This Lion's Temperamental 

The fare at downtown Oakland's the Rex proves wildly uneven.

My college friend Johanna, who grew up an only child, is now raising two daughters. "I'm not sure how the whole sibling thing works," she said to me during my visit last month. "Every time they fight, I get so tense."

To me, Sophia and Irene seemed to get along so well. My sister and I had only two modes: love or hate. We could spend hours playing with each other's toys or cracking each other up with impressions of the people at church. But then something would always snap. The screaming would start, and then the hitting, and then the crying and slamming of doors.Kind of like the food I ate at the Rex.

The Rex opened up on the corner of Washington and 9th streets six months ago. I like everything that it wants to be. The owners, longtime restaurateurs Ramsay Masfarweh and Dab Baf, are taking a smart approach to the packed-lunch/empty-dinner schism that is the bane of the downtown Oakland restaurant scene. Two sides of a legal-sized sheet of paper is barely enough to contain the bountiful food and drinks menu. That's a lot of food to keep fresh and prepare well. But like a diner menu, it doesn't change from lunch to dinner -- not even the prices. Salads, sandwiches, and pastas make up the bulk of its offerings, bookended by a few appetizers and four or five more expensive entrées. Most cost less than $10, and wines by the glass stay below $5. There's a catch of the day and one or two specials to reward the regulars. The owners are also promoting the hell out of special events such as their Cinco de Mayo party, giving the suits an excuse to stick around downtown and rack up a big bar tab.

Open and casual, the Rex is the perfect place to hold big events like the Cinco de Mayo. The owners worked over the warehouse-high space that once held LMNO, replacing its cool, funky-gallery feel with orange-red walls, extra rows of booths, a massive bar, and palm trees. They kept the two most distinctive elements: the exposed brick and the two-story, stainless-steel-clad open kitchen. The room hasn't just warmed up; it has started to pulsate with life.

Which it does at lunch. My friends and I scored a booth on a noontime visit, but only because we timed our arrival right. The room stayed at 80 to 90 percent capacity throughout our visit, mostly businessfolk in search of a sit-down lunch. And despite working at diner speed, the service maintained bistro standards. The waiters and busers had their eyes on our table at all times and delivered our courses at a brisk pace. On our dinner visit, we experienced the same level of service -- which this time felt a bit rushed, since we were eating more slowly. The room also felt emptier, especially by nine o'clock; but Rex had still managed to attract a much bigger clientele than LMNO could have boasted at this point in its run.

The food, however, was wildly uneven. The tricky feat its chef attempts is eclectic fusion, which can result in an exciting interplay of cultural influences or a big plate of mess. At the Rex, you get one or the other. After a couple of visits, ordering a successful dish felt like hitting the jackpot on the nickel slots.

The seafood gnocchi with red pepper sauce certainly came up bells, cherries, and lemons. Commercially produced gnocchi were surrounded by a ring of upturned mussels. Unlike the hard, chewy lumps of pasta, the mussels and a scattering of bay scallops had been properly cooked. They disappeared under the sauce, a smoky puree of roasted peppers -- slightly tart, slightly bitter, only slightly pitched to match the delicate seafood. Every third bite, we'd hit upon a medicinal dose of chopped sage, a flavor combo as aesthetically pleasing as an orange tie against a kelly-green pantsuit.

By contrast, the Burmese coconut-saffron seafood pasta could have used a spot of bright color to break up the beige. Thick, meaty Shanghai noodles, cousins to udon, came entwined with shrimp, bay scallops, and mussels. Again, the seafood was alright, but something about the bland, sweet sauce was odd. "It tastes like sugar cookie dough," my friend T finally said. That was it.

And I wondered how they'd resolve the problem of making an ahi burger taste burgery -- meaty, satisfying, naughty enough to make you feel guilty. The answer? Logic. The logic of culinary eclecticism led to the conclusion that since people associate ahi with sushi, the burger should be topped with pickled ginger and wasabi aioli. The logic of proper culinary technique demanded that the cooks barely sauté the loosely packed patty so the chunks of fish didn't get tough. However, they'd forgotten that final, critical step of tasting the results. On its own, ahi isn't a flavorful fish, especially when it isn't salted, and the sweet-tart, sharp ping of the ginger was the only flavor present.

On the flip side, we started out one meal with a plate of top-notch pot stickers straight outta Chinatown, chewy crescents stuffed with gingery, scallion-spiked pork. A little salt and wasabi aioli perked up the firecracker rolls, plump ahi maki rolls dipped into a thin batter and deep-fried for kicks. (However, a drizzle of sweet plum sauce tasted better by itself than on the rolls.) And the bacon in the spinach salad had made its way into the smoky vinaigrette, but red wine vinegar kept the flavor bright.

I felt like my expense money was well spent on the only big-bucks entrée we ordered. Our hanger steak was marinated in red wine and herbs long enough to amplify its beefy flavor, then cooked to a textbook medium-rare and sliced thinly -- the only way to make this fibrous but flavorful cut tender. The roasted potatoes and sautéed mixed vegetables alongside were just fine.

Desserts also inspired polarized reactions. There's not much to say about the peach pie because there wasn't much to remember about it. We ate half, we shrugged, we left the rest. Chocolate wontons turned out messy but fun. Crispy thin-skinned triangles held pockets of melted chocolate. You were supposed to dredge the wontons in orange-scented honey sauce and a pot of crème anglaise, but it was logistically impossible after the first bite. We liked the sauces so much, though, that we furtively mopped the rest up with our fingers.

The one dish I have to tell you about is the fried calamari. Such a forgettable staple, that calamari, and so often fried into crusty leather. This time it was so good it attained hyperbole status. Ours was yanked from the oil at the exact point of perfection. The tempura-style batter crunched and then evaporated in the mouth and the satiny squid inside melted away.

But was it a signature dish or a serendipitous moment?

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