Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dish on Dining: Bocanova

Getting Festive by the Waterfront
55 Webster St. (at Embarcadero), Oakland
Jack London Square
PH: 510.444.1233
Lunch and dinner daily
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

There are big plans for Oakland’s waterfront, known as Jack London Square (named for the writer, in case you messed that in class). And it’s about time because the area has a great view of the water but in recent years hasn’t been able to attract the crowds. The few times I’ve visited felt like a ghost town, despite having a Cineplex and the longtime Yoshi’s Jazz Club.

So with news of a major food market and restaurants by such culinary luminaries as Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi and Il Cane Rosso, things are looking up. And the party has already started with the opening this summer of Bocanova.

Bocanova is the brainchild of Rick Hackett and his wife, Meredith Melville. The two have a steeped history in the Bay Area’s culinary scene, having worked at places like Chez Panisse and having operated the famed Enrico’s in North Beach. Now they’ve landed in Jack London Square with a restaurant focusing on the cuisine of South America, taking cues from their largely Latin kitchen staff.

The beautiful and expansive restaurant — dressed in warm tones and decorative balloon lights — takes advantage of the waterfront view with a large patio. When I visited a couple of weeks ago (this was before daylight savings time ended when it was still light before 7 p.m.), I thought it would be nice to have a drink in the patio as I waited for my dining companion, my friend Laurie.

The restaurant’s bar is actually in the center of the large dining room, right off the main entrance. It’s close to the open kitchen with roaring fire from the ovens, offering up close-up views of the action, but the bar wasn’t near the water. So I asked if I could take my drink outside, and a waitress said it was fine.

This is where I have to talk about the overall service at Bocanova, just because it all started with the drink outside. The service at Bocanova is inconsistent and at times awkward. I think it’s a reflection of the fact that not all the servers appear to have much experience in the service industry.

Here’s what I mean: As I went outside to sit and admire the view, one waitress was extremely helpful in getting me seated and even firing up the heater lamps nearby. Then another waiter took my order for a pisco sour but instead returned with a pisco punch. He tells me they don’t make pisco sours (!!) so he brought me the next best thing. It would have been nice if he told me earlier that they didn’t have pisco sours in case I wanted another drink, like a martini instead.

Then even before I could take a sip of my pisco punch and enjoy the sunset, one of the younger hostesses came up to me and asked me to sit inside. I asked her why, and she didn’t have an answer, saying only “it just would be better.” Better for whom, me or her? It was all very awkward, especially since I had asked if it was OK if I had a drink outside while I waited for my friend.

What was odd about her request was she didn’t ask me to sit at the bar to wait, and instead offered up another table inside, which didn’t make sense to me because if I can’t sit at a table outside, why is it OK to sit at a table inside? Because it was almost time for my reservations, I figured I’ll just go sit at the bar. So I grabbed my drink and walked in totally confused about Bocanova’s policy about who gets to sit in the patio.

And on top of all this, I was chatting with the bartender about how I love pisco sours and told him I was surprised they didn’t make them. Then he tells me he could have easily made one for me if he knew. It’s this back-and-forth, yes-and-no experience from the various servers that left me feeling the overall service is lacking. Some servers go out of their way, while others seem too intent to follow some unwritten rule. (BTW, the service experience wasn’t just limited to the start of dinner. During dinner our server wasn’t overly friendly and seemed to be rushing us along a bit.)

But enough about the service, let’s talk about the food, which is more fun.

When Laurie arrived and we settled at our table facing the patio where I couldn’t sit (no, not bitter, really), we looked over Bocanova’s interesting menu, which is broken up by where the dishes come from, i.e., raw bar, garden, stove, grill or rotisserie.

There were definite Latin touches, but they weren’t predominantly from one country. I saw touches of Peru, Argentina, and Mexico in the offerings.

We started with the Mexican Wild Shrimp Ceviche ($9), which came tossed in a creamy coating that reminded me of avocado. The bits of shrimp was mixed with jicama and red pepper and served alongside chips that we used to spoon out the ceviche. The flavors were fresh and light, and not as tart as some ceviche cured in lime juice. Bocanova’s version was definitely easier on the palate.

We also tried the Burnt Carrot and Arugula Salad ($9) in a creamy avocado vinaigrette and sprinkled with contija cheese. Our server explained that the carrots are blackened for caramelization, but when the dish arrived the carrots didn’t look that burnt. Instead, they were just tender with the slight hint of smokiness from the gentle char.

Taking our server’s advice, we tried the huarache ($9), which is a Mexican flat bread. Bocanova tops theirs with thinly sliced pumpkin, bacon, bufala mozzarella and ajipanca. The huarache came out looking like a thin crust pizza, and since both Laurie and I like thin-crust pizzas, we found this enjoyable. The pumpkin blended well with the savory bacon and the slight sweetness of the ajipanca, a Peruvian red pepper paste.

After the huarache, we knew we were in trouble because we ordered two entrĂ©es to share but we were already getting full. First up was the Yucatan Seafood Stew ($11), which was a hearty dish of mussels and fish blended with bits of grapefruit and tomatoes. This was an OK dish. I didn’t find the flavors necessarily exciting, and the broth was too thin and didn’t feel like a stew to me.

Then we had the Organic Turkey Breast with Pumpkin Seed Mole ($16), which was my favorite dish of the night. If you have no Thanksgiving plans, you should come to Bocanova and order this dish. The slices of turkey breast from the rotisserie was perfectly cook, the moistened tender meat just filling you up with tryptophan. The pumpkin mole was slightly sweet but earthy, and added a nice color and subtle flavor to overall dish.

Despite hearing about an amazing pumpkin dessert from the bartender, Laurie and I were too full to order anything more. But isn’t it always a good thing to leave a dinner feeling full?

Bocanova’s menu offers a lot of exciting chances to expose oneself to more Latin techniques and cuisine. The ingredients are seasonal and fresh, and most dishes come out lively from the kitchen. As the restaurant’s staff gets settled in and increases their accommodating nature, Bocanova is sure to be a future mainstay amongst a revitalized Jack London Square.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Fresh Flavors)

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

Bocanova on Urbanspoon

Other latin flavors:
La Furia Chalaca: “Offering up Homey and Authentic Peruvian Cuisine”
La Mar Cebicheria: “A Continuing Lesson in Peruvian Cuisine”
Limon Peruvian Rotisserie: “Classy Take on Home-style Peruvian Food”


Carolyn Jung said...

Oh man, what mass confusion with the service. Hope they get that smoothed out. I've only been there for lunch so far. It is a grand looking restaurant.

Hungry Dog said...

Looks like a beautiful restaurant with some good food, but the service issues would be a dealbreaker for me. I hope someone who works there reads your post--I think they could benefit from your honest and constructive criticism. It's too competitive out here for places to get away with lame service.

Single Guy Ben said...

Actually, if they read any comments about their service, they'll probably get it from the Chron, which coincidentally came out with their review of Bocanova on Sunday (dang, they beat me!). Bauer interestingly enough took issue with the service as well. Again, I think it's because the staff is young and new. They just need more polish from Melville's experience. But if Bocanova is reading, I'd suggest they set aside a picnic table on the patio for bar guests so people can also enjoy the view with just a drink. It's a big patio that seems to go to waste, except weekends when I'm sure it's a prime spot for brunch.

ShopGirl said...

The service and the food are both hit and misses, although I have to say that the vibe (and for me, walk/crawlability) are huge draws that outweigh the negatives.

I've seen the owner argue with emps in front of guests sitting at the bar. Rude.

I've had a disagreement with the sommelier, which was just odd to all of us at the table. That wine was borderline corked, so go for wines by the glass or carafe, imho.

On the other hand, I've had some great servers and some great food. Luckily not all bad on the same visit, which is probably why I keep going back hoping that continue to improve as they catch their groove.

foodhoe said...

I went there right after they opened and while I loved the setting, I wasn't that excited about the food and thought the service was very amateurish. I loved the outdoor seating and the views though.

rajbot said...

Absolutely everything I've read about Bocanova brings up the issue of poor, uneven service, which doesn't surprise me, as both times I've eaten there I've experienced the same. The first time, we waited at the bar nearly 20 minutes for an outdoor table (for lack of servers, apparently -- not tables -- there were plenty of those), only to be shown to an indoor one. After we let the host know we had been waiting for an outdoor table, he sat us directly next to some guests who came in behind us (also walk-ins) and had managed to already receive their appetizers. The waiter who served us was friendly enough, but the food arrived incredibly slowly, and we saw him only rarely. He also gave us a wildly incorrect bill.

The second time I took my sister, and after an hour and a half there, we had managed to get two drinks and an appetizer.

I have enjoyed most of the food I've had there, even though I'm not particularly a small plate fan. I just can't see myself going back until service improves. I'm not even sure what they're doing wrong, as I've *seen* plenty of servers milling about the patio. Maybe they're waiting tables inside as well?

Kitt said...

Enjoyed the review, and the comments. Could you maybe set your commenting time stamp to include dates? That's helpful to know if the place has or hasn't improved over time.