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Easy Pleasures | Mockingbird brings simple, elegant, destination dining to downtown Oakland. | By Ethan Fletcher

A lot of cool stuff is happening food-wise in downtown Oakland these days. There's the Japanese-style fried chicken of Abura-ya, the vegan sandwiches at Analog, and the falafel bar of Liba's. There's the delicious bounty inside the revitalized Swan's Market in Old Oakland, while a cool new eatery seems to open every other day in Uptown.

But one thing the area has lacked is a signature restaurant: A place that can serve as a finer-dining destination that feels current but not stuffy (still a nonstarter for what remains an unpretentious East Bay dining crowd). You could make the argument for Flora, but if we're being honest, the iconic eatery is showing its age a bit and recently stopped serving weekday lunch. No, despite the beehive of downtown activity, this is one culinary prize that remains very much up for grabs.

Enter Mockingbird. Or, re-enter I guess.

William Johnson and Melissa Axelrod stake their claim with their impressive restaurant, newly reopened in June on 13th Street across from the Tribune Tavern. The husband-and-wife team pulls off a neat balancing act: The vibe is upscale but still accessible, the food refined but still comforting, the service knowledgeable but still friendly. And it all seems to come about effortlessly.

But don't be fooled: A lot of blood and sweat went into getting to this point. Longtime industry veterans Johnson and Axelrod spent years working at well-regarded San Francisco restaurants, including classics Delfina and Zuni, and set about creating something similar when they decided to open their own place in Oakland. They launched Mockingbird inside the New Parish music complex in 2013. Things were going smoothly when disaster struck: Due to a mix-up with the New Parish liquor license, it turned out Mockingbird could no longer sell beer and wine, a significant source of revenue.

They could, however, serve beer and wine. And so the couple doubled down on their food and took the rare step of allowing customers to bring in their own beer and wine free with no corkage fee. It was a bit of a Hail Mary but—locked into their lease and with a baby on the way—they didn't have much of a choice. And against all odds, they survived, buying time for Johnson and Axelrod to find a new location, which they finally did in the former Ba Vo space downtown.

And perhaps because they spent so much time in a less-than-ideal setting, Johnson and Axelrod were better equipped to conceptualize and execute the kind of place they do want. Because they seem to have hit the ground running, packing in the downtown lunch and happy hour work crowd—I saw what looked to be more than a few business meals—while drawing steady dinner service.

First of all, the restaurant is a beauty. The renovated interior gives off an industrial-Scandinavian vibe, mixing accents of blonde wood, exposed brick, colorful oversized Keith Haring-esque paintings, and, prominently, two huge A-framed steel beams fronting the bar. There are a few options for seating, including the open main dining room and a small back mezzanine overlooking it, plus a bar and "lounge" section with high-top tables facing front windows that fold open on warm days. (It should be noted that the bar and lounge chairs, while pretty, are a bit too short for the dining surfaces, to the point where I half considered requesting a booster seat.)

As for the food, Mockingbird serves what I'd consider modern California cuisine with French, Italian, and North African influences. And it does it really well: Dishes are fresh, uncomplicated, light but full of flavor, comforting, and expertly prepared. A couple of starters in particular are worth the visit by themselves. First, is the duck liver mousse: The custard-like texture and not-too-rich, buttery finish spiked with sea salt and olive oil is an absolute pleasure. On my visit, the dish included a side of macerated strawberries, which contrasted the liver beautifully. The second must-order app is the Brussels sprouts, justifiably one of the restaurant's signature dishes. They are fiercely flash fried, loosening up the dense layers of sprout leaves and adding a flavorful black char exterior while leaving the interior pale-green and moist. Sharp elements like creamy garlic aoli, tangy blue cheese, and sweet saba (cooked-down grape juice similar to balsamic) compete for attention but meld together into addictive harmony on the palate. Yum.

In fact, the Brussels sprouts had one of the more complex flavor profiles on the menu. To its credit, the kitchen tends not to overcomplicate things for diners by throwing in too many ingredients. The prime hangar steak, for instance, is a model of simple, delicious preparation: The exceedingly tender meat was grilled medium-rare pink, sliced in strips, and topped with a sweetly herbaceous chimichurri sauce. For dinner (when presumably you won't have to worry about going back to work) it's joined by roasted bone marrow that I happily slathered on top for a decadent flavor amplifier. Day and night, it's served with excellent french fries, which are fried to light, crispy pillowy potato goodness.

It would be a mistake, however, to call the food simple, and the fries are a good example of how much work goes on behind the scenes. Johnson (after a bit of prodding) revealed his secret, a kind of mash-up of best practices from his time cooking at Zuni, Hayes Street Grill, and Spruce. Kennebec potatoes are sliced and soaked in vinegar overnight, blanched in oil at low temperature, and then frozen before they are fried and appear on your plate. They blanch the duck livers in the mousse for three days, while, taking a cue from Japanese ramen technique, they've kept the same stock for their pork sugo sauce simmering for years.

"There's a lot of technique that goes into this," Johnson said.

It's a testament to the kitchen that all that work doesn't complicate the final dish. The Moroccan spiced chicken was served with a simple summery side of corn and cherry tomatoes with fried bread panzanella and a delicate herbed buttermilk dressing that balanced the aromatic sweet-spicy herbed crust of what was a perfectly moist chicken. The unfussy burger is served with a squishy bun, simple sliced tomato, onion, lettuce, and a variation of Thousand Island dressing, allowing the extra rare, extra flavorful meat—a custom grind from San Rafael's Flannery beef—to shine.

That simple approach even extended to the alcohol (Johnson and Axelrod again beat the odds when they won the lottery for a hard liquor license). They'll be significantly expanding their offerings, but on my visit the beer and wine list were refreshingly, mercifully streamlined: six bottled beers, and for wine, four reds, three whites, two sparkling, and one rosé, all available by the glass or the bottle. House cocktails rarely contain more than three or four ingredients, while behind the bar, a sane number of liquor bottles fits on a single shelf rather than towering over you like a high-proof skyscraper. Again, easy.

That's not to say everything was perfect, but my complaints were mostly of the minor variety, such as with inconsistent seasoning. The fries were over-salted on one visit, while the pork sugo—an interesting version that retains more of the meat's sinew and cartilage—was under-seasoned. The salmon, while pristinely presented crispy skin-side up, was similarly under-seasoned and slightly undercooked, a fact that wasn't helped by thick, starchy cannellini beans and a bland romesco sauce (although it was circled by a lovely basil vinaigrette). The vegetable tagine is ample and quite delicious with dabs of zesty lemon yogurt. However, the robust mix of Moroccan spices turned the mound of veggies an unappealing dull brown on the plate.

But in a culinary scene tilting increasingly toward the cheap and casual, Mockingbird's biggest obstacle may be that, ultimately, it still is a sit-down, higher-end restaurant. That may deter some diners, but it shouldn't. I'd argue that Mockingbird is quite reasonable, particularly during lunch when it offers lower-priced (and delicious) sandwiches and entrée salads, including some to-go options, and during a generous happy hour (4–6 p.m.). And at its heart, this is a welcoming place, similar in spirit to the all-inclusive Zuni Cafe, where Axelrod, a San Francisco native, grew up visiting with her family, and where Johnson cut his teeth under the tutelage of legendary chef-owner Judy Rodgers.

"In meetings at Zuni, Judy would always point out that 'café' was in the name," Johnson recalls. "It was a reminder to keep things unpretentious and comfortable."

And, hey, I love all the fast casual eats available these days: the fried chicken, the vegan sandwiches, the ramen, the falafel. But sometimes you want to sit down and be catered to. And that's perhaps what I like most (besides the food) about Mockingbird: It feels adult. You get the sense that you're in good hands here, like the owners know exactly what they want to do and have the chops and maturity to pull it off with warmth and grace.

And surely there's room for a place like that in downtown Oakland.







416 13th St., Oakland, 510-290-0331,
Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11am-3pm,
happy hour 4-6pm,
dinner Mon.–Sat. 6-10pm.
Average dinner entrée: $24.
Full bar.
Credit cards accepted.


The Well, akin to an "edible apothecary," plans to add to its offerings, including an expanded brunch menu later this year. Photo by Lance Yamamoto.