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Satisfying Saturdays: Eating Well in Wine Country
Picán: A Little Bit of New Orleans in Oakland

By Charles Olken

89 Picán 2295 Broadway at 23rd Street Oakland, California

It was on a dark and stormy night, with the wind howling, the rain blowing in every direction and our umbrellas turned inside out by the storm, we ventured into the new Oakland and found New Orleans. Hustling out of the climate’s hurly-burly, we opened the doors of a gray-marble clad office building and found ourselves in the midst of a happening scene. What at first looked like a Friday night bar crowd, turned out to be a collection of serious dinners, hot jazz and a one of the best stocked Bourbon bars in the Bay Area. I can’t tell you that no one beats its 140 separate bottlings of finely crafted whiskey, but I was impressed and that takes some doing, because my personal bourbon stash is not too shabby on its own.

The story of Pican starts seven decades ago when workers flooded out of the south to build warships at the Kaiser facilites in the San Francisco’s East Bay. The war ended, the workers found less employment than they needed and the slums of the East Bay, from Oakland to Richmond, and including West Berkeley, were born. Of course, Oakland’s problems probably stretch further back than that. As Gertrude Stein once famously wrote of Oakland, “There’s no there there”. Of course, Ms. Stein may not have appreciated cool jazz and soul food, the reasons why I would wander over to Oakland during my graduate school days, but, Ms. Stein was pretty much right then and she would not be totally wrong even today.

But with great effort now stretching over several decades, things have changed. We have written in these pages of urban wineries with large national reputations like Rosenblum, JC Cellars, Rockwall and Dashe and we have, in a previous rendition of “Satisfying Saturdays” recommended the Bay Wolf Restaurant, a superb dining outpost of several decades standing. And now, there is a genuine “Uptown” restaurant scene in Oakland with all kinds of delights. People have dubbed this the “new Oakland”, and to the credit of the city fathers who set about to change a moribund commercial district, the new Oakland is succeeding.

Pican, an integral part of the Uptown scene, is a vibrant, gorgeously created space with modern touches at every stop and yet a feeling of home. Given that it is a restaurant with 160 seats, you might not think it possible, but owner Michael LeBlanc, the genius behind Brothers Brewing, has brought the New Orleans touch with him and installed it at Pican. It took but a few seconds to realize that all of the hustle and bustle, the buzzing conversations, the tinkling piano were not a mass of confusion but part of a joyous celebration. There are two rooms at Pican, a bar/lounge with its own menu of southern treats, but also able to choose from the dinner menu, and a dining room for those, like the Olkens, who would prefer traditional seating and a more formal menu.

If we had not had to wait for our table, a sign of success that our 8:30 reservation was the second or even third turn of our table, we would not have joined in the rhythm of the lounge. But, there we were, waiting patiently, surprisingly finding old friends around the room, loving the modern takes on the lively hot jazz of New Orleans, when Michael LeBlanc walked up and took us under his wing. “May I offer you a one of our famous Mint Juleps while you wait?” It became clear then and there that this was a restaurant with a personality. The staff may be stretched by the crowd, but it never stops smiling, always seems to be there when you want someone and long before your food arrives, you realize that this amazingly diverse and cosmopolitan sea of faces is all smiling, has all been gathered up and that Pican is in charge. You have been delivered to Bourbon Street and you never even left home.

I wish I could tell you that this food was every bit as interesting as the experience itself, but that would be too much to ask for a restaurant whose menu is down home, not Chez Panisse. Our first courses were a bit of a mixed bag. Crawfish and Mushroom Ètouffèe was the most delightful new dish of the year for me. Perfectly cooked pieces of crawfish come served in a tasty sauce with mushrooms, scallions and rice. It was New Orleans in a bowl, and while some found its spices at bit too hot for their taste, to mine it was exactly as I would have expected. That was New Orleans food after all, and it had not been dumbed down for the quiche-eating crowd. The Ètouffèe and a piece of Pican’s excellent cornbread will make a perfect lunch on my next visit.

Unfortunately, a potentially interesting version of Chicken and Dumplings went astray when the Chicken Livers were undercooked. While we could taste the possibilities for this dish when the all the bits on the plate were combined in one mouthful, the dish simply was not executed to perfection. On the other hand, the PIcan Magnolia Salad turned out to be exactly as advertised with its bits of pickled persimmon lifting the perfectly dressed lettuces and toasted pecans. Here is where California met New Orleans head on and the marriage took.

Our main courses started with the restaurant’s highly regarded Southern Fried Chicken, and if ever you want to know what a perfectly cooked piece of that dish tastes like, Pican is the place for you. The folks who ordered it loved it, and the order was so large that there were leftovers. Owner LeBlanc popped up again at that point with instructions for reheating in order to preserve the amazingly moist chicken and the crisp outer shell. The side dish of smoked gouda “mac n’ cheese” had one of our crowd eating every morsel so quickly that Mr. LeBlanc, on one of his many passes through the restaurant, and how does an owner manage to be everywhere all night long in a place with 160 seats, asked if there was something wrong with the chicken since it was sitting untouched as the mac n’ cheese disappeared. The dish turned out to be too smoky for another of our diners, but it is advertised as being made with smoked cheese and the rest of us loved it. Score another hit for Pican.

Two other mains of the “Low and Slow Pork Ribs” and the Laquered Duck were also wonderfully tasty. The ribs were not like any pork ribs in my experience. These were large and meaty, and they were obviously cooked “low and slow” because the meat simply fell off the bone. It was a little bit disconcerting at first to have pork ribs with the fall-apart consistency of a well-made beef short rib, but the molasses barbecue sauce quickly brought the flavors in perfect focus. Even though Mrs. Olken thoughtfully slid one of the ribs onto my plate, there were still two left at the end of the night. It is dark and rainy day here today, and those ribs are going to be part of lunch.

I will admit that I finished my duck. I order duck out more often than anything else, and this was as most and flavorful as any I can remember. It was a bit of “in your face” with its sweet sauce and its sweetened “sauerkraut” (in reality, a form of pickled cabbage served as a sauté) but the assembled Johnny cakes on the plate absorbed some of the excess. So, a bit of mixed messages. Brilliantly cooked duck, most tasty and satisfying, but a touch of refinement went missing in this blending of California and New Orleans.

There is no question that I am going back to Pican. I can already taste my next bowl of Crawfish Ètouffèe, and there are several starters that we simply did not get to and appeal to my tastebuds including Mr. LeBlanc’s favorite, his Fried Green Tomatoes, and also the smoked pork belly and the shrimp and grits.

On the way out, we stopped by the table of our friends we had spotted on as we came in. Lev Dagan, teaches wine appreciation at the California Culinary Academy along with my associate at CGCW, Steve Eliot. Lev, with whom we have dined at various occasions and share very similar food and wine tastes, said that he had been to Pican several times and that he tends to try the small plates because he can get a wider variety of tastes that way. I think he is right in a way, but I have to also try the smoked brisket meatloaf and the catfish with andouille and dirty grits on the mains.

Pican is a treat for the eyes, the ears and the palate. Its wine list could be better, but we brought our own, the new Williams Selyem Litton Estate Pinot Noir and it fit perfectly with our chosen food. Corkage is $25, but worth it if you bring a strong California Pinot Noir which will be my choice again for the rich, long-cooked dishes at Pican.

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