Is Oakland the new Brooklyn? San Francisco artists, cooks, writers and musicians I know, plus a bunch who are just starting their post-school adult lives, find the rents refreshingly affordable there and the food scene is heating up.
In fact, Pizzaiolo, Dopo, Cesar, Dona Tomas, Wood Tavern and Tamarindo, all relative newcomers, pull even diehard San Franciscans across the bridge, and we’re not even talking Berkeley here.
The latest development is Flora, a booming lunch and dinner spot in a transitional downtown Oakland neighborhood along a stretch of Telegraph Avenue lined with historic art deco buildings.
Flora has moved into an old flower depot; it has the original black-tile exterior and expansive corner windows. Nearby, many new condos in various stages of construction await sale or rental while the fate of the beautiful old Fox theater across the street, under renovation, is yet to be determined.
But real estate malaise has not kept the crowds away from Flora. It’s a bona fide hot spot, crashingly noisy at night when the curved bar and all the tables are packed, and pleasantly buzzing at lunch, my favorite time to go.
Light filters into the high-ceilinged room through windows covered with wide blinds, a sexy retro look. The tile exterior is reprised by a checked linoleum tile floor. The rounded corners of vintage 1930s cabinets and consoles are repeated at the newly built bar lined with comfortable stools with backs. The silverware is even patterned with the same deco motif as the wall sconces, yet nothing about this big, airy room seems over designed.
Flora feels very East Bay casual, handcrafted and appealing. At lunch, the must-order dish is baked Bellwether Farms ricotta antipasti ($11), a warm disk with a souffle-like texture and a flavor that hints at the best macaroni and cheese. It’s flanked by perfect little vegetable salads.
The hot pressed tuna melt ($11) makes my mouth water every time I think about it — Italian canned tuna and finely minced red pepper and cilantro, subtly dressed with ginger and soy, enriched with cheddar (it works), encased inside a crisp, buttery Acme rustic roll.
At dinner, go for the asparagus and Meyer lemon fritto misto ($11), a crisp and juicy deep fry salted with grated parmesan.
Follow with a super-clean fish soup calledLa Bourride ($19), crystal-clear broth deepened with the juices of Littleneck clams that bathe a hunk of local ling cod. Toast and aioli add body.
This program leaves room for fabulous desserts, such as weightless caramel pudding, thrilling with thin flakes of sea salt ($8); or the Rocky Road sundae made with ice cream from Berkeley’s stellar Ici ice cream shop. I suspect even the ethereal marshmallows are handmade ($8).
An imported beer list, and a well-rounded wine by the glass and bottle catalog pale in the glow of extraordinary cocktails ($9), re-creations of famous drinks from bars all around the world. I have never tasted a better balanced Singapore Sling. Absinthe is so cunningly applied to a drink unappealingly called The Corpse Reviver No. 2, that it reminded me of the most delicate and lovely lemonade. The intriguing herbal scent of anise kicks in only at the end.
Open for lunch, dinner and cocktails, Flora may be the biggest selling point for all those empty units across the street.
Location: 1900 Telegraph Ave. (at 19th Street), Oakland
Contact: (510) 286-0100
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; brunch 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday; dinner 5 to 9:30 Tuesday-Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Price range: Starters $7 to $14; sandwiches $10 to $11; main courses $14 to $26
Recommended dishes: Baked ricotta antipasti, escarole, orange and fennel salad, asparagus and Meyer lemon fritto misto, tuna melt, Rocky Road sundae, caramel pudding with sea salt