Friday, August 03, 2007

Dish on Dining: Levende East (CLOSED)

The Club Vibe in Old Oakland
(UPDATE 07/07/11: This restaurant is now closed.)
827 Washington St. (at 9th Street), Oakland
Old Downtown District
PH: 510.835.5585
Open for lunch, Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner, Mon.–Sat., 5 –11 p.m.

Is it a bad sign if a bar serves you a hand-me-down drink? That’s what happened to me while I was waiting for a friend before dinner at the new Levende East restaurant and club in Historic Old Oakland near downtown. Luckily, things can only go up from there.

Levende East is the East Bay offshoot of Levende Lounge in San Francisco. I’ve actually never eaten at the original Levende (although I’ve been in that spot when it was previously the home of Butterfly Lounge and back in the days when I had to dodge homeless people walking from my nearby apartment to the restaurant kitty corner to the Mission Street off-ramp), but apparently it’s successful enough for the owners to branch out into Oakland.

Levende East definitely has that city vibe, from the tall ceilings to the brick walls to the slick, dark tables. But in many ways, it’s grown up a bit from the club scene and seems to have less emphasis on the lounge part and more on the food. On the menu, chef Arren Caccamo has added more large plates to feature his French-California cuisine with Mediterranean and Asian influences.

But first, back to my drink. So I got to the restaurant early, and it was already filling up for a weeknight. I was meeting my friend Laurie, who I’ve known since we were both industrious business reporters for a San Francisco newspaper. Since Laurie hadn't arrived yet, I found the only spot at the large bar area and decided to try one of Levende’s specialty drinks.

I ordered the Barcelona, just because I like to reminisce about my trip to that city more than three years ago. The drink was a simple Ketel One Citreon vodka with cherry liqueur and soda. When I ordered it from the bartender, it magically appeared within a few seconds. I thought, wow, extra points for quick service. Then she fessed up and said she had made the drink just a couple of minutes earlier and the patron decided he didn’t want it. So I can’t give a fair review to the Barcelona. I imagine it could be refreshing and sparkling. But this glass tasted flat and watered down.

Despite the drink, I had a nice chat with a woman next to me visiting from Boston, and then moved on to dinner when Laurie arrived. Oh, I forgot to mention that right next to the bar was the ubiquitous communal table that looked like it could fit quite a few people. It was nearly packed when I was there.

Laurie and I decided to have a light dinner, so we ordered a few dishes to share from the appetizer section. I would describe the dishes as they came out, but they all came out at the same time so here’s the rundown:

Fried Calamari Salad with soy dressing ($11). It looked huge with the calamari rings sitting on top a pile of frissee, radicchio, mizuna and shaved carrots. (I know I’ve said I generally don’t eat fried foods, but seems like deep-frying is the only way Americans know how to prepare calamari. In Spain, they often grill them, which is very nice—and much healthier!) Despite being fried, I loved this dish. The dressing had hints of miso and was creamy to bind all the greens and the calamari. My only tip if you order this is to eat it right away because the calamari will start separating from the fried dough if it sits too long.

Mini Lamb Burgers ($9). Mini burgers are so cute and so hot these days. They’re perfect to share with two people. And I love lamb. The burgers were supposedly Indian spiced, and you could tell it had some spice because the diced onions had a golden hue to them. However, I didn’t get an Indian flavor at all. The lamb was cooked well and it tasted fine, but it didn’t transport me to Delhi with each bite. Just 9th Street Oakland.

Maine Lobster and Shrimp Cakes ($12). The cakes were placed over roasted corn with a jalapeno and lemon vinaigrette. This is where Laurie and I had varying taste reactions. She thought the cakes were a bit salty and spicy while I thought it was just fine and could use a bit more jalapeno. Still, it was enjoyable and filling.

Since Levende East has high ceilings and a club vibe, you can guess that as the evening moved on, the sound level in the restaurant got higher and higher. So it’s very difficult to hold a conversation, and probably impossible to talk later in the evening when the live music and DJ play. Side note: Our server was competent and pleasant but a bit rushed. She seemed overwhelmed. I don’t know if it was because she had to rush to work, or she couldn’t deal with the crowded room.

Still, with the steady flow of people coming in for dinner, it looks like the neighborhood is primed for a hybrid restaurant and club. And with other restaurants in the area (such as B Restaurant and Bar across the way), it looks like Historic Old Downtown Oakland won’t be as ghost quiet at nights anymore. And that can only be a good thing.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (get down with some cool food)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Levende East in Oakland

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