Picán, Oakland CA
Entering an opulent room with high ceilings and live jazz played on a baby grand piano, you hope that the food matches the atmosphere. When at least two of the senses are intrigued, the others want to play along. The food on the menu at Picán has flavors that are on par with the visuals and sounds of the restaurant, so tonight our palates were not let down by the soul food with a touch of California heart.
Instead of rolls or a sliced loaf of bread, cornbread is offered. It served well through our meal to sop up the various sauces and dribbles. With honey butter, it could easily be dessert on its own.
Picán has a full bar and is known for boasting a broad bevy of bourbon. Tonight, though, we weren’t inclined to drink alcohol, so our server recommended a non-alcoholic Southern Mule. Akin to a juice cocktail, this was a mix of ginger beer, lemon juice, and pineapple juice. It was tangy and only mildly sweet, and the flavor combination of citrus with ginger was very refreshing.
Zach has had alligator only a few times in his life, and this was his favorite version. August has had her fair share of alligator, and had to agree with him. Fresh fried alligator bites were served over a smear of caper and fennel tartar sauce. The alligator was tender with a nice crunchy breading and great seasoning, and the tartar sauce’s particular herb mix was an excellent complement. On first taste it seemed like a typical tartar sauce, but with the alligator, there was no fooling that there was something special about it. Laid over the top were fried slices of okra, peppers, lemon, and mint leafs. The okra, when fried, turned sweet and lost all sliminess, yet that slime was not replaced with grease; this was not an oily dish. With a medium spicy bite from the peppers, Zach says that “everything was seasoned really well and balanced.”
The soup we ordered was unexpectedly split for us, so what you see here is a mini serving. To be honest, though, the she-crab soup was so rich, that it was the ideal amount to be split like this. Creamy and flavorful like a bisque with an olive oil floater (not traditional dry sherry), the crab taste was briny and permeated the soup. The tablespoon-sized amount of crab meat was tender and delicate, while a kick of cayenne made this warm but not too spicy. Tiny, savory, cornbread madeleines acted as garnish and texture variance, with just a little bit of crunch.
August ordered the fork-tender pork shank. It had a nice crust from searing, with a great caramelized flavor from the Maillard reaction. The demi-glace was savory and light with rich pork and wine flavors and the faintest hint of rosemary. Sprinkled over the top was a gremolata of pecans, bringing an earthy nuttiness to this sumptuous plate.
The pork shank was served with yams as a side. These were cooked just right with the slighted bit of give remaining, not cooked to mush like we’re so accustomed to during the winter holidays. Like the holidays, though, these had a nice array of spices that were reminiscent of the scents of Thanksgiving dinner. The sorghum marshmallow, while new to us, was nonetheless tasty as a sweet highlight for the yams.
Zach’s entree also came with a preset side, but we needed some roughage for our health’s sake so we ordered these collard greens with bits of smoked brisket. Like the yams, these were not cooked to oblivion so there was some texture left. Savory and seasoned with just enough salt, the fact that these weren’t overcooked meant that the vague flavor of raw collards was still there, and was even highlighted by the seasoning. All too often collard greens come out of a can or are fresh but simply overcooked, so we relished in the freshness here offset by the smoky meat.
Zach’s chicken had a crispy breading that was well seasoned, encasing meat that was super flavorful. Brining really does make a difference for chicken, not just turkey on Thanksgiving (if you’d like to learn how to brine chicken, follow this recipe). The drumstick and breast section with rib meat turned out juicy, moist, and not at all greasy. The mac ‘n cheese was creamy and gooey with loads of smoked Gouda cheese. The al dente noodles were nearly swimming in the rich sauce. This is not your typical mac ‘n cheese, but it’s comforting all the same.
Many menu items are identified as vegetarian, vegan, and/or gluten-free, so this is a wonderful place to please any eaters. Server assistant José did a great job at keeping an eye on all the patrons in his section, and we thank him sincerely for his attentiveness. All the tables in our area were visibly happy with their service, and clearly their food.