Low-Key Cal-Italian at The Lede 

An all-in-one bar, gathering place, and counter-service restaurant from chef Cal Peternell.

click to enlarge Try the Spanish tinned sardines, duck leg confit, and fritters at The Lede.

Photo by Paul Haggard

Try the Spanish tinned sardines, duck leg confit, and fritters at The Lede.

Coworking space by day, Cal-Italian restaurant by night. When news of The Lede's opening began circulating in the summer, it made waves for being the first space of its kind in the East Bay. During the day, it's a coworking space called Studiotobe, which focuses on journalism, storytelling, and podcasting. At night, it's a restaurant called The Lede, helmed by Chez Panisse alum and cookbook author Cal Peternell. In a way, the shared space model grew out of the pricey Bay Area rental market, but it also grew out of Peternell's shared love for food and storytelling.

"What I love about restaurants and being at the table is that opportunity to share stories," Peternell said. "My parents always made sure that we sat and ate together, and that everyone could share a story and feel like they were being heard."

The Lede represents a big departure from Peternell's fine dining background. It's still Cal-Italian cuisine, but prices are decidedly lower than Chez Panisse. The restaurant offers counter service only, which means you don't have servers constantly coming by to explain each dish. The presentation is also more relaxed — it's the kind of food you'd expect a fine dining chef like Peternell to prepare at home on his days off. The food is meant to be the backdrop of a night enjoyed among friends or family, not the focal point.

"The food doesn't distract from what's happening at the table, but rather, supports it and serves as an accent to what is going on," Peternell said. As for fine dining? "It's more like theater, but it's not what I love about cooking and eating."

The appetizers are humble yet impeccably prepared. The very of-the-moment, high-quality Spanish tinned sardines with chili in olive oil came served directly in the tin. I think sardines are great straight out of the tin, but the house-made accompaniments helped them truly shine. On one of my visits, they were served with thinly sliced, olive oil-drenched toasts, a spread made of Dijon mustard, crème fraîche, and whole mustard seeds for pops of tangy heat, and house-made pickled onions, carrots, and jalapeños.

The fritters are a must-order. In keeping with the Chez Panisse spirit, they vary depending on what's in season. On one visit, they were made with fennel and green onions, topped with copious handfuls of cilantro and served atop a brick-red pepper aioli. On another, they were made with Romanesco, garnished with fried curry leaves, and accompanied by yogurt sauce that was brightened with cilantro, mint, and freshly grated turmeric. Regardless of the veggie, they come coated in a chickpea and rice flour batter that's flavorful, light, and crunchy even after the fritters have cooled, making them an ideal accompaniment for a glass of Italian or Californian wine, a local beer on tap, or one of the house cocktails. I particularly loved the Princess Plum, a cocktail special that combined red shiso with lemon juice and bourbon.

Peternell's love for vegetables is apparent in his salads. I particularly enjoyed the crunchy vegetable salad, which was made with wiry-looking, purple-tinged Ruby Streaks baby mustard greens and thinly sliced Pink Lady apples and purple daikon. Though the dressing was a little heavy, I wanted to get every last drop off the plate — it was an unusual, delightful mixture of crème fraîche with lemon juice and garlic, plus a generous amount of bottarga shavings on top for pungent, salty fish roe flavor.

As you'd expect from a Cal-Italian restaurant, there are always a couple pastas on the menu, though they change frequently. On one visit, I had rigatoncini in a creamy mushroom sauce, made from a blend of cremini and dried porcini mushrooms, plus big shavings of Grana Padano that helped ramp up the cheesy flavor to near mac-and-cheese proportions. In that vein, the flavors tended to lean more toward comfort food than classic Italian, which I quite enjoyed. On another visit, I had torchio in puttanesca sauce with line-caught yellowtail jack. The sauce was in-your-face fishy, tempered just a bit by the sweet tomato sauce and salty capers and olives.

The duck leg confit is one of The Lede's signature dishes, though the version I tried on one of my visits disappointed. The duck, while delightfully crispy around the edges, was a little dry and overcooked. But I enjoyed the other components of the dish — potatoes that were crispy on the outside and creamy inside, honeynut squash chutney, and long-stemmed spinach with crunchy stems.

Dessert was a reminder that sometimes the simplest dishes can be the most satisfying. An order of wafer cookies came with a few of the chocolate variety and a few of the sesame variety. They were so buttery and snappy, I practically inhaled them. On another visit, I was impressed with the fluffy, not-too-sweet almond cake, served with a mound of crème fraîche (sensing a theme here?) and topped with some of the biggest, juiciest pomegranate seeds I'd ever seen.

The lack of table service makes The Lede a little too informal for a special occasion, and the price tag is also a little too high for everyday dining. But The Lede fills a unique niche, combining quality, made-to-order dishes with a laid-back counter service vibe. A Studio To Be member might order a cocktail or a plate of fritters after a long day of work, or a couple might choose The Lede for date night. Due to its casual format, it's also one of the few mid-priced restaurants where I'd feel comfortable eating alone.

The Lede is more than a restaurant and coworking space, and that's a big part of its appeal. A couple weeks ago, the space hosted an after-hours dance party, and one weekend, it also played host to a maker's fair full of locally made gifts. Karaoke, cookbook launches, and poetry readings may be next.

Peternell has long been meaningfully engaged in important social causes, from cooking and delivering soup to homeless people in Berkeley to hosting fundraisers for legal fees for children seeking asylum. At The Lede, he carries on that same spirit. The walls are decorated with art from the Center for Creative Growth, a nonprofit that serves adult artists with disabilities. Behind the scenes, Peternell is working with local groups to set up systems to protect restaurant workers from sexual harassment. And per an employee's suggestion, a sign at the register asks customers to address servers using they/them pronouns. It's gotten some raised eyebrows from customers — but as general manager Natasha Nazer says, "it moves the conversation." In other words, The Lede is more than a place to tell stories — it's also a place to start new conversations.

906 Washington St., Oakland

Hours: Tue.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.

510-881-3818

Cash, All Major Credit Cards

TheLedeOakland.com

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