Chefs Duncan Kwitkor and Andrew Greene are the creative force behind Abstract Table, a permanent pop-up inside Oakland’s casual eatery The Gastropig in Uptown. During the day, The Gastropig serves up breakfast sandwiches and meaty fare, and on Friday and Saturday nights Kwitkor and Greene take over to present a five- or seven-course tasting menu ($50 and $70 respectively).
The two chefs, who met at the San Francisco Art Institute, found their way into the kitchen over the years for various reasons, eventually working together at the former Duchess restaurant and doing pop-ups for about four years at Naked Kitchen in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.
With Abstract Table, they want to deliver conceptualized, themed dishes every season, like a changing exhibit at a gallery. (In fact, the two initially toyed with the idea of calling the pop-up “Gallery.”) While it’s not necessarily the first time chefs have held up their dishes as art, Kwitkor and Greene explain that their art is more than just the presentation on the plate but more the composition of ingredients and flavors.
“We respect all the bells and whistles of fine dining,” Kwitkor said. “But this idea allowed us to emphasize the food and idealized plating and not the things that orbit around that.”
Greene said that concepts they learned in art school come into play in their cooking. “Composition is of the upmost importance,” he said. “It’s all art to us. It’s just a different environment and a much different pace.”
Opened in early October, Abstract Table’s current menu, “Fine Dining on Paper,” emphasizes intricately composed dishes on a simple presentation of biodegradable paper on tin trays. (Regular diners of The Gastropig will recognize the similar presentation for its sandwiches.) On Dec. 7, the chefs will launch its next concept for the winter called “Blizzards.”
I was invited by Abstract Table to try its “Fine Dining on Paper” menu. Many of the dishes have influences from Japan, where Greene lived for a while. You’re hit with familiar Japanese flavors with the first course — a simple bowl of mushroom broth with mitsuba (Japanese parsley) and negi (green onion) oil. The salad course was a refreshing pile of bok choy, sea bean, thinly sliced pear and hazelnut tossed in a yuzu kosho vinaigrette. The pencil stick slices of bok choy gave me a new perspective on the texture of this Chinese vegetable.
Those first two courses, however, lacked any striking artistic flair. The presentation began to evolve as the meal progressed, such as with the cured ocean trout dish with wild arugula and coconut nage (flavored sauce) and a tiny grilled pickled cucumber slice. This composed dish was the only one that came in a somewhat different presentation — in a tattered biodegradable paper bowl that was a contrast between the rustic paper and the refined food inside.
On first blush, the dishes presented on paper offered little surprise from a visual perspective. But in eating the food, the complexity and sophistication were showcased in the technique used to cook the food and the unique combination of flavors, like a charcoal roasted beet that was served with a furikake granola and fish caramel.
In fact, Greene said this first “exhibit” on paper challenged them to focus on technique when preparing the food.
“You may not notice it, but the technical aspect to doing good food on paper is a lot harder than people think,” he said.
Kwitkor has an expert hand in braising meats, as demonstrated in the lusciously tender beef cheek and a separate course of lamb breast that was topped with a Japanese eggplant, which had a texture that almost reminded me of a meaty white fish.
The hojicha pannacotta dessert probably came closest to a dramatic visual presentation, and it was an enjoyable tray of flavors and textures, from the deep tea taste in the pannacotta, the creamy caramel and the thin crisp white chocolate tuile.
In these early days, it seems that Kwitkor and Greene are still honing a clear voice in their artistic expressions. But the dishes shine in both flavors and technique. The two chefs hope to demonstrate that they aren’t just chefs perfecting their craft, but artists who are interpreting their view on food.
“A craftsman is different from an artist,” Kwitkor said. “Craftsmen master the technique, and artists master the technique and then try to find intelligent ways to break that rule and change that.”
Abstract Table offers two seatings at 6 and 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday. Reservations are available via Resy.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.