I stumbled into Oak Plaza Grill on Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland because my friend J had to go to the bathroom. We had arranged a pickup at the 12th Street BART en route to somewhere more glamorous, like Livermore. When I drove up to the corner, J announced that while she waited for me, she'd wandered into a new bistro around the corner looking for a place to freshen up. It was really attractive, she said. Perhaps we should go there instead.
So we did. At 7:30 p.m., we were the last diners to be seated. You'd think vampires were on the prowl, because the sun had just set and all downtown had emptied out. Except for a third-drink-happy crew at the bar and a business dinner across the way, the handsome room, an off-kilter construction of gold and vermilion walls and ceiling-to-floor windows, was cleared out.
During that first meal, finely wrought entrées like a Moroccan vegetable tagine in a pepper-drenched sauce and a panéed chicken-breast cutlet with lemon-butter sauce confirmed that the food wasn't the reason the restaurant sat empty. The service, for that matter, wasn't, either -- our waiter flirted his way into J's affections, then sent her home with a couple of tubs of the tapenade she had mooned over.
How had I not heard of Oak Plaza Grill? Did I just not know enough downtown suit-and-tie types or was this a real hidden treasure? Probably a bit of both. A little more than a year ago, Ramsay Masfarweh, longtime restaurant veteran and current owner of the Rex in Old Oakland, got a call from the mayor's office asking him if he was interested in a ground-floor restaurant space in a newly renovated building on the plaza. Masfarweh liked the location and decided to invest. He hired a chef, settled on Mediterranean cuisine, and opened in the fall of 2003.
But the location comes with its limitations. After five years of covering East Bay restaurants, I have one piece of advice for aspiring restaurateurs. If you want to make it on your dinner service, don't, don't, don't open in downtown Oakland.
I came back to Oak Plaza Grill at noon a couple weeks later to see it at its best. Ogawa Plaza looks livelier when the shadows are short -- clean-cut office workers filled the restaurant. It was gratifying to see the dining room buzzing. The inside flashed with summery color, but the umbrella-shaded wood tables out front looked so welcoming that we never stepped through Oak Plaza's doors.
Once again, almost everything that came to the table was flavorful, bright, and intelligently seasoned. And priced to sell. The day menu is the same as the evening one -- which makes sense, since the place closes early -- with sections for appetizers and big-ticket entrées but also sandwiches, meal-sized salads, and pastas. With an average check of $20 to $30 a person, the restaurant clearly has an expense-account clientele in mind.
Our second meal started -- well, sort of, but I'll get to that later -- with a meze platter covered in pita triangles smeared with roasted-tomato pesto; a flashy cherry tomato, cucumber, and pickled red onion salad; artichoke hearts; and a bright-green mound of lemon-soaked tabbouleh. Appetizer two, gazpacho, is not a no-fail soup, too often watery or overly acidic. It might have been the heirloom tomatoes the chef used, but Oak Plaza's coarsely blended gazpacho was beautifully balanced, with no sharp or raw-vegetal spike.
A salmon burger proved just a bit too delicately seasoned. The flavor of dill mixed with the chopped fish popped out, but the loose patty, which fell apart as we ate it, needed a jolt of salt and lemon. Another special of the day, "paella," was more of a risotto with paella flavorings. But it was good: the golden rice saturated with the flavors of tomato, sautéed onion, and saffron, the chunks of chicken breast, chorizo, and shellfish all plump and fresh.
Unfortunately, we met the worst server I've encountered in years. How bad was she? Let me count the ways: 1) She forgot one of our appetizers. 2) She delivered the appetizers she had remembered along with all the entrées. 3) One of the entrées was a mistake. 4) She blamed the mistake on a thieving co-worker (but asked us what we'd really ordered just to be sure), and 5) She kept bringing unordered sodas to the table, smiling the entire time like a news anchorwoman.
That experience aside, I called the restaurant, per habit, to reveal that I was writing a review and to get some background info. The chef, Michael Prendergast, sounded pumped. He'd just come aboard that week, he told me, and had plans for revamping the menu. Apparently, the guy who'd cooked my first, most memorable, meal was Masfarweh himself.
New chef? Revamped menu? That's not what a restaurant critic likes to hear on the eve of publication. I immediately shoved the article to the back burner. When I returned a month later to give the revised menu a look, the disturbingly bad waitress had disappeared. The crowd hadn't.
Prendergast made his bones at the esteemed Mudd's in San Ramon, where he was a forager, and at Tropix in Oakland. Though the new menu contains many of the old one's successes, Prendergast has tossed in a few Caribbean influences, and shifted the menu more toward contemporary Californian cuisine.
After tasting his new and improved menu items, however, I missed the old ones. His fish and chips, the battered white fish fillets spiced up a little, came out of the fryer just right, but the "bourbon cream" dolloped on top, a whipped, peppery-looking mousse, contained so much bourbon it tasted like an old drunk, cirrhotic and bitter. The blackened-chicken salad with fennel and watercress? More than a couple of slices of the spice-rubbed chicken breast had fuchsia centers -- chicken is the one meat I won't eat medium-rare -- and the greens were doused with so much vinaigrette that both they and I wilted under the onslaught. My lunch thus consisted of slices of lightly pickled fennel, orange segments, and the more fully cooked pieces of meat.
But all was not lost. For one, the new servers had been put through their paces, possibly by the new front-of-house manager, Adam Lewin, who is as young and enthusiastic as the chef. And Prendergast's thick pork chop with winter-fruit chutney nicely paired sweet and meat, presenting the chop (this one correctly pink-centered) over slightly undercooked but edible greens. The old-timer eggplant sandwich, filled with smoky, creamy eggplant, fresh mozzarella, and tomatoes, restored my faith in Prendergast's abilities, which had been so evident on my first lunchtime visit.
Clearly, he needs a little extra time to settle in.
Although my initial enthusiasm for Oak Plaza Grill has dimmed somewhat, the restaurant still holds promise. Your main problem may just be surviving the three-course-lunch hangover.
"Maybe we should go over there and play bocce ball," suggested one of my co-workers after our meal, rubbing his belly and nodding at the lawn at the center of the plaza.
"Maybe we should take a nap," countered another.