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Cocktails & Dessert: Oakland needs Viridian to survive pandemic

Viridian's inventive menu of desserts and drinks made a pre-pandemic impact

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Viridian's executive chef Amanda Hoang takes traditional desserts and puts an Asian spin on them. The first example she mentions is a banana cream pie. "We changed out a plain pastry cream for a pandan-flavored pastry cream and then flavored the whipped cream with coconut," she says. Hoang explains that in Southeast Asian desserts pandan and coconut traditionally go together well. But in the original iteration, the whipped cream was too subtle. "We ended up toasting the coconut to bring out a more interesting flavor, and that changed the whole dish."

Most of the desserts she makes aren't overly sweet, Hoang says, which helps with the alcohol pairing. That's Viridian's cerebral concept—to pair inventive desserts with artisanal cocktails. But the concept, as devised by a group of Oakland locals, also has heart. Will Tsui, one of the co-owners, grew up a mile and a half away from the bar's Broadway address.

When he was the bar director at Lazy Bear in San Francisco, Tsui and his partners wanted to start a business that focused on local produce as well as the Asian-American experience. "In a sea of bars and restaurants that are Eurocentric or California-centric, we wanted to carve out our own space," he says. The flavors are Asian-inspired, but not necessarily Asian.

A couple of years ago Tsui took a trip to Bali for his sister's wedding. While they were in Ubud, his family went to Will Goldfarb's celebrated restaurant Room 4 Dessert. Tsui recalls that he was completely blown away by the dessert tasting menu, which had "11 or so courses paired with about 10 cocktails." After he returned home, the experience stuck with him.

Tsui remembers thinking, "Wow. We don't have anything like that here in the Bay Area." The idea may be novel in the United States but, he says, it's very popular overseas, especially in Asia and Australasia. But to make Viridian less intimidating and more casual, they decided to move away from a tasting menu. "We wanted people to be able to walk in, sit down, have a cocktail and a small snack—but our main focus of course would always be desserts," he says.

Tsui, and his partners Raymond Gee and Jeremy Chiu, along with general manager Alison Kwan, officially opened Viridian on Feb. 1. He says that for the first six weeks it was "gangbusters in here every single day." By the second week of March, they could already see the number of visitors declining due to Covid-19.

Hoang changed the menu accordingly. She thought about the kinds of items people would want to snack on at home, comfort foods like Asian bakery buns. "There's a bun that typically has corn and scallions, but it never really interested me," she says. Instead, Hoang thought of remaking it like the Korean dish corn cheese. Her version contains butter, mayonnaise and mozzarella cheese. "But then I add a little bit of garlic to the bun to have more depth of flavor," she says.

They also make a sweet bun called Bolo Bolo Bau. "Traditionally, that bun doesn't have a filling," Hoang says. But she and her sous chef decided to double down and make a pineapple pastry cream to go inside. It's called bolo because the topping looks like a pineapple, and because bolo means pineapple in Cantonese. In one bun, they achieved a dessert and a pun.

Since those first few busy weeks at the beginning of the year, Tsui says Viridian has experienced a 90 percent drop in business. At the start of the pandemic, they laid off their staff and tried to figure out how to reposition the bar. Luckily, their style of cocktails has translated into a to-go format. That's why the plated desserts, like the banana cream pie, had to be abandoned in favor of grab-and-go pastries.

"We miss hospitality. We miss having people at our bar," Tsui says. "When you serve someone a drink or some food and then they taste it, you can see their face light up. That's why they opened Viridian.

"If we are able to make it through this," he continues, "then at least there'll be a place where, when people are able to come back, we can show them our style of hospitality again."

Viridian, open 3–9pm Wednesday–Sunday, 2216 Broadway, Oakland. 510.393.9333. www.viridianbar.com.

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