New Oakland French restaurant Occitania offers a lesson in food, art and history

Chef Paul Canalis is all about the details. Whether it’s weeds from the ingredients that make a classic soup, or the selection of local artwork for his new restaurant in Occitania, he’s involved on all levels. After years of managing the kitchen at East Bay Italian-standard restaurant Oliveto before branching out into Spanish food in Duende, Canales is now embarking on an exploration of Southern French cuisine—and he wants to show diners a side of French food they might not know. “There will be some classic things that reflect this kind of thing. [French] Restaurant,” Canalis says. “But the food will be much broader than what you see anywhere French for sure here.”

Canalis has been at Occitanie since October 2020 and the restaurant is set to open for the first time at the Kessel Hotel Uptown Auckland on June 1. It sparked the opportunity to cook French food influenced by the ancient linguistic region of Occitanie Canales. The area touches parts of Italy and Spain, where Canalis knows his cooking intimately thanks to his experiments at Oliveto and Duende. “I now have tremendous creative potential, in terms of researching the kitchens of these areas,” Canales says.

The menu is ambitious, and features time-consuming dishes like lamb shank, house-made sausages, pancakes, and rillettes. Smaller items transition from lighter dishes like asparagus and shallots topped with eggs, Parmesan, walnuts, and vinegar to squid stewed in red wine and served with aioli. Escargot appears, as does pigeon cooked three ways served with olive oil. For main dishes, a seafood stew called Bourade Provencal featuring petrel sole and shrimp; For a heavier fare, there is a fine leg of lamb slow-cooked in red wine and garlic, then grilled and served with spring vegetables. Already, Canales has plans for many of the dishes that will rotate on the menu or how the items will change and morph with the products available. For example, he has already tested bouillabaisse made with scorpion fish and large aioli made with salted cod to serve with vegetables and boiled shrimp.

Occitanie

Occitanie

Occitanie

steak frites

Even as the menu delves into French culture and cuisine, Canales wants to retain some of its well-known bistro classics, especially given that the restaurant is located inside the hotel and caters to visiting guests. There is a steak frites featuring a premium New York steak and fries. Onion soup with croutons and Gruyere; And a Lyonnaise salad. Canales knew he wanted to include a burger, and the version that made it to the menu recreates one he had during his childhood in Fresno in the late 1960s, called the French Burger, from a restaurant called Cafe Midi. Canales spent two months researching and developing this burger with his brothers until he hit the right notes: crusty bread in garlic butter, a 50/50 mix of Parmesan, and Dijon mustard beans topped with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and Gruyere.

The drinks menu will feature a large selection of French wines, with a few offerings from Italy, Spain and California, as well as a menu of French tapas and local beers. The cocktail section focuses on the classics, with some drinks that use fresh ingredients like a spritz that features Aperol, cara cara orange, Rosemary blanc vermouth, and cava, or Waking Joseph, which pairs vodka with lemon, ginger, pineapple, mata bianco, Lime and coriander.

For the restaurant itself, Canales hired Arcsine to shape the space, having previously worked together on Duende. Ceramic art pieces by Peter St. Lawrence hanging above the tables dominate the main space; The abstract shapes feature gold leaf meant to reflect light and hint at the misty winds blowing across southern France. Two murals by textile artist Ramona Downey in shades of red remind me of Mark Rothko’s fields of color, Canalis says, while a mural by Sam Strand anchors the private dining room.

Canales stops at one point explaining the history and food of the Ossetian region, and says, “Of course you might have now found out that my father was a professor of history,” before declaring himself an amateur historian “participating in history” through this restaurant and all its elements. “I live,” Canales says. in food as a creative expression of what I do.” “Because you’re in a restaurant working 14-16 hours a day, you must have a reason to show up there every day, and it’s not because I want my picture on the front of every glossy magazine—I do this for internal reasons. So I need this, this torture, this reason to show up every day, this thing that compels me. So I found her in Occitanie.”

Occitanie

The Occitania (422 24th St, Oakland) show begins Wednesday, June 1, and will be open from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with hours extended until 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The restaurant is set to expand its opening hours to include brunch and weekend brunch soon.

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