Burdell, the highly-anticipated restaurant from chef Geoff Davis opened in early September, but it’s already amassed scores of fans who’ve followed Davis since his pop-up days while he worked to secure a home for the soul food restaurant. Now, rather than experiencing the food in another restaurant’s space, diners are being treated to the full Burdell experience — an Oakland destination that feels like stepping into someone’s home to gather around the table. Family photos greet customers at the front door, cane-backed chairs sidle up to the tables, food arrives on “Spring Blossom”-patterned Corelle plates, and vintage spice tins at the bar make customers feel like time travelers.
“It was really intentional how the space is designed,” Davis says. “I really want it to feel homey and welcoming and just comfortable to be here. And the food is intentionally not restaurant-y eating and feels more homestyle.”
The dishes on Burdell’s menu are meant to shine a light on the range of soul food. Rather than the heavy and unhealthy reputation soul food has with some diners, Burdell’s produce-driven menu is meant to showcase something different. “The daily food that my grandmothers cooked was vegetable-based and based on their gardens,” Davis says. “There’s a huge catalog of dishes, and it’s more of an ethos of how to cook things and how to treat it simply.”
Read on for the inspiration and details behind four standout dishes on the Burdell menu.
Given Burdell’s emphasis on seasonal ingredients, as summer crosses over into fall, the featured salad under the “For the table” portion of the menu highlights the last of the season’s tomatoes. “This one’s really special to me because tomatoes are a big thing in New Jersey, where my grandparents are from,” Davis says. “[This dish] reminds me of going to the buffet with them after church, and you get a spoon and add dressing on top of the salad.”
Bertolli tomatoes grown by Tierra Vegetables are the star, a variety brought over from Italy by chef Paul Bertolli formerly of Chez Panisse and Oliveto, Davis says. The tomatoes are prized for their “intense” color and flavor, which Davis typifies as “sweet and tomato-y.” They’re dressed in a lemon vinaigrette and served over iceberg lettuce, with slices of serpent cucumbers, torpedo onions from Star Route Farms, and sprigs of fresh dill, chervil, and tarragon tucked in. The salad is then topped with ranch dressing — which Davis called the best salad dressing, “hands down” — and his version features loads of dill, scallions, and chives. Once the tomatoes are done for the year, Davis says the dish will then switch to a chicory salad.
‘BBQ’ whole shrimp
The ‘BBQ’ whole shrimp dish has become a favorite on the “For the Table” menu, although it initially started as a main dish when the restaurant was still in its pop-up phase. Davis considers it shareable and fun, and the dish “takes some cues from New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp,” he says. The shrimp are peeled and cleaned, with the heads left on, before being brined and later seared in butter. Collected shrimp shells, meanwhile, are transformed into a “tomato-y, shrimp-y sauce” utilizing Vietnamese dried shrimp, fish sauce, and white pepper, along with green pepper, leeks, celery, and tomato paste. The sauce is given a hint of heat and acid with some lemon and Burdell’s house-made fermented hot sauce, which is made with maple syrup and apple cider vinegar to balance it out. This current batch of hot sauce is made with Fresno chiles — though the pepper shifts with what’s available at the farmer’s market. The dish is served with grilled, buttered bread, perfect for soaking up the sauce.
“It’s just really simple, it’s really umami,” Davis says. “It’s a fun dish to share, with five shrimp per order [and featuring the] really large, beautiful shrimp that we’re getting.”
Klingeman pork neck
Davis works with the copa cut of the pork neck for this dish featuring marbled Duroc pork from Klingeman Family Farms in eastern Washington. The bones are taken off the meat and utilized in a sauce, while the pork cut is roasted whole before being sliced for each order. The dish is served with chanterelles, a jam made with peaches from Kashiwase Farms, and a sprinkling of pickled mustard seeds, then topped with mustard greens from Star Route Farms. Davis finishes it with a yellow mustard jus made with French’s Classic Yellow Mustard, apple cider vinegar, and pickled mustard seeds.
“It was all these Venn diagram things that go together,” Davis says. “Chanterelles and stone fruit is pretty classic.” This dish will also shift with the season, and Davis says apples will later replace the stone fruit.
“Every family get-together has greens — that’s probably going to always be on the menu,” Davis says. “The greens that are in there will change, but that’s always gonna be the same kind of [cooking] method.” In early October, greens means collards, although the dish previously featured cauliflower leaves and will eventually evolve to feature broccoli leaves, Davis shares. Davis’s greens start with ginger, garlic, and onion sauteed in lots of butter before ham hocks are added to a combination of water and chicken stock and brought to a boil. The meat of the ham hocks gets picked off the bone, and the greens are tossed in “intensely flavorful” berbere spice milled to order by Oakland’s Brundo Spice Company. “It’s cool to tie in some African ingredients, and it tastes like collards but it also has the ginger and the berbere spice,” Davis says.
Burdell’s food will change with the seasons, but it’s meant to highlight the range of soul food rather than feed its stereotypes. “It happens with all these foods,” Davis says, “but this is an American food. I think people boil down Thai food to a couple of dishes, too, and it’s frustrating. I just want to shine the light on the fact that the food is just really diverse and there’s a lot of different things it’s known for.”
Burdell (4640 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland) is open 5 to 9 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.