Mockingbird brings simple, elegant, destination dining to downtown Oakland.
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In fact, the Brussels sprouts had one of the more complex flavor profiles on the menu. To its credit, the kitchen tends not to overcomplicate things for diners by throwing in too many ingredients. The prime hangar steak, for instance, is a model of simple, delicious preparation: The exceedingly tender meat was grilled medium-rare pink, sliced in strips, and topped with a sweetly herbaceous chimichurri sauce. For dinner (when presumably you won’t have to worry about going back to work) it’s joined by roasted bone marrow that I happily slathered on top for a decadent flavor amplifier. Day and night, it’s served with excellent french fries, which are fried to light, crispy pillowy potato goodness.
It would be a mistake, however, to call the food simple, and the fries are a good example of how much work goes on behind the scenes. Johnson (after a bit of prodding) revealed his secret, a kind of mash-up of best practices from his time cooking at Zuni, Hayes Street Grill, and Spruce. Kennebec potatoes are sliced and soaked in vinegar overnight, blanched in oil at low temperature, and then frozen before they are fried and appear on your plate. They blanch the duck livers in the mousse for three days, while, taking a cue from Japanese ramen technique, they’ve kept the same stock for their pork sugo sauce simmering for years.
“There’s a lot of technique that goes into this,” Johnson said.
It’s a testament to the kitchen that all that work doesn’t complicate the final dish. The Moroccan spiced chicken was served with a simple summery side of corn and cherry tomatoes with fried bread panzanella and a delicate herbed buttermilk dressing that balanced the aromatic sweet-spicy herbed crust of what was a perfectly moist chicken. The unfussy burger is served with a squishy bun, simple sliced tomato, onion, lettuce, and a variation of Thousand Island dressing, allowing the extra rare, extra flavorful meat—a custom grind from San Rafael’s Flannery beef—to shine.
That simple approach even extended to the alcohol (Johnson and Axelrod again beat the odds when they won the lottery for a hard liquor license). They’ll be significantly expanding their offerings, but on my visit the beer and wine list were refreshingly, mercifully streamlined: six bottled beers, and for wine, four reds, three whites, two sparkling, and one rosé, all available by the glass or the bottle. House cocktails rarely contain more than three or four ingredients, while behind the bar, a sane number of liquor bottles fits on a single shelf rather than towering over you like a high-proof skyscraper. Again, easy.
That’s not to say everything was perfect, but my complaints were mostly of the minor variety, such as with inconsistent seasoning. The fries were over-salted on one visit, while the pork sugo—an interesting version that retains more of the meat’s sinew and cartilage—was under-seasoned. The salmon, while pristinely presented crispy skin-side up, was similarly under-seasoned and slightly undercooked, a fact that wasn’t helped by thick, starchy cannellini beans and a bland romesco sauce (although it was circled by a lovely basil vinaigrette). The vegetable tagine is ample and quite delicious with dabs of zesty lemon yogurt. However, the robust mix of Moroccan spices turned the mound of veggies an unappealing dull brown on the plate.
But in a culinary scene tilting increasingly toward the cheap and casual, Mockingbird’s biggest obstacle may be that, ultimately, it still is a sit-down, higher-end restaurant. That may deter some diners, but it shouldn’t. I’d argue that Mockingbird is quite reasonable, particularly during lunch when it offers lower-priced (and delicious) sandwiches and entrée salads, including some to-go options, and during a generous happy hour (4–6 p.m.). And at its heart, this is a welcoming place, similar in spirit to the all-inclusive Zuni Cafe, where Axelrod, a San Francisco native, grew up visiting with her family, and where Johnson cut his teeth under the tutelage of legendary chef-owner Judy Rodgers.
“In meetings at Zuni, Judy would always point out that ‘café’ was in the name,” Johnson recalls. “It was a reminder to keep things unpretentious and comfortable.”
And, hey, I love all the fast casual eats available these days: the fried chicken, the vegan sandwiches, the ramen, the falafel. But sometimes you want to sit down and be catered to. And that’s perhaps what I like most (besides the food) about Mockingbird: It feels adult. You get the sense that you’re in good hands here, like the owners know exactly what they want to do and have the chops and maturity to pull it off with warmth and grace.
And surely there’s room for a place like that in downtown Oakland.