With Moroccan roots, a Portuguese-Jewish surname, and a Hebrew first name, it is perhaps not surprising that Chef Omri Aflalo has always had a strong affinity for Mediterranean cuisine. But above all, he is Californian through and through. “I tend to toss the Moroccan flavors, if you will,” he says, using the common spice mix Ras al Hanout or marashepepper here and there. But at the moment it’s as far as he goes.
Could there be a Moroccan restaurant in its future? “Let’s go over these two and find out,” he jokes.
The two he is referring to are both in Oakland: Tribune, which is described as the American brasserie he is now the chef at, and Town Revival, which he worked on when Covid met and is now on hold.
While spending his early years in Southern California, Aflalo, 40, has a strong pride in Oakland – he grew up in Piedmont from sixth grade and had his bar mitzvah in Temple Sinai.
Aflalo’s father immigrated to the United States from Rabat, Morocco, and the name Aflalo is of Portuguese-Jewish origin. Omri is a common first name in Israel, where it is derived from Amram.
His native Catholic converted to Orthodoxy to marry his father, although they divorced when he was a child. His sister Ariellah Aflalo is a renowned belly dancer who performs worldwide.
Although Aflalo was exposed to elaborate Moroccan family meals of tajines and couscous as a child when visiting his father’s family, he did not bother about food.
“I was too absorbed in skateboarding and surfing and as a kid,” he said.
And although his first job was during high school at Oakland’s Autumn Moon CafÃ©, where Chef Kerry Heffernan, an alum from Chez Panisse, took him under her wing and looked after him until he went from dishwasher to prep cook to omelette cook, food was him still don’t care; it was a paycheck vehicle.
Even when he went to the Obelisque, another Oakland restaurant where “I learned what a gastrique is and how to make duck confit,” the culinary life couldn’t take hold.
A few gigs at the restaurant later, after seeing all of his friends go to college, his mentor finally said to him, “Omri, you’re out of high school and you can obviously cook, but you don’t care. What are you doing with yourself You have to find out. “
So Aflalo turned around, followed his interest in film and photography, and enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. But it only lasted a semester. Turns out he wasn’t in favor of working on something where the results come later.
âI needed this hands-on experience that taught you how to cook,â he said. âSeeing someone eat it is instant gratification. I realized that that’s what cooking is. “
Aflalo is the head chef at the newly opened Tribune in the historic Tribune Tower building downtown, and it is evident that in the more than 20 years since it came to being, he has learned to look after food. And then some.
The team chooses an Oakland version of New York’s Balthazar or Minetta Tavern, with “a French menu that’s brasserie-esque, but the food has the feel of an Oakland-meets-Parisian spot,” Aflalo said. âYou have your almond sauce, you have a burger and you have a steak au poivre. I didn’t want to make steak fries, that would be too cheesy. “
Eventually, he wants to expand the menu and add dishes like fresh seafood platters, but the labor shortage plaguing the restaurant industry is pervasive and more kitchen staff would be required to make these changes.
“We have taken over and remodeled an existing restaurant and are working within the limits of what was here and what we can use,” he said.
During a recent visit we could not find any defects in our food, from the beef tartare with fine touches of cured egg yolk and a caper emulsion over it, to the cavatelli with forest mushrooms and hazelnuts to tomato, melon and burrata salad with coriander oil, to our starters half chicken with watercress salad and steak with green pepper sauce and charred cabbage. While we were way too full to get the signature sticky toffee cake for two, we loved the much lighter yuzu cremeux with cocoa nib crumble.
Such unforgettable meals are in the precision and the details, and Aflalo’s attention to detail was palpable in every dish.
Everything possible is sourced from local farms to maximize “product presentation”.
“As a chef in Northern California, let alone in the country now, if you call yourself a chef, own or run a restaurant, and don’t use sustainable products and proteins from local farms, you’re not a chef to me,” Aflalo said.
Aflalo attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, staged in France, and after stints in Washington, DC and Los Angeles, worked in several fine restaurants in San Francisco. In San Francisco, he went to the Wayfare Tavern, Bourbon Steak, and Mourad before crossing the bridge to cook in Oakland.
He firmly believes that the time has come to return to the spotlight in Oakland and that once things normalize after Covid, it will be a destination for restaurants again.