I would have been excited to visit Flora, a new downtown Oakland eatery from Tom Schnetz and Dona Savitsky of Doña Tomás and Tacubaya fame, even if there were no such thing as a blogosphere. Flora's lineage and location were enough to whet my appetite — downtown Oakland has hit its stride of late, and the new bars and restaurants I've tried there have been a pleasure to visit. Doña Tomás has long been a favorite as well, with a menu and ambiance so good when they're good that the occasionally uneven quality of the food and service can be forgiven.
But there is a blogosphere, and it's filled with people who love to both eat and opine — so the flurry of online activity upon Flora's debut was really no surprise. One foodie blogger raved about a meal she enjoyed there soon after the restaurant's "soft launch." Then another bashed that early rave — and the restaurant — without ever having eaten there. Naturally, that second writer was then torn to shreds for criticizing a restaurant he'd never visited. He bashed back, and so on, and so on. (The Express and its food criticism also took a few hits in the course of this lively exchange.)
I won't call all of this commentary much ado about nothing, but it's definitely much ado about not so much. So far at least, I've found Flora a little disappointing — but that doesn't mean it won't find its footing and blossom.
First, the ambiance. In contrast to the sunny exuberance of Doña Tomás' Mexican decor, Flora has all the warmth of an Edward Hopper painting (you know the one — you probably had the poster in college). Situated across the street from the Fox Theater, in the ornate cobalt-blue Floral Depot building, it's got a long glowing bar and tall windows discreetly frosted a third of the way up. You enter with the feeling that you're about to meet a private eye for a Sidecar and a look at some seamy photographs.
The menu is standard California cuisine, more predictable than revolutionary and a bit expensive, with several entrées hovering around $20. More creativity seems to have been put into the wine and spirits list that's sure to make your head spin, especially if you order off the extensive cocktail menu. I tried the Corpse Reviver No. 2, for which Flora gives credit to Arnaud's French 75 Bar in New Orleans, and revive me it did — tartly — with a mix of gin, Cointreau, Lillet blanc, lemon juice, and, now that it's legal again, absinthe.
Lunch at Flora consists of soups, salads, sandwiches — we particularly loved the salty but delectable tuna melt — and just a few larger entrées. A salad offered at both lunch and dinner featuring a Little Gem lettuce assortment with red potatoes, hard-cooked egg, and a black truffle vinaigrette was substantial enough to stave off hunger without filling us up; its myriad enticing flavors made for a lovely start to the meal. Ditto the mixed chicories served only at dinner (replaced with arugula the night we ordered it), a dish that also featured apples, fennel, Point Reyes blue cheese, and a pomegranate vinaigrette. The switch to arugula was one of a surprisingly high number of substitutions or unavailable menu items during a Saturday night visit to Flora; the kitchen was out of two starters and two entrées, and our dessert featured a substitution as well. Too bad they didn't run out of the charcuterie plate of salami and ham, which resembled and tasted like small piles of luncheon meat dropped inartistically on a plate.
No matter, we'd forgotten all about it by the time we tucked into our grilled New York strip steak, which was as juicy and tender as any we've tried in recent memory and perfectly accompanied by horseradish cream, sautéed spinach, and potato gratin. Other entrées included chicken, fish, and pasta dishes; an intriguing vegetarian option of a butternut squash pancake with crème fraîche and roasted beets and fennel; and a pan-roasted duck breast that we were warned was on the salty side. I appreciated this last bit of candor from our server — a rarity in a world of restaurants where all too often the response to "What do you recommend" is an effusive and disingenuous "Everything!"
Flora's dessert menu is a long list of creatively rendered temptations designed to please a range of tastes: crinkle cookies, bread pudding, even a cheese plate if you're craving savory. But the caramel pudding served with sea salt that we ordered so eagerly after a weekday lunch, knowing that at the hand of the right chef those two flavors can complement each other surprisingly well, was both too large and too sweet. We had better luck with our Saturday night meal, which we finished with coffee served in a small French press and a spumoni sundae (no spumoni, but we loved the vanilla toffee ice cream that replaced it). It's hard to ruin a sundae, and something about the dish's simplicity fit nicely with Flora's retro vibe.
Skewing the menu a little more firmly in that retro direction — sticking with the classic dishes they seem to have mastered and adding a few more — might not be such a bad idea for Flora. After all, you just don't share mixed chicories with your private eye — and I don't recall any Little Gem lettuces in that famous Hopper painting.