Cal Peternell, who spent 20 years as the chef at Chez Panisse, was focused on creative projects outside of the kitchen when he and his partners happened upon the 906 Washington St. space in Old Oakland.
The location became the home of Peternell’s food-oriented podcast and a production studio for journalists and other creatives. The space also had a kitchen, so Peternell wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to do some cooking in it too.
By day, the spot is known as Studiotobe, by night it turns into The Lede, a California-Italian restaurant and bar.
“Now we have both businesses operating in the same rooms,” Peternell said. “Work tables by day become dinner tables at night. It’s a perfect fit.”
When The Lede opened in September, it started off as a lunch counter, serving up a limited menu that included a duck confit sandwich. But after the bar was completed, Peternell said, the vibe leaned more toward happy hour and dinner. The restaurant is now open just for dinner. (Peternell said regular lunch service may return in the spring when the weather improves and the patio space can be used.)
One of the first things you’ll notice on entering The Lede is a prominent drawing of a typewriter that plays off the storytelling theme of the space. This piece, along with others, are by artists from Oakland-based Creative Growth.
Also notable is that The Lede is the latest of many new places to have a counter setup, where you order at the register off from the bar and then get a number to wait for your food. Despite this set-up, service is professional and attentive, so you don’t necessarily feel that you’re at a casual restaurant.
Turning to the food highlighted on the limited and changing menu, the influences of Peternell’s tenure at Chez Panisse are clear. Local, seasonal ingredients are spotlighted, and dishes are presented simply to let the purity and quality of the ingredients shine.
“After running the kitchens at Chez Panisse for over 20 years, I am hopelessly addicted to cooking with the seasons,” Peternell said. “The process starts at the market. We see what’s good on a particular day and then make a menu around that.”
A “very crunchy salad” ($11), for example, featured a fall bounty of Pink Lady apples and watermelon radish. What I found interesting was that Peternell is able to build what feels like a complete salad with very few greens except some sprigs of cilantro. Salads are offered with a choice of either house-made anchovy vinaigrette or smoky almond vinaigrette.
The Lede pasta options are freshly made and cooked to the right al dente texture. A “rigatoncini alla Chiantigiana” ($14) or rigatoni with red wine, was light with the sauce made primarily of wine and tomato. Local mushrooms provided a depth of flavor and comforting aroma.
The Sonoma County duck leg confit featured in the sandwich for lunch is presented as a plate for dinner at $22, served with mashed rutabaga, spinach and black olive tapenade. The single duck leg is pan-fried to a crisp so that there’s a crunchy exterior to contrast the tender meat.
While the prices may not seem as high as other restaurants, the portion size is also on the smaller side. This is especially true at the bar, where a cocktail goes for $12 but comes in a tiny glass that may be around the neighborhood of 8 ounces.
There are typically two options for desserts, usually a plate of cookies and another item, like panna cotta or cake. A slice of orange-coconut cake upside-down cake ($8) was nice and rustic, with subtle coconut and citrus flavors but nothing eye-opening in terms of surprises.
Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters famously served a ripe, unpeeled peach for dessert to showcase the natural sweetness of the peach sourced from a Central Valley family farmer. Peternell seems to be taking a page from that playbook with what is turning out to be a signature dish — sardines in a tin can.
Peternell dresses up the appetizer (on the menu at $12) with a few slices of toasted bread, house-made pickles and Dijon crème fraîche. But the sardines are simply a can of Matiz brand sardines from Spain, sitting in the oil that they’re packed in.
“It has become a sort of menu anchor around which to build from,” Peternell said. “People appreciate being able to always get them. When there are fewer and fewer things to be able to count on, we think there’s comfort knowing that the sardines will be there for you.”
The Lede is open 5-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.