For chef Nigel Jones, Calabash represents community. The new Oakland restaurant he’s opening with partner Hanif Sadr of Komaaj in San Francisco has been in the works since 2019. On the road to its debut, the partners faced construction delays, a global pandemic, and a slowed approval process from the city of Oakland — so you could also say the restaurant’s story is one of endurance. But as of Wednesday, December 7, Calabash is open. “It’s been a journey,” Jones says, “and I feel like we are here at the right place and hoping it’s the right time.”
To call Calabash a restaurant is perhaps an oversimplification. It’s an all-day dining option meant to move with the day’s rhythm of eating and drinking. Service begins at 8 a.m. with breakfast and coffee. Shelving and a fridge will soon serve as a marketplace for customers to quickly stock up on items and condiments like chow chow, a sweet pepper relish from Wanda’s Cooking; bags of Red Bay coffee; eggs; and more. The main counter will house a carving station for the day’s special, such as a roast chicken, along with grab-and-go salads or bread and sumac-labneh dips, offered alongside bowls of hearty beef and barley stew with roast vegetables or sandwiches to be eaten at home or at Calabash. There’s also a full cocktail bar and a separate wine bar to meet thirsty customers at the end of the day. Paired alongside the aforementioned dips, it brings a healthier late-night food option to the town, including for industry folks looking for a place to go after work, Sadr and Jones say. “We can be in that space and dance between the angles, and the options provide food through different ways,” Sadr says.
Azalina Eusope was part of the original Calabash team, with plans to feature her Malaysian dishes, but amicably parted ways as she began focusing on opening her own restaurant in San Francisco; the team does plan to sell her sauces and products through the marketplace, however.
For those who know the food at Jones’ nine-year-old Jamaican restaurant Kingston 11, Jones says his dishes will be different. The food Jones prepares is influenced by the Caribbean and African diaspora, as well as California, but maybe doesn’t fit with Kingston 11. For breakfast, the menu includes roasted duck over grits, with house-dried tomatoes and capers. A main entree, meanwhile, features a curried crab with vegetables, atop jasmine rice. He’s still approaching the food with a “Jamaican mindset” — meaning meats will be marinated for at least 24-48 hours and will still emphasize Caribbean spices and flavors. “It gives me the freedom to create different things that I’m inspired by and not being pigeonholed, where I have to stick to one concept,” Jones says.
Sadr’s half of the menu — set off under a Komaaj subhead — focuses on northern Iranian cuisine and mazze, a Farsi word that means flavor, but also refers to “dips, salads, whatever you eat before the food or on the side of the main course,” Sadr says. Most items will be vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free and will combine fresh and preserved ingredients, a staple of Iranian food, he adds. Many of the dips, such as mirzaghasemi, which combines roasted eggplant and tomato, or maazst sabzi, an herby labneh dip, can be purchased a la carte, or as part of a platter, featuring six to eight bowls of dip and vegetable salads with bread. This allows diners to try many of Sadr’s foods at once and can be purchased into the night alongside the drinks.
Located on the ground floor of luxury apartment complex Alta Waverly, Calabash lands in an unusual spot for a longtime Oakland entrepreneur like Jones. But he says it is done with purpose. Jones sees Calabash as an opportunity to bridge the gap between Oakland’s newer residents — many of whom Jones acknowledges work in tech, and perhaps live in the building right above Calabash — with the longtime Oakland families. The new residents “want to be part of the Oakland experience,” Jones says. “Vice versa, people from Oakland proper have an opportunity now to come into this block and feel like, ‘Okay, this is still my town, I’m not ceding any space to anybody.’ We want to make everybody feel comfortable together.”
The two cuisines are not typical pairings on a single menu, but to Jones and Sadr, it makes sense. For Sadr, it’s an opportunity to bridge another gap, helping Iranians and non-Iranians to connect through food. “Literally on top of each table, that blend of culture will happen through the food and that will really give me hope to create a more diverse, and also more flexible, more understanding community,” Sadr says.
Cocktails are approachable drinks made with fresh ingredients, intended to play off of Sadr’s herby and spice-inflected dips. The Sol Verde features mezcal, Brucato Chaparral, lemon, citron oleo, and a habanero-serrano tincture. The wine bar, meanwhile, will pour selections from Napa Valley, with plans to bring in producers to chat about their wines. “If I was to come up with a mantra, it’s bringing the food and our culture to the people,” Jones says. “I feel like Oakland and the Bay Area, we’ve got a lot of beautiful people, in terms of their heart, their culture, and creativity — and I feel that’s what we’ve done here. It’s a beautiful space and beautiful food, for beautiful people.”
Calabash (2300 Valdez Street, Suite A, Oakland) is open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.