Mägo Does Magic With Food
There’s wizardry afoot at owner/chef Mark Liberman’s Mägo on Piedmont Avenue.
Photos by Lance Yamamoto
Mägo, you had me at Ode to Floyd. I wondered if you’d be able to pull off a cocktail made with cedar-pluot Armagnac, toasted rice whiskey, red vermouth, and wild orange oil, but you did. It was smooth, harmonized, citrusy, and just as our server Angela promised, quite refreshing on a balmy summer evening.
I would have said you had me at gazpacho, Mägo. That was representative of the kitchen’s brilliance rather than the bar’s. But we didn’t have the chilled soup, served in a lovely ceramic bowl with a pitcher-like lip, until our second visit a week later. Somehow, Mägo, you brought together raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, and two slices of peeled tomato in a viscous broth that defied the analysis it begged for with its silken mouth feel. Robin and I couldn’t figure out how you did it.
“Magic, right?” Angela said. That seems appropriate, since the restaurant’s name, Mägo, derives from the Spanish for magician or person with special powers. It’s also the nickname once given to owner/chef Mark Liberman. After two dinners in the airy, sparkling space on Piedmont Avenue near MacArthur Boulevard, during which we tried eight dishes from the Snack, Plates, and For the Table sections of the menu, Robin and I agreed that some sort of wizardry was afoot in the oversize open kitchen. We were dazzled by our first meal of three shared Plates: smoked cabbage okonomyaki, a puffy, savory Japanese pancake topped with a fried egg and macadamia salsa ($21), Brentwood corn agnolotti with foamy miso butter ($19), and local halibut, its grill marks like bands of a color field painting, with shishito and mild green peppers and dabs of walnut and fig ($24). The inventive intermingling of fresh ingredients and the impeccable cooking of Liberman and his head chef, Ben Serum, dispelled any skepticism, let alone cynicism, about either the cross-cultural conversations taking place in the food (a chicken liver éclair with shallot honey!) or the modernist tweezers-and-foam techniques behind the artistic plating.
Mightily impressed, we arrived at our second dinner prepared for a letdown. We’d planned on sharing (and taking home some of) the mammoth grilled pork chop ($62) we’d seen emerge from the wood fire during that first visit. But as is bound to happen with a menu that changes weekly — Liberman honors what he calls our region’s “52 micro seasons” — the pork had been replaced not by the rib-eye that created a buzz when the restaurant opened in June but by grilled chicken. Not only that, Robin was ready for her own Ode to Floyd, only to discover that the cocktails change regularly, too, because the house-made tinctures and syrups and bitters are made in limited batches on quick rotation. Still, after a leisurely paced repast of tomato bread ($8), the aforementioned berry and tomato gazpacho with burnt lemon ($12), a bowl of hand-cut pappardelle with porcini mushrooms and blueberries ($22), a half order of Nashville hot softshell crab with stone fruit salad ($15), and a half chicken ($22, $44 for a whole chicken), we agreed that our second dinner eclipsed the first. And we never got to any of the three desserts offered nightly — ripe cheeses, crostada, pavlova meringue, clafoutis, and ice cream ($10-$16) have shown up in the After Dinner section.
It may have helped that we started with potent mixed drinks. The bar team, under the direction of Adam Chapman, made a sugar-rimmed Sidecar perfectly attuned to Robin’s preferences. My Kombu Martini — made with Nori gin, shochu, kombu sake, and pickled sea bean, with a touch of togarashi — came off like a dirty martini, with oceanic brininess from the kelp and bean. But we really didn’t need any lubrication to succumb to the sway of the kitchen’s alchemy. The tomato bread, a Catalan staple, achieved its own glory, the superb tomato-studded focaccia topped with sliced halves of at least three different kinds of cherry tomatoes, all of them flavor bombs. The Southern drawl of the crunchy, sweet-and-spicy softshell crab, resting on pluots, nectarines, and pickles, was so seductive I was tempted to order another. Then there were the little explosions of blueberry against the earthy chewiness of the porcinis and wide ribbons of pasta dusted with grated cheese. And that simple-sounding chicken? It was a minor masterpiece of deconstruction and recombination. The boned breast and the wing were grilled, skin scented with lavender. The leg was confit, as was the thigh, the latter shredded and tumbled into a mound of red cabbage and carrot slaw. A charred Nantes carrot had more flavor than one would reasonably expect, and the drizzle of tan, translucent sauce was another of Liberman’s mysteriously unifying elements.
A Central Valley native, Liberman trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and staged at a Michelin two-star restaurant in Paris before making a stellar impact in San Francisco with Bon Marché, Fenix, and AQ, all in partnership with Matt Semmelack. AQ, a fine dining destination that changed its décor and menu focus every three months, was nominated for a James Beard Best New Restaurant award after it opened in 2011.
Despite its success, AQ closed in 2017, and Liberman decided to open his own restaurant near where he lives on this side of the bay, sans partners other than his wife, Theresa, a passionate cheese expert who will teach classes at Mägo. Liberman also chose to put his fine dining proficiency and his foraging and fermenting passions to work in a more casual, interactive, family-friendly setting, aiming for the feel of a dinner party where everybody gravitates to the kitchen. In remodeling the space once occupied by a Cybelle’s pizzeria, he worked with architect Wylie Price (Ramen Shop, State Bird Provisions, the Progress) to put a majority of the dining room’s 45 seats at a chef’s counter, looking into the cooking area and hearth. Field Millworks (cabinetry and steel), Omega Lighting Design, and Jered’s Pottery and Carole Nielson (ceramics) provided finishing touches to the kitchen, bar, and dining room.
On our visits, the dinner-party interaction with the cooks was limited to Liberman and Serum delivering and briefly explaining a few dishes. But Angela and the other server put a fun, conversational spin on the modulated fine-dining experience. Two diners who indulge in one of $13 craft cocktails (with such exotic ingredients as sumac, smoked juniper, black walnut, and chicory Averna) or something from the lists of 10 interesting beers (Hitachino Yuza Saison!) and about three dozen carefully curated wines by the glass and bottle can easily drop $150 at dinner. The value is to be found in the freshest local ingredients and the pleasures of unpacking the mysteries of Liberman’s culinary conjuring.
California. 3762 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-344-7214. Serves dinner Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m. MagoRestaurant.com CC, full bar, WC, $$$–$$$$