Chef Paul Canales is all about the details. Whether it’s getting into the weeds of what ingredients make a classic bouillabaisse, or selecting local artwork for his new Oakland restaurant Occitania, he’s involved on all levels. After years of running the kitchen at East Bay Italian standard Oliveto before branching out to Spanish food at Duende, Canales is now embarking on an exploration of southern French cuisine — and he wants to show diners a side of French food they may not know. “There’ll be some classic things that echo that kind of [French] restaurant,” Canales says. “But the food will be much more wide-ranging than what you see in any French place around here for sure.”
Canales has been working on Occitania since October 2020 and the restaurant is set to debut in the Kissel Uptown Oakland hotel June 1. The opportunity to cook French food influenced by the ancient linguistic region of Occitania excited Canales. The region touches parts of Italy and Spain, whose cooking Canales is intimately familiar with thanks to his experiences at Oliveto and Duende. “Now I have tremendous creativity possibilities, in terms of digging into the cuisines of these regions,” Canales says.
The menu is ambitious, featuring time-intensive dishes like lamb shank and house-made sausages, pates, and rillettes. Smaller items move from lighter dishes such as asparagus and leeks topped with egg, Parmesan, walnuts, and vinaigrette to squid braised in red wine and served with aioli. Escargot makes an appearance, as does pigeon cooked three ways served with olive tapenade. For main courses, a seafood stew called bourride provencale features petrale sole and shrimp; for heavier fare, there’s a luxurious lamb shank slow-cooked in red wine and garlic, then grilled and served with spring vegetables. Already, Canales has plans for several dishes that will rotate onto the menu or how items will change and shift with the available produce. For example, he’s already tested a bouillabaisse made with scorpion fish and a grand aioli made with salt-cured cod to be served with vegetables and poached shrimp.
Even with the menu digging deep into French culture and cuisine, Canales wants to keep some of the recognizable bistro classics around, especially given that the restaurant sits inside a hotel and caters to visiting guests. There is a steak frites dish, featuring a prime New York strip steak and requisite fries; onion soup with croutons and Gruyere; and a Lyonnaise salad. Canales knew he wanted to include a burger, and the version that landed on the menu recreates one he had during his childhood in Fresno in the late 1960s, dubbed the French burger, from a restaurant called Cafe Midi. Canales spent two months researching how to make that burger and developing it with his siblings until he hit the right notes: bread slathered in garlic butter and a 50/50 mix of parmesan and grain Dijon mustard topped with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and Gruyere.
The beverage menu will have a deep selection of French wines, with a few offerings from Italy, Spain, and California, as well as a list of French aperitifs and local beers. The cocktail section focuses on classics, with some drinks employing fresh ingredients such as a spritz featuring Aperol, charred cara cara orange, rosemary blanc vermouth, and cava, or the Waking Joseph, which pairs vodka with lemongrass, ginger, pineapple, mata bianco, lime, and cilantro.
For the restaurant itself, Canales tapped Arcsine to shape the space, having previously worked together on Duende. Ceramic art pieces by Peter St. Lawrence suspended over the tables dominate the main space; the abstract shapes feature gold leaf meant to reflect light and hint at the mistral winds that blow through southern France. Textile artist Ramona Downey’s two wall hangings in hues of red are reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s color fields, Canales says, while a mural by Sam Strand anchors the private dining room.
Canales pauses at one point in explaining the history of the Occitania region and its food, and says, “Of course you probably have figured out by now that my dad was a history professor,” before proclaiming himself to be an amateur historian “engaging in history” through this restaurant and all its elements. “I live in food as a creative expression of what I do,” Canales says. “Because you’re in a restaurant doing 14-16 hours a day, you’ve got to have a reason to show up there every day, and it’s not because I want my picture on the front of every glossy magazine — I do this for internal reasons. So I need this, this torture, this reason to show up every day, this thing that compels me. So I found it in Occitania.”
Occitania (422 24th St, Oakland) debuts Wednesday, June 1, and will be open 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, with extended hours to 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The restaurant is set to expand its hours of operation to include lunch and weekend brunch shortly.