Even when as fine a new restaurant as Bocanova opens in Jack London Square, the puzzle of the area’s commercial revitalization awaits another missing piece. Even with their mouths full of exquisite stuffed plantains, everybody seems to be holding his breath, anticipating the grand opening of the six-story, 72,000-square-foot Jack London Market.
But if Bocanova’s arrival in Oakland’s ostensible waterfront Mecca hasn’t marked the tipping point in the district’s fortunes, its lively warehouse-elegant ambience, killer cocktails and appetizing pan-American menu provide a few more reasons to think of Jack London Square as a culinary destination. With combined pedigrees that include Market Bar, Chez Panisse, Oliveto, Bay Wolf and Enrico’s, executive chef Rick Hackett and his wife, Meredith Melville, have transformed a former icehouse into a stylish post-industrial milieu perfectly in tune with Oakland’s citywide restaurant renaissance, and the best of the square’s recent additions.
A central stained-glass-backed bar separates Bocanova’s spacious dining room — with bare wood tables, a couple of booths and counter seats facing the open kitchen — from a large entry/lounge area with a similar variety of seating. A highly polished floor, exposed brick walls, drop wooden-slat ceilings hung with oversized colored glass bulbs, concrete columns transformed into giant lamps with cylindrical cloth shades and tall windows looking out on a patio and the nearby estuary add up to an eclectic visual fantasia.
Nearly every dish we sampled on two dinner visits during the fall lived up to expectations engendered by the eye-catching setting and Hackett's impressive resume. But it would require more than two people at two meals to work through the eccentrically subdivided, seasonally changing à la carte menu. Four to six dishes appear under nine different headings: From the Pantry includes spiced roasted peanuts and Peruvian black olives (both $3); Dungeness crab deviled eggs ($7) and albacore crudo Veracruz style ($9) come From the Raw Bar; and a little gem Caesar ($9) and a quinoa, wild shrimp and roasted beet salad ($11) come From the Garden. Meanwhile, more than two dozen other tempting small plates and entrée portions beckon From the Freidora (fryer), the Stoves, the Ovens, La Plancha (griddle), the Grill and the Rotisserie.
Our first meal on a not-so-busy Sunday night served as a good introduction to Hackett’s approach. Taking inspiration from family-style staff meals prepared by a Peruvian sous-chef at one of his other restaurants, he applies a refined California touch to fresh local ingredients in recipes gathered from a wide swath of the western hemisphere.
Every meal at Bocanova should include the addictive fried padrone peppers. Lusciously oiled, slightly blackened and terrifically salty, these pinky-size green chilies are essentially mild, although one or two per batch might deliver a fiery explosion. It would be almost as hard to pass up the thick, peppery turkey gumbo ($10) with shrimp and andouille sausage, the roasted plantains ($6) stuffed with queso fresco and punched up with garlicky criollo (Creole) sauce, or the Sea of Cortez scallops ($15), plump and perfectly seared and resting in a pool of scrumptious green coconut curry.
The only causes for grumbling were the goopy consistency and bland flavor of the shrimp ceviche ($9), the ill-timed delivery of dishes and our otherwise delightful server’s failure to pack up and bring us the two (of five) scallops we couldn’t finish.
A few snafus subverted the perky service at our second dinner on a bustling Sunday evening, as well. Despite making a reservation, we were seated at a cocktail table in the lounge. The intimate alcove was cozy and relatively quiet, but the table was too small to accommodate more than a couple of dishes at a time, a problem compounded by courses coming out of the kitchen at an uneven pace. We had to send back a lukewarm cappuccino and wait more than 10 minutes before someone noticed that we were ready for the check.
On the food front, we found the beef, currant and green olive empanadas with tomatillo sauce ($6) satisfying if not compelling, and the thickly-sliced pork shoulder with peppery chiltomate sauce ($18) wonderfully spiced, although a tad too chewy and fatty. But we identified three more winners: the tangy, vibrant halibut ceviche ($9), the knockout Yucatan seafood stew ($16) with mussels, clams, scallops and whitefish in a spicy broth brightened with tomato, roasted garlic and grapefruit, and the signature warm chocolate croissant bread pudding with Mexican chocolate ice cream ($8). And, while we didn’t dive into the intriguing wine list dominated by Spanish, Portuguese, West Coast and Argentinean varietals, we continued to make a dent in the cocktail list, which is chockfull of high-end ingredients and novel concoctions. After pleasant first-visit encounters with the Spicy Pisco Punch ($11) and the Bocanova Manhattan ($12), we introduced ourselves to the Red Passion Margarita (with pomegranate juice and passion fruit puree, $12) and the Cucumber Vodka gimlet (basil and gin are other options, $13).
It’s a good sign when you come away from a restaurant knowing what you would definitely order again and what you’ve added to your wish list (deviled eggs, burnt carrots, braised lamb, turkey breast with pumpkin mole, petrale sole tacos). While Jack London Square looks ahead to becoming a full-fledged gourmet ghetto, Bocanova offers more than enough reasons to return to the square during its transition from old school to new frontier.
Bocanova. Pan-American. Serves lunch 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. daily, dinner 5 p.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Thu., 5 p.m.–11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 5–9:30 p.m. Sunday. 55 Webster St., Oakland, (510) 444-1233, bocanova.com. Credit Cards, Beer and wine,Wheelchair Accessible, Reservations,$$-$$$