April 13, 2024
It's inspiring to eat at a place that clearly means so much to a chef on personal levels, like Oakland's new fine dining, soul food spot Burdell.

It’s inspiring to eat at a place that clearly means so much to a chef on deep, personal levels.

Oakland’s new Burdell is a fine dining, soul food restaurant from Geoff Davis, a veteran of True Laurel, James Syhabout’s The Dock and the Michelin-starred Cyrus. Davis has planned this moment for a long time, perhaps fretfully, as he wondered in a 2020 blog post: “Can Black food be served in a fully-funded, beautiful restaurant space, with great service and with great ingredients and beverages? Will it be celebrated nationally? What compromises will it take to achieve this?”

It’s too early to answer the national-celebrity question, but the good news is Burdell has made a confident, thought-provoking debut. The basic idea is that the chef is reinterpreting the food of his grandparents – the name’s from his grandmother, Burdell Demby – in dishes like roasted pork neck, greens with berbere and Cathead Sourdough Biscuits with cider-honey butter. But there are other things happening here too: threads to the history of Black agriculture and foraging, Davis’ obsession with Bay Area farmers markets and a killer wine program, to mention a few.

Chef Geoff Davis at Burdell, a new soul food restaurant in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

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Don’t be afraid to ask the efficient and warm staff questions about what you’re eating. That’s how we learned on a recent visit that a mystery ingredient was seaweed – the chef likes to throw in international touches from places he’s visited or whose cuisine he respects – and why a plain-looking side of white rice was an eyebrow-raising $11. “It’s aged Charleston Gold rice,” our server explained. “It’s hard to find now and almost went extinct after slavery.”

The vibe: It’s your cool grandmother’s house. Family photos hang from the wall, old-school jams play on wooden speakers and mustard-yellow and avocado-green colors abound. Servers in flowered aprons tend to the bar area and main dining room, which seat about 50 people. Pieces of antique furniture and kitchen appliances are placed throughout, including inside the bathroom, lending the feeling of a classy estate sale.

The food: It’s quite excellent. A good way to start is with boiled peanuts, served shell-on after hours in the pot with house spices and peanut miso ($8). A tomato salad with iceberg lettuce and torpedo onions comes with generous dollops of dill ranch ($16). The chef’s transformative skill is evident in the chicken and waffles, presented as chicken-liver mousse with crispy skin and shallots ($16), and a “ham plate” with 2-year Lady Edison ham and summer melon ($19). The appetizer that might leave the most lasting impression is the barbecue white shrimp, served with toasted bread in a deeply flavorful sauce – you’ll want to suck the heads to extract every atom of juice ($24).

Bartender Evan Eller, left, serves a cocktail to customer David Crenshaw, of Modesto, at Burdell, a new soul food restaurant in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

For mains, a seasonal dish of blackened black cod over creamed sweet-corn grits is an elegant and restrained version of the charred version you might find in New Orleans. The grits are supremely smooth and made from purple corn, and sweet tomatoes and seaweed broth ties it all together ($36). And the roasted Klingeman Farms pork neck is almost steaklike in its immensity and presentation. Any pork fan knows the best part is the crispy fat, and here it rings the neck in a succulent cummerbund that’s saved from being a total richness-bomb by a tangy peach “jam” and mustard-seed jus ($38).

Blackened fish over grits served by chef Geoff Davis at Burdell, a new Soul Food restaurant in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

The drinks: Burdell’s ambitious wine program pulls neat bottles from around the world, with an emphasis on Europe and California. If you want a Moussé Fils “Les Fortes Terres” Special Club Meunier Brut from Champagne it’s here for $165, or if local is more your style, there’s a cab sauv from the Santa Cruz mountains. A handful of wines are poured by the glass. There are some interesting cocktails including a “Gussie” with watermelon-ginger shrub and blanc-quinquina aperitif ($14) and a “Stella” with dry vermouth, sake and pickled okra ($16).

Details: Open 5-9 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday at 4640 Telegraph Ave., Oakland; burdelloakland.com

General manager and sommelier Omar White serves dishes to customers Nick Watchorn, left, Lani Dy, both of Oregon, Tammy Chung and George Dy, both of Oakland, at Burdell, a new soul food restaurant in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 
Brined, fried and gravy-glazed rabbit, a signature of Burdell’s Geoff Davis, is inspired by his grandfather. (Courtesy of Geoff Davis) 
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