It’s cheaper than a flight to Athens. The cocktails are more creative than Madrid’s. Why not visit Shakewell in Oakland for some bombas and an Adonis aperitif?
That Adonis cocktail represents the restaurant’s daring to do the unexpected. Here’s a drink with intrigue, sweet and bitter notes: amontillado sherry, sweet vermouth, orange bitters and lemon peel. Get ready to pair the drink or a glass of Rioja with a seafood bomba.
A bomba surprise, too? Though it sounds like a dessert, a bomba is a rice and meat or seafood paella-like dishes cooked over a wood-fired grill. These small surprises are the normal at an establishment co-owned and run by executive chef Jen Biesty, a star of season four of “Top Chef” and an alumni of top restaurants in Europe and San Francisco.
At Shakewell you may receive a warm welcome from Biesty’s partner, front-of-the house guru and executive pastry chef Tim Nugent or one of the naturally happy wait staff. Shakewell looks industrial, funky and modern all rolled into one hopping bistro. The two sides are asymmetrical. A row of banquettes curves to the left, and more tables flow to the back of the right side with a bustling bar in front. The eclectic décor includes recycled wood beams in rustic, Mediterranean hues, tile and stainless steel. It adds up to a vibrant setting in Oakland’s Lakeshore district.
I wanted to linger among the cocktails and “small” section of the menu. Notable smalls included tempura squash blossoms with quinoa, feta and tomato and octopus with olive salad, pan a gusto and saffron aioli. Not a lover of little fish, my friend gobbled down my portion of sardines with avocado and pickled onions and fried anchovy and aji pepper-stuffed olives with much glee and appreciation.
Next, those bombas. Bring lots of friends to dig into these blends of deep flavors and textures. The calamari nero bomba with ink, fennel sofrito, roasted peppers, pickled chilies and preserved lemon was the winner with its mix of fresh, pickled and spicy flavors. The calamari was fresh and cooked to fork-friendliness. But the chicken and prawns with braised fennel, piperade, tomato, picholine olives and fino sherry was a close second.
And a few words about the olives. Speaking as an olive fanatic, I eagerly quizzed Chef Jen on the olives. “These olives have the slight saltiness, color and firm texture for the dish.” She then recited her history with olive usage over the years. I wanted every dish she mentioned and will eat anything Biesty bestows olives upon. Except those anchovies.
There are other mains than bombas—and sherry reappeared as a common ingredient. To wit, the fino sherry in the chicken albondigas with pimentón, tomato, sherry, almonds and marjoram. The Mediterranean additions to the albondigas brightened the mild chicken and created most memorable meatballs.
The wine list favors Spain but offers wines from California, France, Portugal and even Lebanon. There’s a comprehensive beer list. But the after dinner drink list held the most unexpected treats. Think Amaros from all over Italy such as Amaro Ciociaro, an herbal, orange and cinnamon blend.
Speaking of dessert, Nugent shines in this department. The flan Catalán is light and topped with refreshing lemon and fennel pollen. The dulce de leche dessert is made from slow-cooking condensed milk cans in water forever to get a caramelized richness not often found anywhere in the world.
A major factor in the success of Shakewell, obvious during weekday and weekend crowds, are the personalities of Biesty and Nugent.
Biesty is funny, bright and one helluva chef with a twinkle in her eye. Nugent’s humor is a bit more laid back and subtle, perhaps due to this New England roots. Why else would he pair berry pie with cheddar if he hadn’t grown up on the East Coast? My Mama’s favorite dessert was pie, and she, too, cut a chunk of cheddar as an accompaniment. Nugent mixes the Vermont ethos of independence and common sense such as pairing cheddar. Nugent possesses a huge pastry talent. Don’t get me started on the mini-churros in spiced bittersweet chocolate sauce. They were excellent, and yes, I ate them all in my excellent impersonation of Ms. Piggy.
Now Shakewell is open for brunch. I’ve herad that Biesty’s creativity is in full force in the morning, too. She has invented an “octodog”—an octopus tentacle on a hot bog—why not? Best of all, the octodog is paired with Biesty’s famous olive salad, saffron aioli and chips. I’ll be there soon, with an Adonis on the side.