Real Is as Real Does 

Verbena

Though three-martini lunches have gone the way of the clothes wringer, the gentlemen and gentlewomen who put on suits and ties every day still dine out. After all, they can't always eat at their desks, picking cold fries from the Jack in the Box bag while staring blearily at rows of figures on their computer screens.

Downtown Oakland has places for those people -- places to take an important new client or a promising lunch date. But almost every downtown bistro with entrées over $10 (except for the indefatigable Le Cheval) seems to struggle with one problem: no dinner business. Even with three BART stations and numerous bus routes, the nighttime scene still has not popped. Neighborhood restaurateurs hope that each new opening will be the spark that lights all their fires.

So all await the impact of Verbena. The restaurant, located on the ground floor of the Shorenstein Building, is the first East Bay eatery from Real Restaurants, the deep-pocket group that owns Fog City Diner and Tra Vigne.

But the suspense continues, for opening chef Robert Price just moved on to Real Restaurant's Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin, and Josh Ladd, the sous-chef, has stepped into Price's shoes. Ladd continues Price's focus on "light, bright, fresh" food. "I prefer to take a few ingredients, mix them together, and let the flavors speak for themselves," says the former sous-chef of Red Herring and Fog City Diner. What's promising is that the key ingredient, solid culinary technique, shines through in almost every dish.

After you round a corner in the skyscraper's atrium, the steel and glass disappear, replaced by early 20th-century-style woodwork and carpet and upholstery rich in browns and beiges. Huge windows let in massive amounts of sunlight, supplemented by simple golden lights that hang halfway down from the two-story-high ceilings. My dining companions and I argued over whether the handsome room was designed for daytime or nighttime. Diners will have to wait several more months to make the call; slowed by September 11's blow, Verbena has pushed back the opening of dinner service at least until the beginning of the year.

Locals can drop by starting at 7:00 a.m. for pastries and coffee or come for a glass of wine and a snack until 6:00 p.m., but the real show takes place between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Verbena's lunch menu carries a selection of sandwiches (including a hamburger and a turkey burger) that cost under $10, pizzas and pastas, and entrée-size salads. Since September 11, the Cal-Med focus has shifted slightly to make room for an "All-American Favorites" section to fortify diners' iron count and sense of security with substantial red-meat dishes.

My companions and I chose the higher-priced route, starting with a rose heirloom tomato bisque with basil pistou and a removable puff-pastry cap that showered flakes of dough all over the table the moment we cut into it. No matter: The tomatoes' bright acidity had been subsumed into a creamy, hearty bisque, more fall than summer. From the obligatory wood-fired oven came a braised leek and mushroom pizza with carmody cheese and bacon. On paper, nothing sounded better, but a crust that lacked salt in the dough and bland cheese didn't bring the muted autumnal flavors of the other ingredients into focus.

Each day's menu lists a "light, bright, fresh" fish special, and all three words applied to the sunny roasted halibut with roasted summer squash slices perched on a bed of large-pearl Israeli couscous and a brilliant saffron cream sauce. We chanced upon the perfect wine to complement it -- a saffrony, tart 1998 sauvignon blanc from Denis Dubourdieu -- from front-of-house manager Jennifer Toms' brief though wide-ranging wine list.

Another entrée, a mess of sliced baby squid sautéed in a spicy, vibrant tomato-onion-garlic sauce, was paired with a cheesy corn and risotto cake that had been rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. I'd have loved this one, except the sauté cook needs to learn to treat calamari like a prima donna: The moment you forget your soft touch she goes all tough on you. The newest item on the menu, braised lamb shank, received the highest kudos. It fell into (or rather, fell apart into) that "who needs a steak knife?" class of braised meats, bathed in a pool of red-wine reduction sauce. Wide-cut noodles helped us clear our plates of it, but we savored all alone the buttery roasted slices of carrot, the char around their edges signaling deep caramelized flavor.

The waitstaff has been impeccably trained to think of all the high-end touches, such as replacing a napkin when a diner gets up to go to the bathroom and splitting soup, unasked, into two bowls for a couple wanting to share. However, by the second visit the aggressive upselling began to grate -- it's obviously a part of any good waiter's job, but diners should never walk away feeling like they had to fend off a salesperson.

On another visit I aimed for lighter dishes, and found Verbena's portions to be substantially bigger than "light." An assertive vinaigrette on a young zucchini salad with arugula came on a little strong, but in combination with the soft tang of goat cheese the dressing gave the julienned raw squash some punch. The real charm of the salad was the pairing of earthy baby arugula, whose kick was as soft as an infant's, and chopped roasted walnuts. I had to taste a few times to determine that the shell bean and garden vegetable soup with "Verbena caponata," a rich, almost meaty mélange of white beans, chopped wax beans, tomatoes, onions, and eggplant, didn't have a couple ham hocks inside. In the Greek tuna salad, slices of seared ahi lolled atop a small green hillock of baby arugula, cumin-spiced green beans, black olives, and a couple of tart roasted cherry tomatoes. The kitchen let the soft tang of yogurt, subtly inflected with mint and a little citrus, unite their flavors.

We loved all the desserts, created by departing chef Price. Act now and you won't miss the deconstructed pear tarte tatin, which resembles a napoleon. Dark-brown roasted pears, swathed in caramelized sugar, are tucked between crisp squares of puff pastry. A thick, eggy sabayon underneath brings everything together. Equally rich is a cake made of layers of crepes interspersed with mascarpone blooming with the orange fragrance of Grand Marnier. And of course, there's a luscious chocolate bread pudding, a square of creamy chocolate mousse studded here and there with a little softened, chocolate-soaked brioche. White chocolate ganache squiggles and chopped walnuts make it interesting.

The three-martini noon hour may be a thing of the past, but its practitioners knew a thing about work that we in the Perrier generation should learn. Nothing makes the afternoon go faster and more pleasantly than a long, lubricated lunch. Of course, a half-hour nap helps. Loosen your tie, crawl under your desk, and see if you don't agree.

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