Oakland’s Mockingbird Serves Straightforward and Affordable Homespun Fare
Mockingbird's high concept is refreshingly low-concept.
Mockingbird sings with slow-cooked pork sugo
Photos by Lori Eanes
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Humility may not be the quality you associate most with Oakland’s restaurant renaissance, largely driven as it is by outsized personalities, high concepts, and, in some cases, visions of empire. But humility can go a long way toward bringing other merits—warmth, generosity, and great cooking—to the fore. And it generates the kind of good will and loyalty that can transcend certain liabilities and serve a business well in the long run.
You won’t find a newish restaurant in Oakland more refreshingly free of conceptual pretense—foam-and-tweezers modernism, gazillion-course tasting menus, overreaching design—than Mockingbird, a modest enterprise on the western edge of Uptown. Open for almost a year and a half, and situated next to the New Parish music club on San Pablo Avenue at 18th Street, Mockingbird boasts a culinary lineage worthy of world-class humblebrag. Wife-and-husband chef/owners Melissa Axelrod and William Johnson worked their way toward opening their own place in Oakland by paying their dues and honing their skills in San Francisco at Fringale Restaurant, Delfina, Ottimista Restaurant & Bar, Hayes Street Grill, Zuni Café, RN74, Spruce, and The Alembic. But when they took over the space previously occupied by Hibiscus, Axelrod and Johnson didn’t sweep in with a grandiose build-out and ambitions of revolutionizing the culinary scene. Rather, they entered the fringe neighborhood with a low profile and a homey but refined menu that exhibits the quiet strengths of their experience. Those strengths begin in the kitchen and are realized convincingly on the plate—at prices well below the grand-splurge level.
When Robin and I made a reservation for our first visit, we found out that friends were having a large birthday-party dinner at the same time, and we were invited to join. The trade-off for not being able to concentrate as intensely as usual on every bite was the chance to taste just about everything brought to the table. Not that I was game for sharing all that much of my roasted half chicken (and I’m not even all that much of a chicken fan). Rubbed with Moroccan spices and fired perfectly to achieve a crisp skin and moist, tender meat (dark and white), this bird surely warranted the whispered comparisons with Zuni’s definitive rendition (and it approached the Valhalla version cooked under a brick in our neighbors’ outdoor pizza oven). The steak frites was an equally exemplary classic, the onglet cut seared and sliced to reveal a bright pink medium-rare interior, and the bountifully heaped french fries staying crunchy/soft for the duration of the meal. (Yes, they might be on par with those at The Growlers’ Arms, which have set a high standard.)
Although the slow-cooked pork sugo could have passed for pulled pork, and the crispy polenta wasn’t as texturally copacetic for Robin as creamy polenta would have been, the flavors, including the salty tang of pecorino Toscano, teetered nicely between comforting and stimulating. Other entrées around the table included the Spanish-influenced seafood fideos, with mussels, clams, squid, and chorizo in a smoked tomato broth garnished with saffron aioli, and orecchiette pasta with sage and almond pesto, sherry-roasted shallots, and butternut squash.
photo by lori eanes
Melissa Axelrod of Mockingbird