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Yesterday night I had my second preview of the next best show in Oakland. It’s a new bistro that will open near the now closed Mono restaurant, by the Jack London Square Amtrak station. It’s the finest I’ve had in vegetarian dining and it’s in a neighborhood in need of a revival. One selling point of the not-yet-official restaurant is that the owners prefer to cook with organic and locally-grown ingredients. Another is their menu; they take great flavors and reconceive them in refreshing ways.

My old friend M. and sister A. joined me to sample this new and yet undisclosed restaurant. We gathered around white tablecloths with neighbors, family and new friends. Then with the culinary luxuriousness of “Big Night,” a few Oaklanders tasted the finest in green cuisine.

Cocktail hour began with a few appetizers: Creole style deviled eggs, bundle of haricot vert with asian dipping sauce and crostini with heirloom cherry tomatoes and vegan basil mayo. I immediately went for the deviled eggs and liked the cilantro on top. Also wonderful was the crostini with vegan basil mayo, the best substitute I’ve had for the real thing. M. opted for the sauced-up haricot vert bundles that seemed hard to wield while standing and with only a paper napkin. But she assured me it was worth it.

After some apps. and a little sparkling wine, we had sweet corn soup with minced avocado thrown in, and chili and pumpkin seed oils drizzled on top. The corn meal and soft avocado gave it a complex texture, just like the chili oil drizzle and the sweet corn. I hesitated to turn down a refill on the soup but by the time the entree came I was glad I did. (This was about the time I found out from a teenager sitting across the table went to Montera Middle School and had the same art teacher as I did, but that was back when the Piedmont Pines school was still a junior high.) The empanadas were nothing like the hot pockets available to residents at the nearest liquor store, and more like pastries than calzones. They came with sauteed greens and a sweet onion marmalade and an ancho blueberry reduction and cilantro crema on top. This was a nice touch and another example of the fruity-savory contrasts of the evening. Definitely summer at its best.

By far my favorite course of the night was the peach salad. Grilled and juicy, the fruit was served on a bed of  arugula and red butter lettuce. I’ve always loved arugula’s peppery taste, and the butter leaves complimented the sweet fruit. With this and all the smoky dreaminess of the hazelnuts, onions and Pt. Reyes blue cheese, the dish had enough meatiness to make an entree. My sister A. and I agreed that we could’ve eaten a bowl of the stuff and called it an evening. Also a favorite was the paired wine: a pinot noir from Bink. The nose was a subtle floral but it had a rich taste, beginning with a fruit forward wash of cherries and followed by a spicy finish.

M. (also a Montera alumnus) fell in love with dessert. Vice Chocolates of Oakland supplied the almond and sea salt bars served with cheese and fruit. We savored them slowly, after the Mt. Tam cheese and macerated nectarines and before the rest of our port. I’ve been a fan of I-Li Brice’s chocolate since the first preview dinner, when she served her “Domina” truffle—a dark blend of earl grey tea, creme fraiche, bergamont and orange oil, rolled in gold dust and topped with candied orange peel.

the "domina" from vice chocolates

the "domina" from vice chocolates

Last night Brice stayed for dinner and kindly offered to drive us to her workshop afterwards. She made M. a take-away package including fig and anise bars, a favorite I discovered at the Temescal farmers market. It’s one of my top five Vices, along with her “Salty Dog,” a caramel that’s not cloying like the store-bought candies. At the second dinner, I preferred the sea salt bars for the bite they gave the smouldering cocoa in the dark chocolate. My plate was clear the Mt. Tam cheese and macerated nectarines before I finished the sea salt chocolate and port wine. All this decadence and we still left not feeling full. Just satisfied.

When this place opens this year, the neighborhood will light up. Or at least not resemble a dark movie set at night. It should provide a little cornerstore warmth to a swath of new condos. And when the Jack London Square market hall opens, both venues could feed on each other’s business. Then all would go home well fed.

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The Aurora Theatre posts that all tickets for this play are sold out. But if you like romantic comedies and want to see a flawless production, you may have some luck snagging a no-show ticket last minute. It’d be worth the trip.

“Jack Goes Boating” itself is a simple tale of budding (and belabored) romance. Jack (Danny Wolohan) and Connie (Beth Wilmurt) are just embarking on a love voyage while their friends and match-makers Clyde (Gabriel Marin) and Lucy (Amanda Duarte) suffer with a relationship on the rocks. Playwright Bob Glaudini sets the story in New York, and most of the scenes take place in Clyde and Lucy’s marijuana-filled apartment. They toke, they ponder love and the Rastafarian way. It feels a lot like the pad on NBC’s “Friends” sit-com, but with a hookah on the coffeetable.

photo courtesy of the aurora theatre

photo courtesy of the aurora theatre

Glaudini’s play has earned rave reviews all over the region for its refreshing combination of sweetness and snark. Glaudini hits the right tone with his humorous notes and while the dialogue feels a little canned at times, the cast and direction make it sing. Joy Carlin directs a lively and seamless play, using a two-tiered stage to maximum effect. Danny Wolohan, a Bay Area native, plays an endearing Jack, whose nervous tick and starter dreads give him a funny presence even without his lines. His Forest Gump-ish quality make him a good match for the equally verbose Connie, expertly played by Beth Wilmurt. As his friends—the limo-driving and impromptu swim teacher Clyde and funeral home mistress Lucy—guide him into favorable waters with Connie, he bumbles his way to earning her affections.

A point of departure for me was the play’s Rasta theme. One major prop is Jack’s portable stereo that plays reggae tunes. He bumps the beats for friends and smokes his ganja religiously, but taken together the Rasta motif never makes more than a comedic statement. What Rastafarianism meant to the decidedly white love story remains a mystery to me. Jack reminded me of guys I met at UC Santa Cruz—broad shouldered white dudes who toked on the daily and lined their dorm rooms with Marley posters. I’ll be curious to see how Philip Seymour Hoffman tweaks this when he directs “Jack Goes Boating” for the the silver screen in 2010. He starred in the original Broadway production two years ago and his film reprises all but one of the original actors. But perhaps I’m over-thinking this. This is just a light-hearted comedy without the twists and turns in more heady plays, like the Aurora’s “Betrayed” play earlier this season. This play’s about a man who shares his love of reggae and learns to navigate the waters with his lady love.

“I do it all for you,” Jack says to her. Certainly a sentiment worth seeing. And as always, the Aurora makes a big splash in a modest space. It has the feel of living room theater, and sees a lot better shows than your flat screen TV.

Stroll down to the Aurora Theatre this weekend to see if you can squeeze your way in: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets $40-$42. Call (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org.

Jane Austen is a name anyone who had an English class would recognize. Her novels were the wallpaper lining of my literary education right next to Shakespeare and Greek myths. In the last few years, her books have unfurled on the silver screen; Gweneth Paltrow sported empire waist dresses as “Emma” and Keira Knightley earned an Oscar nomination for her title role in “Pride and Prejudice.” But there’s one Austen fiction I hadn’t heard of until recently. It’s the first work penned by “England’s Jane,” and has now been put to stage by San Francisco’s Bella Union Theatre Company.

Candice M. Milan as Lady Susan, Gene Mocsy as Manwaring and Daria Hepps as Mrs. Vernon (image courtesy of Bella Union).

Candice M. Milan as Lady Susan, Gene Mocsy as Manwaring and Daria Hepps as Mrs. Vernon (image courtesy of Bella Union).

At age 19, Austen wrote “Lady Susan,” a tale about a beautiful and manipulative widow who’s on the hunt for financial stature. It’s also a novella written in epistolary form. Conceived as a series of letters, the action plots through correspondence between the characters. While some of Austen’s novels use this motif, only “Lady Susan” is composed entirely of, in a playwright’s eyes, monologues. Christine U’Ren, a founding member of Bella Union, adapted the play. She said that “It’s relatively simple to bring the characters of an epistolary novel such as Lady Susan to life, as the letter-writing character speaks directly for him or herself.”

After the initial staged readings, however, it became clear that the back-to-back soliloquies wouldn’t work alone. As U’Ren recalled, “The challenge [was] to flesh out the interactions between the characters.” U’Ren added Jane Austen as a peripheral character, who could be seen moving and prompting characters through the storyline. Director Gina Baleria added movement and a new theatrical device—a handwritten letter—that the actors passed about on stage.

The polished result is a fast-paced choreography (and a slow-stewing propriety) that’s well worth the $12 ticket. The cast is amazing, the dialogue witty and, even though I saw the play many times over as the rehearsal stage manager, I laughed at the jokes every time. U’Ren also helped design the costumes—gorgeous, hand-sewn and custom-tailored. Sir James’ character wears a purple velvet coat that I’ve been coveting the last few dress rehearsals. And since every seat is a good seat at the Berkeley City Club, you’ll be able to oggle his covered buttons from the audience.

Drop by the Berkeley City Club between tonight and July 26, and see if “Lady Susan” gets all she bargains for. Perhaps you’ll be able to see elements of Austen’s later characters, who similarly pranced across the page.

The details:

“Lady Susan”
Bella Union Theatre Company
July 2 – 26, 2009
BERKELEY CITY CLUB
www.brownpapertickets.com
$12