With Moroccan roots, a Portuguese Jewish last name and a Hebrew first name, it’s perhaps not surprising that chef Omri Aflalo has always had a strong affinity for Mediterranean cuisine. But above all, he’s a Californian through and through. “I tend to throw the Moroccan flavors, if you will,” he says, using the common spice blend ras al hanout or marash pepper here or there. But for now, that’s about as far as he goes.
Could there be a Moroccan restaurant in his future? “Let’s get through these two and find out,” he jokes.
While his early years were spent in Southern California, Aflalo, 40, has strong Oakland pride — he was raised in Piedmont from sixth grade on and had his bar mitzvah at Temple Sinai.
Aflalo’s father immigrated to the U.S. from Rabat, Morocco, and the Aflalo name is Portuguese Jewish in origin. Omri is a common first name in Israel, where it’s a derivation of Amram.
His Catholic-by-birth mother underwent an Orthodox conversion to marry his father, though they divorced when he was a child. His sister Ariellah Aflalo is a renowned belly dancer who performs worldwide.
Even though as a kid Aflalo was exposed to elaborate Moroccan family dinners, with tagines and couscous when visiting his father’s side of the family, he didn’t care much about food.
“I was too immersed in skateboarding and surfing and being a kid,” he said.
And even though his first job while he was in high school was at Oakland’s Autumn Moon Café, where chef Kerry Heffernan, a Chez Panisse alum, took him under her wing and mentored him until he went from dishwasher to prep cook to an omelet cook, he still didn’t care about food; it was a means to a paycheck.
Even when he went on to Obelisque, another Oakland restaurant, where “I learned what a gastrique is, and how to do duck confit,” the culinary life didn’t take hold.
A few restaurant gigs later, after he saw all of his friends going away to college, his mentor finally said to him, “Omri, you’re out of high school and clearly you can cook, but you don’t care. What are you doing with yourself? You need to figure it out.”
So Aflalo pivoted, following his interest in film and photography and enrolling at the San Francisco Art Institute. But he lasted just one semester. It turns out he wasn’t one for working on something where the results come later.
“I needed that hands-on experience that cooking gives you,” he said. “Seeing someone eat it is immediate gratification. I realized that cooking is it.”
Aflalo is executive chef at the newly opened Tribune, in the historic downtown Tribune Tower building, and it’s apparent that in the 20-plus years since his realization, he has learned to care about food. And then some.
The team is going for an Oakland version of the New York spots Balthazar or Minetta Tavern, with “a French-style menu that’s brasserie-esque but the food has that Oakland-meets-Parisian-spot feel,” Aflalo said. “You’ve got your almondine sauce, you’ve got a burger, and you’ve got a steak au poivre. I didn’t want to do steak frites, as that would be too kitschy.”
Eventually, he’d like to expand the menu and add items like fresh seafood platters, but the dearth of labor that’s plaguing the restaurant industry is ever-present, and more kitchen staff would be needed to make those changes.
“We took over an existing restaurant and revamped it, and are working within the confines of what was here and what we can use,” he said.
During a recent visit, we found it hard to find any flaws in our meal, from the beef tartare with fine wisps of cured egg yolk and a caper emulsion on top, to the cavatelli with wild mushrooms and hazelnuts, to the tomato, melon and burrata salad with cilantro oil, to our entrées of a half-chicken with watercress salad and steak with a green peppercorn sauce and charred cabbage. While we were much too full to get the signature sticky toffee cake for two, we loved the much lighter yuzu cremeux with cocoa nib crumble.
Such memorable meals are all in the precision and the details, and Aflalo’s attention to detail was noticeable in every dish.
Everything possible is sourced from local farms to maximize “showcasing the product.”
“As a chef in Northern California, let alone in the country now, if you call yourself a chef, are owning or operating a restaurant, and if you’re not using sustainable produce and proteins from local farms, to me, you’re not a chef,” Aflalo said.
Aflalo attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, staged in France, and worked in several fine-dining restaurants in San Francisco after stints in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. In San Francisco, he was at Wayfare Tavern, Bourbon Steak and Mourad before crossing the bridge to cook in Oakland.
He feels strongly that it’s Oakland’s time to return to the spotlight, and that once things normalize post-Covid, it will once again be a dining destination.