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Penrose, Oakland: Food & Drink Report

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My husband Perry and I met a couple of friends at Penrose Saturday night, 1 week after it launched. Got there late (9:30), no reservations, and snagged a 4-top immediately, though the place was packed.

I lived through the last days of Stars, chef Jeremiah Tower's exercise in building a grand California brasserie. I have to say: Penrose is sort of an amazing update of the enormous California brasserie, reinvented for a generation steeped in craft cooking and cocktails.

Penrose sprawls, vertically as well as horizontally. The main feature is an enormous frosted glass canopy over the wide, open kitchen, a reference to Hector Grimaud's art nouveau canopies above the entrances to classic Paris Metro stations. It feels like owner Charlie Hallowell's statement of purpose: welcome to the Paris brasserie, 21st-century NorCal version, a bustling place to people-watch and be seen, and where you can drop in for drinks and snacks or a more formal meal.

Cocktails (Cate Whalen is bar manager) were perfect, just as they are at Pizzaiolo and Boot & Shoe. Whalen's style is what they call spirit-driven: beautifully balanced mixtures that tend to avoid lots of tinctures, juices, elaborate bitters, etc. (the Vieux Carré was classic Whalen).

We had 5 dishes, all shared, none of them entrees in the strict sense. They were a bit up and down, but the kitchen's only been open for a week. A Little Gem salad with beets, citrus, and a tahini creme fraiche was only a slight tweaking of a Pizzaiolo/Boot signature. Tempura of butternut squash and Tokyo turnips was beautifully done (even though I only counted three small turnips in a pile of squash). Grilled squid is Hallowell's forté, and the version here with chickpeas was nice.

Two dishes needed work. Flatbread with ground spicy pork came across as, well, clumps of ground meat on a thickish cracker. And sautéed Brussels sprouts leaves with cider vinegar and hemp seeds was really, really sweet (it reminded Perry of General Tso's chicken). It was fascinating for the first couple of mini bites, then it just seemed cloying and strange.

Penrose is a scene, a place to go to catch a whiff of this particular moment in restaurant culture and to have great drinks. And the menu is definitely worthy of more (and better) exploration than I gave it. I'm going back when I can.

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  1. How loud was the music?

    2 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      Not just the music, but from where we sat, at peak time Saturday night, I thought: This is the loudest restaurant I have ever been to. It was difficult for the server to hear us.

      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        So loud and distracting I couldn't believe it.

      2. Yeah, I agree the venue is stunning, the menu organization a little peculiar and the dishes themselves hit and miss.

        re: menu organization ...
        they are organized by main ingredient/description rather than appetizer/entree ... so you had to sort of guess how big something would be based on whether it was ~$10-$15 or $25-30.

        this was kind of annoying ... since we didnt get great guidance from the waitress, although admittedly this would have not been a big issue if not for the food issues of some of the people in the group.

        re: food ...
        i was there with some sort of picky eaters so that closed off some options. like i obviously wanted the flatbread with PORK BELLY but two of the party claimed not to eat pork belly. as far as i could tell one of the "plain flatbreads" came with some kind of oil or butter and the other maybe some kind of salt ... they were good, but there was a bit of a "is that it" element. and a bit expensive for what it was. i did see one of the higher "value add" flat breads while having a cocktail at the bar and it looked pretty good. but ultimately this was our problems due to picky eaters in the group.

        --i think everyone liked the BRUSSELS SPROUTS ... even the person who "didnt eat fried foods" and lobbied against ordering it. somewhere i've eaten recently did it better ... BARBACO? -- but quite happy with it (an dso was the non-friend food eater ... i assured him it would be done with a deft touch)

        --the LAMB TARTAR was very good. great combination of strong flavors. reminded me a bit of BARBACO. contender for table favorite.

        --the CARROT small plate was also fantastic ... may have been the table favorite. reminded me a bit of BOX BELL (high fat)

        --there was some dish with oil and avocado ... it was "cynically tasty" [avocado + more fat] ... but I dont recall what the description of the dish was. it could have been beets, it could have been with hamachi. i was involved in an intense conversation about BITCOIN and not paying much attention to the food.

        --there was one other veg small plate which was really good. maybe the TURNIP one? again i was a bit distracted

        --the large size chicken dish was only so-so ... sort of weird flavor combo but the chicken itself was good. i would have been unhappy if it were my entree, but perfectly happy to consume 1/4th share, as we were sharing all dishes

        --the SWORDFISH dish was not so good ... we were all surprised to see a whole fish served rather than a fillet/steak. never went back to look at this description of this dish.

        they ran out of the QUINCE dessert which was by far the most interesting. the chocolate cake mit schlag was good but not out of this world. the "candy plate" was pretty good but of course some of the items not really sharable ... so i didnt get to try some of the more interesting things on the plate.

        --i was quite irritated over the MANDARIN + BARHI DATE "dessert" [which consisted of 3 small mandarins which were VERY MEDIOCRE and say ~8dates which also were so-so.
        i mean if you are getting a dessert item which involve no prep only a "transfer" [say cheese or fruit], you either expect some value add [say honey/honeycomb or nice cracker with cheese] or exceptional quality or difficult to acquire ... and this failed on all of those fronts. they should be embarrassed to serve this for $7 or $8.

        one of my associates thought "oh its a new resto ... they might screws some stuff up" ... i said they had deep chops in the food business so problems were likely to be on the operational side not the food prep ... i think that guess was borne out. they did run out of a few things and there were problems making change and the waitress did not know a few things [nothing problematic] ... what ended up working in our favor was they underestimated the wait ... we were seated in less than the hour estimate ... some new restaurants fail dramatically in this aspect, like TONY PIZZA which kept us waiting like 2:15 after estimating ~45min.

        so the top dishes were really good, a couple of them were so-so or not worth the $$$ to me ... but only the plate of fruit left a bitter taste.

        not bad but BOX BELL was better (although our tab at BB was more than 50% higher than PENROSE)

        the clientele had a high fraction of rather self-involved people ... like say the NOE VALLEY WHOLE FOODS ... not very friendly although fairly lively buzz. the resto staff was great and it was nice to be out at place with
        "energy" on a Sunday night ... half of my party was from NYC and NYC is better than SFBA so it was good to go to an exciting place.

        2 Replies
        1. re: psb

          "...and NYC is better than SFBA."

          Pardonnez freakin' moi.

          1. re: Rapini

            I do not consider you personally responsible.

        2. Loved reading this post John! I tried to get in around 6 p.m. Saturday and was quote an hour wait. So left because I had to go to a concert. Must try again another time, after the hoopla has settled a bit.

          1. I have seen others mention a 17% surcharge on all checks. How does the surcharge work?

            2 Replies
            1. re: Scott M

              It's a service charge, like Chez Panisse, or most places in France.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Good, I have been hoping we would become more French.

            2. The place was freezing tonight and service didn't seem to change because of that (i.e. it was very slow even though we were freezing - everyone was wearing hats and coats).

              Had the mixed greens salad (yum), kifte (super flavorful but I wasn't a huge fan of the green apple chunks in the raita - too apple-y and pieces were so large it was crude), and Brussels sprouts (way way too sweet).

              I wish the menu was more inspired (nothing tasted unique and the menu is very duplicative of Camino), and I wish the service was more attentive to the fact that it was unbelievably unpleasant to be sat by the window (even when we asked for the check it took forever and we were dying from cold). I liked the wine and cocktails and the space was very interesting (but seemed a little like a stripped building?). Extremely loud (e.g. we were going to take our parents here for a special occasion but not anymore; they wouldn't be able to hear a thing. We were yelling louder than at a show!)

              I'll be thrilled if they work out the kinks. I love boot + shoe!

              1 Reply
              1. re: LSC77

                Maybe the slow service is also French inspired like the service charge.

              2. We didn't find it noisy when we dined here early on Sunday evening. Perhaps louder than Camino, but about the same as Boot & Shoe. We enjoyed the food and the venue. The place started filling up soon after we arrived and they didn't miss a beat with the pace of the dishes. Standout dishes were the beef tartare, the lamb three ways, and a North Carolina shrimp and farro special. My friend also loved his cocktail. We had a toddler in tow and everyone in the front of the house was friendly and accommodating.

                1. Ate there on impulse last night.

                  Pros: Music was playing softly when we walked in. Pretty space. Appetizing aromas of the hearth. Excellent service. Nice selection of wines by the glass. Delicious food very much in the Pizzaiolo / Chez Panisse Cafe vein: standouts were grilled escarole and fried soft-shell crab. Great desserts: a bowl of strawberries with a bowl of whipped cream for dipping and a couple of almond cookies, and a light and delicate almond panna cotta with cooked cherries.

                  Cons: Music got louder and louder, though never as bad as when I stuck my head in when they first opened or at Boot & Shoe. Blue cornmeal fritters were greasy. Squid with avocado was delicious but too similar to the escarole dish. Pork chop was slightly oversalted, like someone had forgotten that it was brined (still polished the plate, though). No bread for sopping up delicious sauces. Wine markup around 2.5X retail. Preposterously uncomfortable stools.