I hate tasting menus. Like, with a passion. You never get enough food, wine pairings are always a extra fortune, and how dare you dislike cilantro on your coconut sorbet? But somehow I was drawn to visit local Oakland eatery Mago. My good friend Emiliano worked with the head chef some years ago over at the controversial Camino. Incidentally I had just found their cookbook at Moe’s Books on Telegraph in Berkeley and Mago came up first on the list of California fine dining restaurants that I had promised my fiancé we would sample. It all seemed just so serendipitous.
So Wenji and I found a time slot that worked with our obscenely busy schedules and looked forward to the evening throughout the week. Finally that Saturday evening arrived and my palate was tingling with anticipation. Because it’s true, though I’d done some pretty fantastic eating since being back in the Bay, nothing had yet to really surprise me.
And surprise me was what chef Mark Liberman did. I was honestly pretty tipsy by the time we’d reached the dessert course, but two weeks after that lovely evening I still remember snippets from the lovely menu. We started with an heirloom tomato soup, but this wasn’t just any old seasonal soup. The touches of sherry vinegar perfectly countered the lobster claw that so luxuriously decorated the bowls in a highly unexpected twist. A neat julienne of daikon was scattered the whole concoction, something so insignificant in theory but that changed the dish’s texture in every way. But that was just the beginning.
Next up was the arepas course. Now I had first tried arepas in Israel of all places, curtesy of a friend from Venezuela. He had lovingly spent hours making them for a group of friends for breakfast and I’ve been addicted ever since, going so far as to mastering the skill myself. Still, it’s annoying so I don’t make them that often. But these arepas were no greasy street food. Instead we were looking down at two hockey puck-sized bundles of joy. Now I don’t especially like diminutive versions of my food, but in this case it worked beautifully. A simple arepa filled with cheese and topped with just salted avocado slices, it was just enough to satisfy that need for crispy fried snacks without that slight bout of nausea that comes to be with an excess of such sensations.
Now the next dish is a bit of a blur, I remember eating a bowl of beans and greens that were delicious, but the Chardonnay we were sipping at started to take effect at this point. Still, I know that those were the best beans I’d ever eaten, keeping in mind that I don’t especially enjoy them in the first place. But the dish that surprised me most was the fish course. A gorgeously crisp salmon skin topped juicy and just medium fish over a plantain puree. Weird right? But no, it was so immaculate, so perfect, that even my quite frankly plastered mouth still yearns for those precious bites.
As Wenji and I chatted about our upcoming plans, I was curious. Who was the cook working in front of us? He moved with such grace in the kitchen, exhibiting none of the frantic energy that is associated with the professional kitchen. So I asked our server who he was and lo and behold it was indeed chef Mark who was preparing our food all evening long. Sure, he was on the cover of the Camino cookbook, but he had since changed his hair, grown a beard, and was wearing a COVID mask, making him nearly unrecognizable. I was highly embarrassed and also moved to the point that I had to step outside to recompose myself. The man who had conceptualized these dishes was also working on the line? It was unheard of!
Because it’s true, so many executive chefs have forgotten that they were the ones who once slaved away like robots with no recognition from the public. This chef was different, and I look forward to a second visit to his very special eatery that made me hate tasting menus just a little less.