The mascot for Parlour, a new Italian restaurant in Uptown Oakland, is a drawing of an unsmiling, ax-wielding rabbit — a whimsical touch and perhaps also a slightly menacing one.
Co-owner Lisa Bradford explained that the rabbit, drawn by local artist Jon Carling, is a woodsman who is meant to represent the restaurant's commitment to foraging and to using local oak and applewood to fuel the kitchen's wood-fired oven.
To me, the rabbit just looks like he's ready to kick some ass. I suppose that's fitting for a restaurant that aspires to push California-inflected Italian cooking to new, and slightly edgier, heights. After all, a Cal-Italian, wood-oven-centric restaurant is as tried and true as Bay Area restaurant concepts go. If you like the food at places like Pizzaiolo, you'll probably like Parlour, too — but the cooking, with its focus on local ingredients and whole animal butchery, was also a little bit more playful and modern in its sensibilities.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Bradford, Travis Dutton, and Patrick Lynch, who own Bar 355, the cocktail lounge next door, and it has been a long time coming. Nearly two years have passed since the trio started construction on the space, a former shoe store that has been beautifully redone with skylights, 15-foot ceilings, and lots of reclaimed wood. During my visits, the crowd seemed to skew a little bit younger than what you'll find at some of the more established Cal-Italian spots.
Parlour was initially touted as a wood-fired pizza spot, but the pizza turns out to be just a small part of the menu. Chef Jason Tuley (most recently the chef at San Francisco's Gitane) described his cooking style as "Italian cuisine with California ingredients" and said his dishes are nearly 100-percent locally sourced. You'll find evidence of this in salads that include such elements as pickled fiddlehead ferns, or in side dishes of seasonal vegetables roasted in the wood oven.
But the most exciting part of the menu, and the thing that sets Parlour apart from the Cal-Italian crowd, is Tuley's use of whole animals (pig during my visits, but also lamb and chicken), which he turns into entrées, but whose offal cuts he spins off into an array of charcuterie and intriguing appetizers.
The showiest of these dishes was the porchetta di testa, which Tuley makes by splitting an entire pig's head in half, brining it, and then slow-braising it until the meat in the cheeks and jowl are impossibly tender. The meat gets stripped off, breaded, and fried, resulting in something that Tuley describes as a "croquette of pig's head." If that weren't enough of an indulgence, the testa is served with pickled mustard seeds and a gently briny uni (sea urchin) aioli — an unexpected play on surf and turf.
Another surf and turf dish, the vitello tonnato, described on the menu as "pastrami beef tongue," offered subtler pleasures. The braised tongue — sliced thin and dusted in pastrami spice — had a wonderfully creamy mouth-feel, but my favorite part of the dish was the accompanying albacore tuna remoulade, which, garnished with celery leaves, was at once earthy, savory, and refreshing.
Of course, there was pizza, too. The dough, Tuley explained, is a modified version of the one at the SoCal institution Pizzeria Mozza. After about a minute in the 800-degree wood oven, it yields a slightly puffier, chewier crust than you'd get on a more traditional Neapolitan pie. The one I tried, the salamino piccante — which added green olives to what was essentially a tweak on a standard pepperoni pizza — was enjoyable enough, though, given the restaurant's focus on whole animal butchery and seasonal ingredients, I wished for more exciting toppings.
My chief complaint about Parlour is that it's awfully expensive. Even at the East Bay's priciest Italian restaurants, a party of two can usually split a pizza and a pasta dish — two "primis" — and call it a night. This is standard Italian restaurant menu economics for the budget-minded. But at Parlour, the three or four pasta options on any given night come in your run-of-the-mill, single-portion serving size, but they're listed as "mains" and cost nearly as much as the more substantial meat- or seafood-centric entrées.
Look: If cranky gourmands are going to call out trendy ramen shops for charging $16 for a bowl of noodles, we can probably agree that a median price of $24 is too high for pasta, even if it is made with exquisitely sourced ingredients. I don't think there's any restaurant in the East Bay that charges more, and if that's going to be the case, then those pasta dishes had better be amazing and not merely pretty good, which is how I'd describe Parlour's duck egg chitarra: spaghetti-like strands of fresh pasta in a meaty, tomato-based duck leg ragout that was complemented, somewhat oddly, by the addition of cured kumquats — a sweet and sour note that pointed more toward Asia than Italy.
Throw in a $10 salad or a $15 asparagus appetizer, and you wind up spending quite a bit more than you would for a comparable meal at an established favorite such as, say, Boot and Shoe Service.
But when the kitchen is firing on all cylinders, you sometimes wind up with a dish that verges on magical. Last week, for instance, Tuley was working with a whole Mangalitsa hog, a legendarily fatty heritage breed that he can only afford to buy because he turns the bulk of it into charcuterie. But he also put on the menu a cut that butchers call a bacon chop — a shoulder chop with part of the pork belly attached, which, when you're dealing with a pig like the Mangalitsa, means you wind up eating an entrée that consists mostly of pure pork fat. But how soft and full-flavored it was; how decadently jiggly. The chop — seared until it had achieved the kind of crisp, crackly exterior I associate with Chinese roast suckling pig — was served over a luxurious bed of buttery polenta and a pool of sweet, teriyaki-like molasses "jus." Pickled ramps, the main vegetable component, added a sneaky heat and a long, lingering, garlicky funk.
This is the kind of dish that makes for pleasant company, and Parlour, with its expansive dining room and friendly staff, is a pleasant place to nurse a cocktail and soak it all in — especially if you snag a seat at the bar, or by the front window, which, when the weather is good, is swung wide open to the street. Yes, it's true that the Bay Area has no shortage of Cal-Italian restaurants, but when the evening breeze hits just right, and you take another bite of the most decadent pork chop you've ever eaten, it does feel like maybe this is something new.