Paul Canales, who has just opened Duende in Uptown Oakland after working for 15 years at Oliveto. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Paul Canales, who opened his new restaurant and bodega Duende in Uptown Oakland last week, admits to having been more than ready to embark on his new venture. Canales was at the venerable Oliveto in Rockridge for 15 years — he joined as an intern and left as Executive Chef — and he loved it there. But, even before he handed in his notice in 2010, he had been fantasizing for months about a different cuisine, a different aesthetic — in fact an altogether different approach.

He was drawn to small plates and Spanish food, mainly because of his heritage — his father was raised in the Basque region — and partly because his passion for Italian food had run its course.

“Entrées never seem that exciting to me. They are a lot of commitment for a dinner,” he said this week sitting on a stool clutching a carton of coconut water in his vibrant new space on 19th St., a stone’s throw from Oakland’s beautiful Fox Theater. Adding to the disconnect was the fact that Canales and his wife — Ici Ice Cream owner Mary Canales — and their daughters didn’t eat that way. “We don’t eat a lot of one thing — we like ethnic food,” he said.

And, Canales said, he had begun to feel locked into Italian food — to the extent that he was becoming furtive. “I was always sneaking Spanish things onto the Oliveto menu and giving them Italian names.”

Canales and Oliveto owner Bob Klein parted on good terms, and then came the task of creating a restaurant of his own. Canales knew he would be going it alone from now on — he says he’s “way too insubordinate and entrepreneurial” to have joined another kitchen — but he also knew a successful new place would be the result of teamwork.

“The restaurant would only be amazing if it came about through collaboration,” he said. “We are all limited by the extent of our own creativity.” His general manager and partner is Rocco Somazzi, and a host of friends and trusted partners have had an input into many aspects of the new business.

It began with the name which was suggested to Canales by an old friend when they were sitting in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, reminiscing about their wild rock n’ roll days. ‘Duende’ is a word that defies dictionary definitions but it imbued everything Canales has achieved so far and hopes to achieve with his new eatery.

“It’s about feeling things through your blood, viscerally, experiencing an outpouring of creativity. My dad used to use the word,” Canales said. He encouraged all his staff to read García Lorca’s The Theory and Play of the Duende so they too could be driven by the spirit that is described there.

The Duende decor blends Spain, Peru and north Africa with salvaged wood and punched steel. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Canales’ belief that every aspect of the restaurant build-out and design, not to mention the menu, should come from the heart — “like flamenco,” he explains — led to a long, sometimes bumpy creative process. But it came together at the beginning of this year with a striking looking two-story space with room for 86 diners on the street level and a mezzanine for music gigs upstairs.  (View a slideshow of photos of Duende, above.)

In the open kitchen, chefs create a menu of tapas and diminutive pintxos, such as baby squid, stuffed piquillos and albondigas, as well as generous “platos familiares” like rabbit and pork belly paella, and cuttlefish and cured steelhead Arroz Negro (black rice). There are vegetarian options like wild mushrooms and pea tendrils canalones as well as offal dishes like pork tongues, ears and trotters.

Canales stresses that, although he finds inspiration in the Basque culinary canon, he’s reinterpreting it with local, seasonal ingredients and his own ideas. “It will touch the cultural soul of Spain, but I’m not doing museum food,” he said.

Sam Strand oversaw the look of the 4,000 sq ft restaurant working with Arcsine Architecture, and she designed many of the motifs and artworks. The result is an eclectic blend of salvaged wood, some of which is carbonized, exposed brick, distressed stucco and oxidized steel. Large canvases by Oakland artist Raymond Saunders adorn the walls, some of which are as red as bull blood to match the Heath tile in the kitchen. The effect is a Moorish mash-up encompassing Spain and north Africa with a dash of ancient Peru for good measure.

“I wanted it to feel like the circus had left town and the decay had set in,” Canales said. “Like the weirdos had come in and built a skatepark.” (Along with his other interests such as music, Canales is a skater.)

Paul Canales, second from left, meets with his chefs before dinner service at Duende this week. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The restaurant’s bar specializes in sherries and sherry-based cocktails, and Duende includes an all-day bodega encompassing a coffee shop that serves Verve coffee, churros and other light snacks, an olive oil dispensary, and a wine store.

“I didn’t want it to be a big, cavernous place. Somebody was thinking about an art space then Rocco suggested a wine shop,” said Canales. “From there we thought we could also have coffee, and olive oil, and Mary’s ice cream.”

As with all the thinking that went into creating Duende, the process that led to the bodega was collaborative and involved lots of people. At heart though, there is no doubt that this new addition to the Oakland dining scene is driven by the vision of one man — albeit one who is reluctant to be pigeonholed.

Duende is at 468 19th St., Oakland. Tel: 510-893 0174, Restaurant open Sun, Mon, Wed, and Thu 5:30-10pm, Fri and Sat 5:30-11pm; Bodega, which includes wine and olive oil shop and coffee bar serving Verve coffee, open Sun, Mon, Wed, and Thur, 7am-10pm, Fri and Sat, 9am-11pm. Closed Tuesday.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...