If you’re not cooking a paella over an open fire in your backyard or you don’t happen to be in the vicinity of Valencia, Spain, your chances of eating a satisfying one are pretty slim. At least, that’s what I thought before Duende opened a couple of months ago.
Located in Oakland’s Uptown district near the Fox and Paramount theaters, chef Paul Canales has figured out how to make a deeply satisfying paella in a restaurant kitchen, infusing layers of flavor into every plump grain of Spanish rice. Paella is the ultimate fusion dish, built with a Spanish pantry’s worth of tastes. Each bite evokes the many and varied ingredients that are added to it at different stages of cooking. At Duende, Canales has it down so that the rice absorbs all the stock, the seafood stays dewy and succulent, and the paella turns out raffishly dry and moist at the same time.
One of the most striking paellas, and a personal favorite, is the arroz negro ($38 for a two-portion pan). Jet black, the rice is tinted with squid ink and suggestively develops deep, dusky flavor. Studded with rock fish and manila clams, scented with fennel and green chiles, drizzled with a creamy, garlic-perfumed mayonnaise called allioli, each bite is a joy.
The same technique used for paella also works with vermicelli-thin noodles called fideua. The dry noodles are first toasted in the bottom of the paella pan in olive oil and then softened in broth with aromatics and other goodies. The one I had incorporated duck, nettles, olives, and a brilliant flourish of balsamico ($38 for two). It was one of the most engaging things I’ve eaten here in foodland. Somehow the noodles achieve sexy chewiness–just like the rice.
Pre-paella, choose from an exciting list of pinxtos and tapas (little bites and little plates). Most of these mini dishes are composed and rich, but whatever you do, order a big pile of ensalada de col ($9.50) a savory slaw of cabbage threads tossed with green olives, pistachios, and shaved Mahon cheese in juicy vinaigrette. You’ll come back to this palate-refreshing salad throughout the meal.
Look for crispy fried balls of pork rillettes (fat-laced pork slowly cooked in its own rendered fat) and cubes of seared pork belly, a pork extravaganza mitigated by a pungent herb salad ($10.50). Baby octopus and potato cubes are draped in smoky, hot pimentón allioli ($13). Each little Spanish piquillo pepper in Pebrots farcits ($12.50) gets a sweet-and-sour stuffing of ground lamb, currents, cumin, and pine nuts. They’re addictive. The contrasting textures of satiny pork tongue and cartilaginous strips of pigs ear are tied together with a hot red pepper sauce ($10.50). And don’t pass up airy bunuelos, fritters of shrimp, mango, and Meyer lemon ($11.50).
It’s too easy to make a full meal of these sophisticated tapas, accompanied with equally thoughtful house cocktails ($9), such as the tall ginger-scented Suffering Bastard. If you’re not careful, you may never get to those great paellas.
Or, look to bigger plates of soft, silky pork meatballs, albondigas ($17.50), or lush canalones ($14.50), a Spanish version of a northern Italian standby. In Canales hands, gossamer thin rolls of pasta are filled with ingenious blends of seasonal vegetables bound with creamy béchamel. You don’t realize that they’re meatless, unless you’re a vegetarian.
Light-textured, house-made ice cream ($7) makes for the perfect dessert. If you’re lucky, a flavor called lemon and pine nut brittle will be on the menu.
This contemporary ode to Spanish and Basque food comes from a guy who learned how to cook at Oliveto, first under Mike Tusk (Quince, Cotogna), then Paul Bertolli, finally ascending to the top of the kitchen after Bertolli left to mount his Fra Mani salume company. But, after fifteen years of Italian, Canales got the itch to cook from his own family heritage. Duende turns out to be an exciting, multi-faceted restaurant, coffee bar, wine bar, and music venue (in a mezzanine above the coffee and wine bar) in an imaginatively converted, high-ceilinged rustic space in the old Oakland Flower Depot.