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At Duende, Uptown's Newest Hotspot, the Food Is as Grand as the Venue

Paul Canales makes a stylish, free-form return to his Spanish roots.



Regardless of what you might read on wikiHow, there's no one-size-fits-all formula to opening a successful dining establishment. Even so, Duende, Paul Canales' ritzy new Spanish restaurant in Uptown Oakland, stands out for the sheer scale, and ballsiness, of its ambition.

How's this for a blueprint for success: Gut a cavernous, 4,000-square-foot former architect's office, then rebuild the interior from the ground up. Set up an informal art gallery and, for good measure, build a mezzanine-level performance venue for avant-garde jazz. Finally, set aside a sliver of space for a "bodega": a combination wine shop/olive oil tasting room/hipster coffee shop.

Whatever you think of Duende, you can't say the place doesn't have enough going on. Wandering through the sprawling restaurant's various sections, I half expected to round the corner and stumble upon a bullfighting ring or, short of that, a competition-grade dance floor. There's an energy to the place that seems to extend beyond the buzz and burble of well-heeled gourmands, and beyond the handsomeness of the space, which felt to me like a kind of modernist cathedral.

In truth, though, all of this grandeur would feel empty if the food weren't new and exciting, too. And on that score Duende mostly delivers.

For Canales, the restaurant is a departure from the Cal-Italian cooking he built his reputation on during his fifteen-year tenure at Oliveto, where the food — lovely and impeccably ingredient-driven as it is — has never been avant-garde. He's cooking Spanish food now, much of it inspired by the cuisine of the Basque country — a return to his roots, as Canales' father was of Spanish Basque origin.

The menu at Duende features a smattering of fairly traditional Spanish tapas (e.g., patatas bravas) and pintxos — Basque tapas consisting of bread that's topped with meat or seafood. But mostly Canales takes Spanish dishes as a jumping-off point, to which he adds other influences: global, Californian, modern. "I didn't want to do museum food," he explained.

So, while no one would use the term "molecular gastronomy" to describe Duende's cuisine, Canales does use an immersion circulator to churn out the perfectly runny sous vide egg that crowns a plate of txipirones (fried baby squid), enrobing every bite of a frisée salad — topped with the tiny, batter-fried cephalopods — with yolky unctuousness.

Other times, the small plates veer toward other culinary traditions. The patas y cabeza ("feet and head") were succulent pork trotter-and-cheek fritters served over a French-tasting mustard sauce. And the arenque (pickled herring, Brussels sprouts, potatoes) took us on an unexpected detour to Scandinavia, though the dish's disparate textures and flavors never quite cohered.

On the other hand, the delicious pebrots farcits are a traditional dish of Catalonia: roasted sweet piquillo peppers stuffed with cumin-spiced, currant-flecked ground lamb — Moorish flavors standing front and center.

It's worth noting that each of these tapas came plated, more or less, as a salad, whether the raw vegetable component was set to the side or nestled underneath. On the one hand, it's nice to be able to order almost anything on the menu without worrying about not getting enough vegetables into your diet. On the other hand, you may reach a point in your meal when you realize that, well, you've just eaten four $12 salads in a row.

Let it be said that, for all its virtues, Duende is a fairly expensive restaurant. Most of the small plates fall somewhere in the $10 to $13 range, and while they aren't dainty, a solo diner would need to order at least two or three to cobble together a full meal. The big, shareable paellas? They cost up to $38 for a two-person portion (or $76 for four).

Still, if you're willing to splurge, many of Duende's best dishes are the larger plates. Ordering a paella is a great way to experience Canales' well-honed Californian sensibilities — each pan a showcase for seasonal seafood and produce. The ink-stained arroz negro, served with a garlicky allioli that you mix in as you go along, is a stunning, decadent dish. The one we ordered — with cuttlefish and luxuriously buttery black cod — oozed with bold ocean flavor. The portion was generous; three or four diners can easily share the smaller size if they order some tapas to round out the meal.

And once you get over the sticker shock of the pork albóndigas ($17.50 for four meatballs), you'll marvel over how perfectly spherical they are — the secret is an ice cream scoop and a two-step cooking process. Inspired by a Palestinian dish, the meatballs are 60 percent vegetable (green garlic and leeks), yielding an uncommonly light and earthy final product.

My favorite dish, and the best deal on the menu, was something else I've never thought of as strictly Spanish: the hamburguesa tartara, Canales' take on beef tartare. The beef was very finely ground and had the smooth texture of the highest-quality maguro sashimi. Add the accompaniments (crispy shoestring potatoes and a smear of spicy-savory "salsa brava") and you end up with a fun, delicious reconstruction of a burger and fries.

The key to the dish, our server told us, was the use of Piedmontese beef, a breed that's especially lean due to a genetic defect. She reeled off three or four other factoids about the cow, which was characteristic of the service at Duende: Mostly the staff sets down your food and gets out of the way, but when questioned further, they always knew their stuff.

We ended one meal with moist olive oil cake served with blood-orange supremes, a sesame-almond crisp, and a scoop of Ici ice cream. It was one of those sprawling desserts where it wasn't clear how everything was supposed to go together. In the end, every individual component was so delicious that it didn't much matter. 

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