It feels like a party at Penrose.
Only open since Thanksgiving, Penrose on Grand Avenue in Oakland already has a vibe going: warm, bright, and friendly. Festooned with party lights, Penrose is keeping the holiday spirit alive well into the New Year.
We advised the hostess we were going directly to the bar, and then wended our way past the lively groups seated around the communal tables spread throughout the spacious, brick-walled room. The wood-fired grill and the large, overhead fan-shaped fixture caught our eye immediately: industrial and welcoming at the same time.
As the night was a bit chilly, we chose to sit in the middle of the bar where we could see the grill’s flames and experience some ambient warmth. We perused the cocktail menu and started to ask the bartender a question about it when we realized that we were speaking to John, the bartender from Boot & Shoe Service across the street. Now we really felt at home. [Both restaurants are run by Charlie Hallowell of Pizzaiolo fame.]
After taking a moment to schmooze about the new place and ask a few questions, we took John’s recommendation and ordered a Rum Grundy, served “Manhattan style” with a serpentine sliver of lemon peel. Our drink, according to John, would be a “carefully balanced” blend of 8 year-old rum with elements of citrus and herbs — made possible by the addition of the Italian bitter Amaro Montenegro — along with Punt e Mes (a dark brown Italian vermouth), and maraschino liqueur.
Our curiosity about these ingredients inspired a bit of research. The noted late 19th- and early 20th-century Italian writer and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio called Amaro Montenegro the “liqueur of the virtues.” We will take his word as someone who, according to one source, “placed an overriding emphasis on the gratification of the senses.” A discerning palate might be able to distinguish all the citrus scents, the sweetness of orange, tangerine and mandarin peel, and a blend of over 40 different herbs and roots that create a “bittersweet and citrusy” aftertaste.
As the recipe has been a closely guarded secret for over a century, we will never know for sure what its true virtues are. It’s possible that we may have been a bit distracted by the colorful lights and the conversation with our companions at the bar, so the main thing we focused on was how smooth and flavorful the drink tasted. Did we pick up on the coriander, red cherry, pekoe tea and cucumber that some tasters have noted? The conclusion of our visit to Penrose left us pondering those bittersweet notes. More research may need to take place in order to test our senses further.
We were curious as well about the photograph of a rather handsome and somewhat younger Tom Selleck posted in a prominent position behind the bar. Finally, we asked about it and were advised that not only is Mr. Selleck the bar mascot, but he is the “patron saint of good bar behavior.” We raise our glass to that, and hope his beneficent presence will spread goodwill and bonhomie among all future Penrose patrons.
The Drink: Rum Grundy
To Try Next Time: We will take a recommendation from John on our next visit also. He’s never steered us wrong.
The Crowd: After work from downtown, uptown or the neighborhood; families and groups of friends
The Challenge: Parking, always
Behind the Bar: A familiar face: John, recently of Boot & Shoe Service across the street
When to Go: Early. It’s already a popular spot on Grand and fills up quickly. Good for before or after a movie at the Grand Lake.
The Deets: Penrose, 3308 Grand Avenue, Oakland
Are you a cocktail aficionado? Read previous Ms. Barstool reviews of Gather, Tribune Tavern, the Paragon, Boot & Shoe Service, Picàn, Hopscotch, Five, Revival, Flora, and Prizefighter — and check Berkeleyside Nosh’s Guide to Drinking around Berkeley.
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