Oakland’s new French restaurant Occitania offers a lesson in food, art and history
Chef Paul Canales is all about the details. From poring over the ingredients for a classic bouillabaisse to selecting local artwork for his new Oakland restaurant, Occitania, he gets involved on every level. After years of running the kitchen of Oliveto, the Italian standard in the East Bay, before branching out into Spanish cuisine in Duende, Canales is now embarking on an exploration of the cuisine of the south of France – and he wants show diners a side of French cuisine that they may not know. “There will be classic things that echo that kind of [French] restaurant,” says Canales. “But the food will certainly be much more varied than what you see in any French place here.”
Canales has been working on Occitanie since October 2020 and the restaurant is set to debut at Hotel Kissel Uptown Oakland on June 1. The opportunity to cook French dishes influenced by the former linguistic region of Occitanie excited Canales. The region touches parts of Italy and Spain, whose cuisine Canales knows intimately from his experiences in Oliveto and Duende. “Now I have huge creative possibilities, in terms of digging into the cuisines of these regions,” says Canales.
The menu is ambitious, with time-consuming dishes like lamb shank and homemade sausages, pâtés and rillettes. Smaller dishes range from lighter dishes like asparagus and leeks topped with egg, parmesan, walnuts and vinaigrette to calamari braised in red wine and served with aioli. The snail makes an appearance, as does the pigeon three ways served with an olive tapenade. For mains, a seafood stew called bourride provencale includes petral sole and prawns; for heavier dishes, there’s a luxurious lamb shank slow-cooked in red wine and garlic, then grilled and served with spring vegetables. Already, Canales has plans for several dishes that will rotate on the menu or how items will shift and change with available products. For example, he has already tested a bouillabaisse made from scorpion fish and a large aioli made from salted cod to accompany vegetables and poached prawns.
Even though the menu delves deep into French culture and cuisine, Canales wants to retain some of the recognizable bistro classics, especially since the restaurant is inside a hotel and welcomes visitors. There’s a steak and fries dish, with prime New York steak and the requisite fries; onion soup with croutons and gruyere cheese; and a Lyonnaise salad. Canales knew he wanted to include a burger, and the version that landed on the menu recreates the one he had growing up in Fresno in the late 1960s, dubbed the French burger, from a restaurant called Cafe Midi. Canales spent two months researching how to make this burger and developing it with his siblings until he found the right notes: bread slathered in garlic butter and a 50/50 mix of parmesan cheese and of Dijon mustard garnished with caramelized onions, mushrooms and Gruyere cheese.
The drinks menu will feature an extensive selection of French wines, with some offerings from Italy, Spain and California, as well as a list of French aperitifs and local beers. The cocktail section focuses on the classics, with some drinks using fresh ingredients like a spritz made with Aperol, charred cara cara orange, rosemary white vermouth and cava, or the Waking Joseph, which pairs vodka with lemongrass, ginger, pineapple, mata bianco, lime and coriander.
For the restaurant itself, Canales brought on Arcsine to shape the space, having worked together on Duende. Ceramic art pieces by Peter St. Lawrence suspended above the tables dominate the main space; the abstract forms feature gold leaf meant to reflect light and allude to the mistral winds that blow in the south of France. Textile artist Ramona Downey’s two wall hangings in shades of red recall the color fields of Mark Rothko, says Canales, while a mural by Sam Strand anchors the private dining room.
Canales pauses at one point to explain the history of the Occitanie region and its food, and says, “Of course, you’ve probably figured out by now that my father was a history teacher,” before proclaiming himself an amateur historian. “engaging in history” through this restaurant and all of its elements. “I live in food as a creative expression of what I do,” says Canales. “Because you’re in a restaurant doing 14 to 16 hours a day, you have to have a reason to show up there every day, and it’s not because I want my picture on the front of every magazine. on glossy paper – I do this for internal reasons. So I need this, this torture, this reason to show myself every day, this thing that compels me. So I found it in Occitania .
Occitania (422 24th St, Oakland) debuts Wednesday, June 1 and will be open from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with extended hours until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The restaurant is expected to expand its opening hours to include lunch and weekend brunch shortly.