Palmetto has a colorful interior and a spacious bar.
It has become a demarcation line in the restaurant world: pre-COVID and post-COVID. And everyone has a story. The restaurants that closed and reopened, the ones that lasted all the time, those fortunate enough to open after the pandemic went away, and of course the ones that didn’t make it. And then there were these special cases that opened up during the pandemic at the height of uncertainty when it was unclear how or if we would ever return to any kind of normalcy, whether food or something else.
That was the fate of Palmetto, the ambitious concept (loosely translated as “tropical Americana with a steakhouse feeling”) by Kon-Tiki owners Christ Aivaliotis and Matt Reagan, which was to replace Flora in Uptown Oakland. It was a feel-good story that was big news in the East Bay dining world when it was announced in 2019: local restaurateurs replaced a groundbreaking gourmet eatery that contributed to the food and cocktail renaissance in Oakland. The menu was ready, the cocktails were fine-tuned and the opening date was provisionally set. Then all hell broke loose.
“We were scheduled to open on March 26th and new employees had already left other positions,” Reagan recalls. “One of my favorite things to do in running restaurants is signing people’s paychecks because I know I have good jobs that will enable people to live in the Bay Area. So it was a tough couple of days, having to fire all these people. “
Chef Manuel Bonilla gives the dishes a Latin American touch.
After postponing it for two months, they tried making takeout last May, but it quickly became clear that a concept based on roasted meats, cold cocktails, and a festive ambience was not making takeout. They decided to close the hatches in hopes of opening them again in calmer waters. That’s exactly what Aivaliotis and Reagan did this spring when COVID restrictions eased. Ironically, the same qualities that worked against Palmetto last year could make it one of the hottest restaurants in East Bay after the pandemic.
After years of working in the industry, Aivaliotis and Reagan have put their own colorful stamp on the Oakland restaurant scene with the Kon-Tiki, an uncompromisingly campy downtown Tiki bar with an unusually serious food and drink program. Palmetto – with its wonderfully inviting pastel and neon interior that feels right out of Miami Beach – shares the same Tiki spirit in creating a vacation-like feel of carefree escape. And who could argue against a trip to the tropics after the year we’ve all had, canceling trips to settle down at home?
Aside from its iconic and airy setting in a former Art Deco-era flower depot, Flora is perhaps best remembered as a destination for top-notch cocktails. And none was more famous than his Carter Beats the Devil, a revelation in the mixology scene of the late 2000s that balanced elements of smoke (mezcal), citrus (lime), and spice (bird’s-eye chilli). Aivaliotis knows this more than most. After its premiere in 2007, he was Flora’s bar manager for several years, during which time he learned the restaurant’s signature drink (“I’ve probably made at least a thousand of them,” he says). At Palmetto, he endeavored to “pay homage to the work Flora had done promoting craft cocktails in the East Bay” while adding his own opinion to the program. As such, the Carter Beats the Devil is still on the menu, but bar manager Jeanie Grant’s house creations lean closer to the equator, heavily influenced by rum, tropical fruit juices, and punch, while still taking inspiration from minimalist American cocktail classics like Manhattan let and sidecar. (Grant explains her approach impressively as “a sensual experience through focused taste, color and aroma instead of exaggerated garnishes and complicated execution.”) A fine example of her lighter, fruity note is the Hamilton Sign Company. This refreshing take on Carter features lemon peel, botanical gin, and white balsamic vinegar to balance the mezcal smoke and spice of Aleppo pepper. (The former fauna room next door is operated as a more traditional tiki bar with a separate bar snack menu.)
The 12-ounce rib-eye steak is accompanied by beef-fat fries, crispy shallots, chilli steak sauce, and aioli.
The food, meanwhile, is as fun and bright as the interior. The term “steakhouse” is a bit misleading as it refers to the atmosphere and ambience as well as the food. In reality, Chef Manuel Bonilla’s menu emphasizes colorful, flavorful interpretations of retro American standards such as steak tartare, shrimp cocktail, grilled pork chop, seared scallops, and, yes, a 12-ounce rib-eye steak (the only one on the Menu). Bonilla, a first-generation Filipino Salvadoran American, makes a living by taking familiar classics and adding Latin American twists – chimichurri on chicken, shrimp cocktail bathed in tomatillo cocktail sauce, a 12-ounce pork chop with roasted black beans. (Reagan describes it as “a new American restaurant from a new American’s perspective”.)
The chopped kale salad, a ubiquitous product these days, is served in a garlic vinaigrette on a delicious base of creamy, pureed avocado. Pickled cauliflower adds acidity, Cara Cara oranges add sweetness and Faro and Pepitas add weight and crispness for a nice and rich starter. But if you’re just going for an appetizer and you aren’t put off by raw meat, make it the steak tartare. The meltingly tenderly chopped raw steak is wrapped in a deliciously creamy, herbaceous aioli, topped with fragrant flat-leaf parsley and served with crispy homemade taro root chips, which add a taste of crunch and salt with every scoop. It’s an absolute home run and a good bet to become one of the restaurant’s hallmarks.
The starters continue the restaurant’s veggie-meat balancing act. The chicken breast was often a boring thought, a sensual pleasure. The grilled chest was moist while a topping of herb-filled chimichurri sauce brought the dish to life. (Chimichurri is usually seen with steak, but I’d argue that it takes more work to enhance a less flavorful meat like chicken breast.) A hearty side of kale pinto bean stew rounded off the plate.
The bar serves creative cocktails like the Flight Path with rye whiskey.
Interestingly enough, the only thing I missed when I was eating was the steak. I had no problem with the meat itself, a juicy and tender rib eye cooked perfectly medium rare, and I loved the fries, extra crispy with a decadent aftertaste of the beef fat that they’re fried in. My problem was with the ancho chilli steak sauce. Palmetto’s sweet, tangy spin on A.1. Steak sauce was nice enough, but seemed a shame to spoil an excellent (and expensive steak at over $ 40) with any kind of sauce – even if it’s a nod to the old American eating habits that the restaurant came from? his cue. Fortunately, it’s a problem that is easy to solve by requesting the sauce on the side. While Palmetto is still finding its sea legs, it rises quickly, adding a vermouth-themed happy hour and a prime rib Wednesday special, and Reagan says they have plans to eventually start a weekend brunch service that they did before was a staple in Flora.
“It’s a great relief to be back in a place where we have food and drink,” he says. “That’s why we got into this business.”
So make use of all the advantages. Order the steak tartare with a classic martini and imagine you were in Miami around 1965. Or grab the shrimp cocktail with a pisco-white-rum punch with lemongrass and picture yourself on a beach on the Pacific islands lapped by waves. Any combination is enough to take you on a tropical culinary adventure led by Palmetto. palmetto-oakland.com.