Dining Outside at Mago

A hearty wheat berry porridge finished with mustard greens and bottarga at Mago.
A hearty wheat berry porridge finished with mustard greens and bottarga at Mago.

If you’re on the hunt for a relatively reasonably priced tasting menu full of soulful flavors, where you don’t have to get dressed up fancy, and can sit comfortably at a heated outdoor patio, look no further than Oakland’s Mago.

Its name is Spanish for magician, and Chef-Owner Mark Liberman and his staff of just five certainly perform wizardry with such a small crew.

Opened in 2019, it’s Liberman’s first solo project, following his stint in San Francisco at the shuttered AQ restaurant.

Last week, I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant for dinner. There’s only one tasting menu offered each night, though vegetarian and vegan versions are always available on request.

It’s $75 per person for about eight courses, which are moderate in size, but all together will definitely leave you sated at the end. Because Liberman takes a vegetable-focused approach to his rustic, Colombian-meets-California dishes, you’ll leave plenty full yet still feeling buoyant.

Chef Mark Liberman manning the live-fire grill.
Chef Mark Liberman manning the live-fire grill.

With the tasting menu lasting about two hours, I was pleasantly surprised at how many diners were indulging in it on a school night (Wednesday). Ease-dropping, I could tell quite a few were regulars, too, which is always a good sign.

The back patio has a few tables with heaters and a pergola, giving it the feel of a friend’s cozy backyard.

The optional beverage pairing is $55, and is especially fun because it’s a mix of both cocktails and wines.

The fanciful mural in the dining room.
The fanciful mural in the dining room.
The dining room with open kitchen.
The dining room with open kitchen.
The heated patio in back.
The heated patio in back.

The opening cocktail was a wake-me-up, orange-hued blend of mezcal, Xila liqueur (a caramelized pineapple mezcal spirit), ancho, and charred grapefruit. It was smoky tasting with the bitter edge of citrus, much like my favorite Negroni.

It arrived with a unique take on Dungeness crab salad, with chunks of crab enfolded with banana. The banana was very subtle. I’m not even sure I’d necessarily know it was there if it wasn’t listed on the menu. But its natural sweetness definitely would enhance that of the crab. Alongside were the best arepas I’ve ever had. Piping hot on arrival, they weren’t like others I’ve eaten that have been dense and one-dimensional in texture. Instead, these had a potato chip-crisp exterior that gave way to a soft, fluffy interior full of nutty corn flavor.

Like a mezcal Negroni.
Like a mezcal Negroni.
Dungeness crab salad with the best arepas.
Dungeness crab salad with the best arepas.

That was followed by an extra dish, a gift from the kitchen, of a chewy-crisp tostada with the texture almost like tostones that was topped with goat cheese and slices of red beets for a big punch of earthiness.

Beet and goat cheese tostada.
Beet and goat cheese tostada.

The next cocktail, Jugo de Vida, made me think immediately of guacamole and chips. The zippy, tart, green drink sang with mezcal, kiwi, chimichurri herbs, and loads of lime juice.

Jugo de Vida.
Jugo de Vida.
Paired with a dish of charred carrots, mandarin segments, and tahini sauce.
Paired with a dish of charred carrots, mandarin segments, and tahini sauce.

The accompanying charred carrots with sweet mandarin segments, sesame seeds, and tahini was one of those fire-licked dishes that demonstrates brilliantly how the flavor of fire can enliven the most humble of root vegetables.

A vibrant Tea Punch.
A vibrant Tea Punch.
Leeks and smoked oysters.
Leeks and smoked oysters.

Tea Punch was aptly named because it definitely is what you want on a lazy Sunday afternoon outside on a veranda. Floral, tangy, and slightly astringent from hibiscus, it gets ample fruitiness from fig-infused pisco, spiced citrus and passion fruit.

Its fuchsia color contrasted vividly alongside a dish that was a study in green. Young leeks were arranged just so with smoked oysters, and dappled with cilantro-based aji salsa. The leeks were sweet and melty, and the oysters simply unctuous.

The next dish is as nourishing as it gets — chewy wheat berries cooked like porridge, then topped with peppery mustard greens and shaved bottarga. The hearty dish was paired with a minerally 2020 Vernaccia Di San Gimignano Montenidoli Chianti.

Carne asada and radicchio.
Carne asada and radicchio.

The final savory course was carne asada, pieces of hanger steak cooked on the grill giving the toothsome beef a delicious camp-fire taste. A puree of parnsips offered subtle nutty sweetness in contrast to the charred, bitter, deep-purple radicchio leaves overtop.

A Croatian red wine served chilled, a 2020 Plavac Mali Bura, offered up notes of earth, plum, and spice with soft tannins.

Meyer lemon three ways.
Meyer lemon three ways.

To reset the palate, a scoop of Meyer lemon sorbet draped with Meyer lemon foam was refreshing and tart atop a sweet-salted lemon meringue with the irresistible texture of marshmallow fluff.

For the dessert course, there’s a choice of a wine or a cocktail. I opted for the 1982 Moulin Touchais Chenin Blanc Loire Valley, a sweet dessert wine with an apricot complexion and expressions of honey, almond, and apple.

Not your usual churros.
Not your usual churros.

It accompanied a version of churros that was a complete surprise. Rather than the usual long, extruded fried fritters, these were dainty little cinnamon-sugared churro nubbins arrayed over a mousse-like chocolate pudding and crunchy chocolate cookie crumbles.

Pate de fruit.
Pate de fruit.

The last bites were chewy, sweet-tart pate de fruit in dazzling blood orange.

It certainly makes for a little luxury to be able to partake of a tasting menu mid-week, and even more so when it’s one so prudent in price.

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