Last Updated on June 25, 2020 by Angie
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Spirits & Tales located in The Oaklander hotel fulfills the much-needed niche in Oakland of a chef-driven destination restaurant with creative small plates and entrees. We've been huge fans of Chef Jessica Lewis since her Carota Cafe days at Smallman Galley (now closed), and we are thrilled to see she now has her own spot where she can showcase her vegetable-forward dishes.
Spirits & Tales Offers a Stunning Space for Drinks and Food
First things first, there's no denying the restaurant space is stunning. Situated on the top floor of The Oaklander hotel, the floor-to-ceiling windows provide beautiful views of the University of Pittsburgh campus including the Cathedral of Learning (from the covered, outdoor patio), as well as the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial (from many of the tables). The decor is modern and classy.
For drinks, although the draft beer and wine by the glass menus were perfectly fine, the cocktail menu definitely jumped out at us as being more noteworthy. We tried several cocktails from both the “modern classics” section (Polish Punch and Butterfly Effect) as well as the “classics” section (Last Word and Vieux Carre).
While the classic drinks we tried were balanced and boozy, we really liked the inventiveness of the modern classics including the bright purple hue and floralness of the Butterfly Effect, as well as the spicy ginger and cardamom flavors in the Polish Punch.
Lean Towards the Small Plates (Plus the Gnocchi)
The food menu is heavy on the small plates which we took as a hint to sample several. Many of these are vegetable-forward, and knowing Chef Lewis, we had a hunch that they would be special – and we were right.
The small plates we tried were the roasted carrots, the potato-apple fritter, and the ricotta toast. The ricotta toast was simple perfection with grilled sourdough and creamy house made ricotta that was topped with bee pollen for a hint of sweetness. We had more ricotta than we knew what to do with, but luckily we had some extra bread with our entree that we savagely used to scoop up every last bit of the rich, creamy ricotta.
The potato-apple fritter was like a fancified version of potato latkes. Instead of sour cream the fritter was topped with a salt cod creme, and instead of applesauce on the side there was an apricot and butternut squash puree. The dish was just bursting with contrasting flavors and textures, and it was so good we wish we would have had stomach space to order another!
Finally, the roasted carrots – these came with a lovely poblano chili sauce, caraway salt, an avocado creme, and pepitas. The dish was smokey from the poblano sauce and the char on the carrots, and we loved the contrasting crunchiness of the pepitas.
The entree portion of the menu is much smaller but covers all the bases of seafood, steaks, chicken, duck, and vegetarian options. We tried the Marseillais Fish with salmon, shrimp, and clams in a saffron broth with cherry tomatoes and fennel. While this was a solid choice for an entree, it didn't have the inspired creativity or the playfulness that the small plates had. The most notable thing about the dish was the perfectly cooked salmon with super crispy skin and tender, flaky fish.
For our other entree choice, there was no question what to order: the horseradish gnocchi. This is a dish that Chef Lewis was famous for at Carota Cafe at Smallman Galley, and we are beyond ecstatic that it's on the menu (at least for now) at Spirits and Tales.
It was just as revelatory as we remembered. The gnocchi was pillowy soft and bathed in a buttery sauce, but the bite from the horseradish reigned in the richness. Crispy kale and earthy mushrooms mingled with the gnocchi, and a black pepper ricotta swoosh was beautifully plated on the side of the bowl. The ricotta gave a hint of sweetness and a dash of creaminess to tie everything together. We have to say, the gnocchi is one of our favorite dishes in the city.
The service was fairly seamless, especially for a newer restaurant, although we noticed that a nearby table with a different server had a slightly different experience in that the dishes and ingredients were explained as they were presented to the table.
Another thing to note is that there is a small outdoor patio (this is where you can get the fantastic views of the Cathedral of Learning) with some lounge style seating. It didn't seem that any servers were in charge of this space, meaning that those who sat there had to go into the bar to place orders and carry them to the patio themselves. This is fine as long as it is explained to those who choose to sit out there (one table seemed miffed and left before getting anything to drink or eat).
Overall, we would definitely return to Spirits & Tales and make a meal out of the imaginative small plates and gnocchi. The brunch menu also sounds delicious and is something we'll be checking out soon. We are thrilled that a restaurant of this caliber finally exists in the heart of Oakland and the university community!