Mua in Oakland is too cool for school. The set up? A repurposed industrial building with an ex-warehouse-y feel, plenty of exposed brick and junkyard chic chandeliers. Upon entering, one walks through a narrow foyer, along a very long bar to the right, until arriving at the host stand flanking the dining room. The space is candle-lit, not ideal for taking photos but very nice for a romantic or fun atmosphere with friends. A small podium serves as a mini-bar to throw together the simpler cocktails and to pop bottles of sparkling. There’s a little patio out front for those who prefer a more natural setting.
My Belgian friend, our host, his roommate and I had reservations and so we did not have to wait. The place is pretty large capacity, so I don’t think this is usually an issue, though it does seem like a pretty popular spot, so who knows? Our server was nice, pleasantly funny and helpful in picking out beers and after-dinner barrel-aged liquors (which seems to be their thing, or at least one of their things). The menu has a considerable variety of small plate snacks – “American” officially, but inspired by French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese cuisines to name just a few. The menu is a bit schizo- in personality but the common theme of funky and colorful pull the dishes together.
Fried Shishito Peppers are always a crowd-pleaser. A simple combination of smokey char, caramelized vegetal sweetness and nice clean rock salt. The peppers wrinkled from the heat, becoming perfectly tender but not too mushy. A delightful little snack to start with, though some sort of spicy or creamy citrusy dipping sauce would’ve made more sense as a garnish than a slice of French bread…As soon as I saw Burrata Cheese on the menu, I leapt to order it. After all, I’ve made it a point to have it as often as I can since the day I decided that a big cloud of burrata garnished with oil and cherry tomatoes will replace cake at my wedding. This one was nice, though the lump of cheese was a bit small for 4 to share. It was obviously not intended for this, so I’d recommend getting your own plate. The cheese had a nice, chewy mozzarella exterior and was filled with delicious, creamy milk of cheese. The salad also had some tender medallions of grilled zucchini, fresh-as-heck heirloom tomatoes, and some gummy, earthy grilled portobello. It was all bound together with plenty of thick, aged balsamic of very good quality and a mature olive oil. Colorful and very flavorful, not a dull bite in the dish.
Buratta is to me what Beef Carpaccio is to my Belgian friend: a dish we can’t seem to get sick of, but love all the more each time we have it. This one came thinly sliced and ruby-red fresh with dainty shavings of smokey, sharp manchego melting over the top, some pine nuts adding a nutty, warm flavor to the meat. A mound of arugula in the middle made it a salad – scooped up with a piece of cool, tender flesh. Some capers also added a tang and contrasted well with the flavor of the pine nuts.
The Beet Salad came on a salad of crispy, moist mâche with crumbles of tangy, smooth goat cheese and toasted walnuts. This was nice because each forkful of the greens was tight and dense, crispy and light. The leafy texture contrasted very well with the tender, beefy beets which were pickled only very lightly (or just marinated in vinegar), so as to keep the natural musky earth flavor lingering around. The latter was offset by the acidity from the goat cheese which melted in my mouth nicely. Next came the Beef Bone Marrow, served with chimichurri-type stuff on top, soft little cornichon fingers and thin slices of toast on the side. A pretty classic set-up. The marrow was good, though I prefer when the bones are split lengthwise because its easier to get to the juicy lumps of beef-butter hiding inside. In this case it was tough to squeeze the metal fork through the narrow hole and to scoop the stuff out from the ossified grooves and craigs. I also wished that the toast strips would’ve been a tad thicker, to hold up against the intense flavor and heaviness of the marrow. The garlicky parsley on top added good herbal flavor, but was oily and thus added to the fattiness of the marrow instead of cutting it, as it should’ve. You can’t really mess up bone marrow, but this wasn’t the most well thought out version of it that I’ve had. Maybe I’m just spoiled by Craigie’s marrow. Brussels Sprouts sauteed in brown butter came next and these ended up being everyone’s favorite. No fuss, no truffle oil, just plump, tight little sprouts caramelized in brown butter to a point where the exterior leaf crisped up and the core softened to a perfectly tender bite. Seasoned with a bit of coarse salt, these disappeared pretty dang quickly.My personal favorite dish was perhaps the Crispy Tofu served with a black bean and sweet chili sauce, garnished with a bit of seaweed and slices of jalapeño. The chili sauce was a good thickness, tart and sweet with a bit of heat from the chili, reinforced by the slices of seed-in jalapeño. Little bumps of fermented black soybean added textural intrigue and a deep, murky, very salty flavor to the sauce. The tofu was crispy, fried to a golden brown perfection. I had worried that they would turn chewy but they retained a great crunch, maybe because the stuff was coated with some kind of batter. The tofu, of course, didn’t have much flavor on its own, but soaked up all the great sweetness, acidity and heat of the sauce. The seaweed garnish didn’t add much but looked pretty. A very well executed dish.Actually, I take that back. My favorite dish was the Lamb Cheeks, hands-down, no questions about it. Meat from the lower jaw of the lamb braised in the classic Provençal daube-style. What does that mean? Classically, a cheap hunk of beef braised for ages in red wine with veggies, garlic and herbes de Provence in a funky daubière pot, which blocks evaporation so that everything stays hot and moist. I’m not sure whether Mua has this traditional ceramic appliance in their kitchen, but the outcome of whatever braising procedure they used was fantastic. The meat was mouthwateringly juicy, fall-apart tender, with a very deep red wine musk blending beautifully with the natural mineral flavors of the lamb. A light little parsnip salad did not do too much to lift the palate out of the intense depth of the stew, but instead added a root-y earthy flavor and a nice textural contrast. That’s okay though, because I was fine being lost in a sea of meat and wine flavor. Definitely do get some extra bread to soak up all the delicious sauce. I wouldn’t dare to waste a drop of it!