we still have a long way to go.” Yet, LeBlanc says he’s proud of the mix of people he sees in the dining room at Picán, in terms of race, age, and socioeconomics. “Where have you seen that level of diversity?” he asks. “It’s what the country can be.” ■
At a glance
What Makes it Special: A style, both of the food and the diners, that blends a reverence for tradition with a contemporary, avant-garde streak.
The Space: French Quarter contemporary with warm amber light. The ladies room is a spacious oasis, with fresh orchids and a faux-crocodile floor.
When to Go: Dinner for fried chicken, business lunches for the pimento cheese burger, or Sunday brunch for beignets and crawfish biscuits and gravy.
what to Order: Fried chicken—stat!
Bonus: An introductory drink for Bourbon novices called mint julep minis. These are little shots that “Carrie and the rest of the Sex in the City crew would drink,” says LeBlanc.
CONTACT: 2295 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 834-1000, picanrestaurant.com.
HOURS: Lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
PRICE: Appetizers $7–$14, entrées $17–$31.
ALCOHOL: Full bar.