"California eclectic cuisine" is too often an ill-conceived cover for sloppy culinary technique. So, looking over the sample menu included in Canvas Restaurant's press packet -- a little Mexican fusion here, a little Asian fusion there -- I got that hollow feeling in my gut that usually presages mediocrity. But it must have been my lunch, because it sure wasn't my dinners at Canvas.
Two meals at Canvas, the newest restaurant in Oakland's Montclair neighborhood, actually made me believe again that you can incorporate miso and mole in the same menu. Chef Peter Jackson keeps his ambitions modest, his menu small, and his kitchen tightly in control, putting out deceptively simple but lovely food. I walked out of his restaurant murmuring to myself, that's the kind of place I always wanted to open. For a few seconds I felt the tickle of that old daydream of the little neighborhood bistro where my chef's whites would never need washing and where my customers -- best friends all -- would rush back to the kitchen to plant sloppy, grateful kisses on my burning cheeks.
Well, there's a reason or, rather, a pedigree. Chef-owner Peter Jackson, seemingly one of the few East Bay chefs not to claim a stint at Chez Panisse on his menu, recently held spots at Montage in San Francisco, Yankee Pier, and most recently, as chef de cuisine at Lalime's (one of the other local restaurants that can stir together a couple of cultures without making a mess). When the spot that held the long-running Thornhill Cafe came onto the market almost a half-year ago, Jackson snapped it up. He spruced up the dining room, painting it sunflower yellow, and personalized it with the paintings of his late mother.
Here's a prototypical Canvas entrée: a double-thick smoked Niman Ranch pork chop, the rib bone propped up by a mess of young chard leaves, mustard greens, and their ilk sautéed in a little garlic and olive oil. On the side is a spoonful of cheesy, eggy white-corn spoonbread, halfway between polenta and cornbread. And then spread thinly across the top of the chop is a chunky, tomato-based barbecue sauce that's molasses-sweet, but not sickly sweet, and fired up with the smoky heat of chipotle peppers. There's lots of white space around the rim. Nothing gets lost, either visually or gastronomically.
The service matches Jackson's casual but knowledgeable tone: On one night our waitress took two seconds to spit out the perfect wine recommendation for our entire meal -- a 2001 Qupe Viognier, lemony yet floral, to go with chicken, pork, and halibut. And when she overheard two of us making fun of the other about the butter he had smeared all over his place at the table, she whipped out a fresh sheet of paper from the waiters' station and laid it over the spot like a gentleman spreading his cloak over a patch of mud.
On the second night, she also steered my friends Shirley and Roberto and me straight to a green gazpacho, the perfect balm for the first heat-soaked night of summer. Tart and green from pureed tomatillos, the chunky, garlicky soup combined and recombined the flavors of cucumber, celery, basil, and cilantro with each bite. Jackson's hand with salads also is deft. A transparent sweet-corn vinaigrette, barely tart, cut the pepper in the mizuna and arugula leaves, but let the luxurious tastes of shaved asparagus and roasted morel mushrooms through. On another night, a cross-hatch of thickly sliced, crisp asparagus framed a tangle of buttery mâche leaves and roasted golden beets, everything dressed in the Dick Cheney of vinaigrettes, barely visible but potent.
Lovely does not mean perfect, however. I had a few bitches.
The wine list takes an Oprah's Book Club approach to wines -- comfortably approachable, well-crafted, and not terribly intriguing. The markup is a little high, and for a restaurant with entrées below $20 it seems appropriate to have a few bottles in the low- to mid-$20s.
And sometimes the chef's subtle hand with the seasoning got a little too subtle. For example, all the blue in a blue-cheese dressing on hearts of romaine was diluted by cream, leaving only a bitter tingle at the end of each bite. And the skin on a Hoffman Farms chicken breast was perfectly blistery, and the meat inside exuded juice, and a simple chicken jus highlighted with a little wine soaked into the mound of quinoa around the bird, co-opting the silky-textured grains into thickening the sauce, but I wanted the chicken to have been brined or more assertively salted to coax more flavor out.
I felt the same way about the lemon risotto under the halibut. It had no cheese -- not with fish, say the Italians -- but lost potential oomph because of it, tasting thin and a little bland. But the dish still succeeded. The high note in the risotto, Meyer lemon zest, stayed on top, and joined with the beurre blanc around the plate for a wine-inspired note of acidity to cut the delicate richness of the fish.
But my favorite characteristic of Jackson's food is that he throws down foodie-hipster ingredients such as mâche and grass-fed beef, but doesn't rub your nose in them. He also uses naturally raised meats, and as much organic produce as possible.
The grass-fed beef, a ribeye steak from Western Grasslands, was served with mashed potatoes and wild asparagus. No, not the asparagus you or I know. This looked like pale green, juicy stocks of wheat. The thin, hollow stems had a crunchy texture not unreminiscent of Asian water spinach, but also slightly mucilaginous like okra. The heads tasted unmistakably like asparagus. The wild vegetable comes from the restaurant's mushroom foragers. Western Grasslands is the first Californian ranch to successfully bring grass-fed beef (better for the cow, the environment, and you) back into the market here, and its beefier, more assertive flavor is worth the price hike.
Another simply-put-together entrée that shone was a pan-roasted filet of sablefish, brushed with a miso glaze that caramelized in the oven. More of the warm marinade had been drizzled over baby spinach leaves, making them serve double-duty as both vegetable and sauce. Nutty, jet-black "forbidden" rice (so-called, according to the marketers, because in ancient China it was forbidden to everyone but the emperor) rounded off the plate.
Pastry chef Tobias Diggs takes a playful, almost intellectual approach with some of his desserts. A dessert labeled "shake and cake" turned out to be just that: a small glass of a deceptively light froth next to a Fisher-Price-oven-sized cake, which, unfortunately, looked deceptively chocolaty. Diggs also set off a brûlée'd coconut tapioca pudding, creamy and mild, with an intense strawberry sorbet and a pool of lime syrup. But he's not afraid to go primal, folding crepes around molten bananas and pan-frying the blini-like packets in butter, then coating everything in unctuous caramel.
With its charming room, solid staff, and strong ethics, Canvas is the best kind of neighborhood restaurant -- one that makes simple food for people with complex tastes.