Alyssa Takes Herself to Mägo Oakland
Okay, so I have to be honest, my spirits weren’t particularly high going into this meal knowing that I would be eating alone. Although sometimes refreshing, eating alone usually means less sampling and more silence, two things that I tend to hate. To make things worse, I ended up getting on the wrong Bart headed to Oakland, a novice mistake for someone who has lived in the Bay Area for the past 4 years, but I’ll blame my negligence on being in a hurry. The error ended up costing me $6.80, no chump change for someone as frugal as myself, and it sure didn’t help lift me out of my dismal mindset. However, thanks to my inner planner, I seamlessly walked to a reserved spot at the chef’s counter upon arrival, my first success of the night. I then proceeded to read over the menu (which of course I had already dissected online prior to my visit) but I don’t believe in hiding behind an inflexible mindset in the restaurant scene. The ambiance, smell, plates of my neighbors, and (hopefully) unbiased suggestions of my server generally influence my final decisions. In this case, I was extra lucky because I had worked with the chef, Mark Liberman, on a few prior occasions. We met a few years back when I was working as a camp director for Sprouts Cooking Club and he was a regular instructor. I remember him voicing his dreams to eventually open up a restaurant of his own at the time, but I could tell he was suspicious of the likelihood that those aspirations would ever become reality.
Therefore, when I finally spotted Chef Liberman behind the low glass planes separating his new world in the kitchen from my own, I was undeniably proud of how far he had come. He was the final person that I asked for recommendations, and I followed his lead with the help of my stomach.
After finally ordering, I took some time to visually explore my surroundings. The restaurant, having only been open for about a week at this point, was very minimalistic but the accents that did exist were done tastefully. A few large sunroofs punctured the monochrome white ceilings allowing thick beams of light to cast themselves on the hanging plants below. Further back, the painted face of a large purple magician surveyed the room sticking to the spanish meaning of the Mägo name. The bar was simple and lean, the tables, blank wooden slabs, and the dishware left the speaking to the food that lived inside. To some, the simplicity may have come off as laziness, but to me, it was a refreshing way to redirect my attention towards the reason I came in the first place, the food.
I ended up ordering more food than one would merit for someone my size, but I was too curious to resist. The first two things to reach me were a focaccia appetizer served with a seaweed tapenade and an heirloom melon snack served with lime and gochugaru, a spice that I would equate to tajin. As someone who just recently returned from a 3 month journey throughout Italy, I am quite the stickler when it comes to focaccia, BUT, I am always open to trying new and different interpretations of the classic Italian staple. Sadly, in this scenario, I was a little disappointed. Instead of a somewhat crisp top, laden with oil and seasonings like I was accustomed to, it seemed to have a sort of upper skin-like layer that gave the bread an undesirable chew. When I think focaccia, I think oily, salty, pillowy heaven, but this version seemed like it had been hastened through the proofing process and then left to sit out. The seaweed tapenade was an inventive take, although, I felt like it acted as a coverup for all the flavor that the focaccia was lacking. The melon on the other hand, was indeed tasty, but I was a little disappointed when I realized that the $5 appetizer arrived as a single slice with a delicate sprinkle of seasoning. Don’t get me wrong, the plating was beautiful, the melon topped with the deep red gochugaru and herbs sat gracefully atop a pile of freshly chiseled ice. However, I regularly flavor my fruit in the same way at home so it definitely stole some of the appeal from the experience.
Next up, I ordered the asparagus and burrata served with a warm chorizo vinaigrette and the potato gnocchi with summer squash, basil, and pesto. As a classic seasonal dish that frequents menus at the end of spring and early summer, I was worried that the asparagus wouldn’t have the strength to separate itself from its competitors, but boy was I wrong. The burrata that lay at the bottom of the dish was full bodied in a way that coated the inside of my mouth with a fatty, satisfying residue. The asparagus, on the other hand, were crisp and warm right off of the grill, contrasting the softness of the cheese. Then to tie everything together, chunks of chorizo were scattered throughout, lending a tang of salt, heat, and acidity to the dish (Samin Nosrat would be proud). Let’s just say that I could have easily eaten three of these asparagus plates on my own, and would recommend you to do the same.
Finally, I moved on to the potato gnocchi with summer squash. Personally, I think this dish needed some adjustments. The gnocchi itself was quite delicious. It was plump and well seasoned but still maintained a little give with each bite. The problem, however, existed in the accompaniments. The squash held on to their rigidity on the plate, but in a way that resembled the raw form of the vegetable, lacking flavor and spunk. The vegetables also outnumbered the pieces of gnocchi, 2:3, which seemed a little excessive for an entree that I was hoping to be more substantial. Aside from the squash, the pesto-like sauce that aimed to tie the dish together was in my mind, much too oily and abundant. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE pesto, but this needed a higher proportion of basil/herbs to balance out the oil. It felt heavy, and for the first time in a while, I wasn’t enticed to slop up the remains with my leftover bread.
Last but not least, and despite being plenty full, I took one for the team and opted to try a dessert as well. I went straight to the source, asking for Chef Liberman’s personal recommendation, and landed on the bing cherry clafoutis to complete my meal. I watched as my dessert was taken straight out of the oven and topped with homemade vanilla ice cream that quickly began to melt and dribble over the piping hot clafoutis below. Being a virgin to this French inspired dessert I will do my best to describe the flavors to those who also have not experienced its wonders before. Imagine the syrupy and sweet tang of a belgium waffle paired with a texturally soft interior that resembles undercooked batter. Moreso, the hot and cold temperatures of the clafoutis and ice cream brought me back to childhood memories of dipping doughy chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven in a chilled glass of milk. Not to be discounted, the bing cherries supplied a pivotal tart punch to finish. I may or may not have finished this whole dessert (which was definitely shareable) but it wasn’t the type of dish that one could box up to bring home and I sure wasn’t going to hand it back to be thrown away.
Overall, I would rate Mago at a 5 out of 10 when taking the whole atmosphere into consideration. The restaurant had a community vibe that encouraged participation and suggestions from customers that I really liked. A white board in the back of the space displayed a list of the week’s featured seasonal ingredients on one side and the other was left open for people to add their own ideas for new recipes. I also loved that Mago committed to changing their menu on a weekly basis (so chances are, you won’t run into many or any of the same menu items that I had when I dined). I feel that although this decision may aggravate regulars who become invested in certain dishes, it keeps the restaurant fresh, adaptable, and intriguing. Lastly, although I think the food still needs a good deal of development, I could tell that the chefs and service staff acknowledged the improvements that needed to be acted upon and were dedicated to putting in the effort to make those advancements. More than anything, that kind of motivation and work ethic present at Mägo is what differentiates restaurants with character and potential from refined dining locations that leave you remembering the hefty price tag rather than the food.
My best advice, give Mägo a few months to work out some kinks and then give it a try. They have the foundations to make a successful restaurant but will definitely benefit from focusing extra time into menu development once the bulk of their energy can transition away from all the chaos that accompanies opening a restaurant in this day and age.