Oaktown in Bloom
Flora Adds a Retro-Cool Flourish to Downtown Dining
Walking into Flora on a busy night, there’s a tangible feeling that something exciting is happening in downtown Oakland. Look out the window and you see a sprawling new condo development taking shape. Across the street the venerable Fox Theater is a getting an extensive remodel. Inside, the restaurant is filled with a diverse clientele out for a night on the town that would have been hard to imagine in this emerging Telegraph Avenue neighborhood just a year ago.
Flora, and the crowds it is drawing, is the latest evidence that downtown Oakland is arising from its decades-long decline and dormancy. The restaurant is the long-anticipated new undertaking by Thomas Schnetz and Dona Savitsky, owners of Doña Tomás and Tacubaya. While those eateries specialize in regional Mexican food, Flora is a decidedly American venue and marks a departure for the successful restaurant duo.
Housed in a former flower market—hence the name Flora—the restaurant, with its sleek Art Deco lines, period wall sconces and flowing, backlit wooden bar manned by dapper bartenders wearing crisp white shirts and thin black ties, could serve as a location for a 1940s-style film noir.
The bar is easily one of Oakland’s coolest urban haunts and attracts a clientele that ranges from couples out for drinks before a Paramount show to a family with kids grabbing a quick bite to Slanted Door owner Charles Phan scoping out the East Bay scene. (Slanted Door bar manager Erik Adkins created Flora’s extensive cocktail menu).
Going with the retro-cool vibe, I went for a glass of St. George Spirit’s newly minted and hard-to-find Absinthe Verte ($14), a potent, herbaceous liquor that lives up to the hype surrounding the reintroduction of this infamous tipple. Other drinks, like the Queen’s Park swizzle ($9), didn’t fare as well. Made with Pampero Anniversario rum, mint, soda, lime, bitters and crushed ice, it looked good on paper but tasted like a sweet, sour and bitter snow cone. There’s also a tiny list of wines by the glass, of which the Terre Rouge Tête-á-Tête ($9) is a standout.
Although the restaurant had been open less than six weeks during my visits, I got to sample two different menus, and both delivered hearty but refined food that reflected the kitchen’s confidence and inspiration. As long as it’s still on the menu, head straight for the superb puntarelle salad ($9). Puntarelle is an Italian green that looks like a cross between asparagus and dandelions and has a grassy, pleasantly bitter snap. Paired with roasted fennel, cubes of pancetta, a lemon-anchovy vinaigrette and nutty shaved pepato cheese, it’s a simple but elegant starter. Confit is often hit or miss, but the version here ($13) scores. Although the portion was probably too large for an opener, the rich, almost pâté-like pork was delicious, and the crisp, caramelized crust a real meat treat. Just as good was the ethereal butternut squash soufflé ($11) moated with a savory black trumpet mushroom sauce.
The pan-seared steelhead (wild, ocean-going rainbow trout, $20), exemplifies the restaurant’s style. Paired with braised red cabbage, bacon and celery root, the crisp-skinned but moist fish was adorned with little more than salt and pepper, and the vegetables chimed in with straightforward, hearty deliciousness that owed more to the quality of ingredients than technique.
The vegetable pot pie ($17) aspired to the same aplomb but left me flat. The pastry was dense and grainy, and the mushroom, root vegetable and pearl onion filling was disappointingly one-dimensional.
On an earlier lunch visit, I was disappointed by the overly salty tuna melt ($11) made with house preserved albacore, but the pasta Norma, with bucatini, crisp beef and pork meatballs ($19) luxuriating in a rustic eggplant, olive and marinara sauce, put me in state of midday bliss.
Service is friendly and knowledgeable, but when things get busy, which is often, the fledgling restaurant shows signs of strain as gaps between courses grow, and some dishes go missing. But the servers smoothed things over with offers of complimentary drinks and earnest good cheer.
While entrees exemplify restrained finesse, desserts hurtle over the top. I loved the silken, sea salt-sprinkled caramel pudding ($8), but it was more than enough for two; the brick-sized flourless chocolate paradise cake ($8) could feed a family of four—and put them into a dreamy bittersweet chocolate stupor. The trick with Flora’s desserts is to plan on sharing. So grab a couple of spoons and dig in and savor as you watch Oakland change right before your eyes. Flora. American. Serves lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and dinner 5:30 p.m.–11 p.m. Tue.–Sat. 1900 Telegraph Ave., (510) 286-0100. Credit Cards, cocktails, reservations, wheelchair accessible, $$.
—By Stett Holbrook
—Photography by Lori Eanes