Ahead of its third anniversary on Tuesday, May 9, Palmetto in downtown Oakland plans to szuzh up its food menu taking more inspiration from chef Manuel Bonilla’s personal history. For the overhauled menu, Bonilla added smaller plates and introduced more dishes that reflect his Filipino and Salvadoran backgrounds. The move also aims to better reflect what diners want from the restaurant at this point in time. Bonilla says the restaurant’s food has been moving away from its steakhouse roots toward smaller plates in part because of the restaurant’s location and the economy. “We have shows across the street at the Fox [Theater], and the current state of the world where no one has any money,” he says. “It’s really hard putting a $100 steak out there and knowing not a lot of people are going to be able to come here.”
Bonilla, who previously worked at Hawker Fare and the Kon-Tiki (the latter also being from the group behind Palmetto), focused on dishes that aren’t direct translations of Filipino or Salvadoran staples. Instead, he puts a spin on familiar flavors or an unexpected twist on a classic dish. “I just want to pack as much flavor into these smaller plates,” Bonilla says, “and not really hold back. I definitely want to show off what we can do with just a couple of ingredients on the plate.” The brown rice caldo pays tribute to Bonilla’s mother, who made the Filipino dish arroz caldo for family parties; but in his version, it’s made with brown rice, then topped with chile oil, crispy onions, and garlic chives. Meanwhile, a pork belly dish comes with grain mustard mojo and grilled chicories, with flavors meant to evoke pupusas, Bonilla says. There’s also a chicken thigh chicharron — or, chicken thighs with a puffed up, chicharon-like skin attached — served with pepita salsa macha on top and a side of pickles. It’s all about surprising people, Bonilla says, and changing their expectations.
The new menu also showcases Bonilla’s chef skills. The New York strip and ribeye steaks will each come with a burnt garlic demi glace, something Bonilla previously stayed away from due to the time-consuming nature of preparing it. There’s also a whole grilled trout, topped with a cilantro pesto, fresh peas, radishes, and the sharpness of lemon. Bonilla knows his past menus at the Kon-Tiki tended to be meat-heavy, so with this new version, he’s looking to make the vegetables just as worthwhile as any meat dish. The king trumpet mushrooms on the menu, for instance, marinate in smoked ancho chile oil overnight, then come with a charred jalapeno barbecue sauce. “That whole ‘keeping it safe’ type thing,” Bonilla says, “isn’t necessarily going out the window, it’s still gonna be very approachable food, but I’m just gonna have more fun with it.”
Still, despite the changes Bonilla knows there are dishes he can’t lift off the menu, that remain favorites of Palmetto’s returning customers. Staples such as the mussels, made with chorizo and a saffron cream, will remain, as will the little gem salad tossed in Bonilla’s miso ranch and the fried cauliflower. In the same vein, the cocktail menu will mostly remain the same, but there will be a couple of updates to come soon, Bonilla shares. Namely, a shareable drink will be added to the menu and the Disco Punch will be supersized into a group-sized cocktail.
The updates are all about bringing over more of the Kon-Tiki’s fun vibes to Palmetto, Bonilla says. He and the owners are stoked about the changes and the chance to breathe new life into the space. “I think the change of two years in and doing something different, isn’t super crazy to me,” Bonilla says, “just because I feel it’s a natural progression — you need to change. Things happen, the pandemic happened, we went through that. And this is just a new phase that I think is for the better.”