The story: Jen Biesty made a name for herself as the executive chef of Scala’s Bistro in the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, and also as a contestant in season four of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef.” She teamed up with her friend and former pastry chef at the Sir Francis Drake, Tim Nugent (who also did his share of reality TV competition on “Top Chef: Desserts”), to open up a Spanish-leaning Mediterranean restaurant called Shakewell in the Lakeshore neighborhood in Oakland.
Why I went: I was getting together with a former colleague, Sue, who works in the Lake Merritt area, so I figured Shakewell would be a convenient spot to meet up after work.
The vibe: A real neighborly feel, with a coziness coming from the warm reception of the hosts (Nugent is leading the service team so is often seen chatting with diners in the front) and the warmth of the wood-fire oven in the back. The wooden-brown decor offers an earthy, naturalistic feel, but the splashy large bar serves as a focal point for fun.
The menu: A changing menu with a lot of ingredients typical in Spanish cuisine such as saffron, sofrito, preserved lemons, octopus, almonds or pimenton picante. The restaurant doesn’t claim to be an authentic Spanish restaurant; instead it borrows from the styles of Spain as well as other Mediterranean regions such as Greece and North Africa. For example, they don’t offer paella but do their own version using the Bomba rice that’s used for paella and serving it up in clayware. The small plates section of the menu is reminiscent of tapas.
The booze: Shakewell offers a creative specialty cocktail menu, and what I appreciate in today’s cocktail-focused dining environment is that the cost is quite reasonable, about $8 to $10 a glass (compared to other restaurants that are charging anywhere from $15 to $18 a pop). Sue and I actually skipped the cocktails this time, and she went with a glass of rose while I went with my standard whenever I eat Spanish food – cava! I have to go back to the bar during the restaurant’s “cocktail hour” to fully appreciate the bar program.
My favorite dish: I enjoyed my main dish of manila clams and chorizo bomba ($20), which had a beautiful color from the saffron with balanced flavors infused from the other ingredients. I also enjoyed the simplicity of the octopus small plate ($8), although it really was a small plate. The flavors for most of the dishes are on the subtle side. In fact, Sue didn’t feel like she could taste much of the chili-chocolate in her braised short ribs ($19).
Insider tip: While the bomba plates are supposed to be Shakewell’s alternative to paella, the size is not what you’d imagine from a paella pan. One order actually can feed two people if you’re sharing other plates, or you could end up eating the whole thing for yourself (which is what I did). It can be considered an individual entree size.
The last bite: While the flavors are subtle, the offerings from Shakewell is a bold shakeup to the multiple California-seasonal-based restaurants out there. The charming decor and friendly service makes this a wonderful neighborhood hangout, which is just what Lakeshore needs after being eclipsed in recent years by its neighboring Grand Lake Avenue. Biesty and Nugent may have a bit of celebrity in their backgrounds, but their first venture together definitely has a family feel.
The rating: 2.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Shakewell, 3407 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland. PH: 510.251.0329. Open for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., and Sunday from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.shakewelloakland.com