Chef-owner Mark Liberman plates a salad at the opening party for Mägo in Oakland. (Photo/Isabel Baer)
Chef-owner Mark Liberman plates a salad at the opening party for Mägo in Oakland. (Photo/Isabel Baer)

The magician behind Mägo, the hotly anticipated Piedmont Ave. bistro opening soon

Every once in a while, a restaurant generates a lot of buzz before it even opens. It’s often because of the pedigree of the chef. Sometimes, it’s because delays — finding the right space, permitting hassles, construction issues — push the restaurant’s opening further and further into the future.

All of that describes Mark Liberman’s new restaurant, Mägo, which is scheduled to open any day now on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. It’s a block away from Commis, the city’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, and right near the Wolf, another upscale eatery, in an area filled with too many restaurants to count, in every price range. So whatever opens on the avenue must offer something new and different from what is already there.

Like many of them, Mägo offers hyperseasonal, local cuisine. But Liberman’s food will reflect what he calls the 52 microseasons in the Bay Area. In other words, no one week will feature the same produce at its peak as the week before.

Halibut with salted rhubarb, leeks and parsley veloute (Photo/Isabel Baer)
Halibut with salted rhubarb, leeks and parsley veloute (Photo/Isabel Baer)

Liberman, who has a toddler daughter, also wants Mägo to be family-friendly, another distinction from similar restaurants in the area. He plans to have a garden on the back patio that not only supplies his kitchen with fresh herbs and other produce, but lets kids see things growing that might end up on their plates. He’ll also offer a kids’ menu that includes matzah ball soup.

Because of the hyperlocal, regional style of Mägo’s food, the dishes on the pre-opening press menu may not be available after the restaurant opens: focaccia with seaweed tapenade, coal-roasted kohlrabi with wild onion kimchi, grilled chicken livers with wood sorrel, and halibut with salted rhubarb, leeks and parsley velouté.

Though Mägo isn’t a vegetarian restaurant by any measure, the cuisine is “vegetable-forward,” Liberman said. “The food I’m trying to do is simple and pure, with less things on the plate. The overall message of the restaurant is a simpler style of food, but still interesting and innovative.”

The cocktail menu will be kitchen-driven as well, meaning that all of the bitters, juices and oils will be made in-house.

His wife, Theresa, will be the cheese buyer and teach cheese classes, and Liberman will offer cooking classes.

Liberman is used to working in larger restaurants, so when he began visualizing his own, he imagined a smaller place, with an open kitchen, where he can interact with his guests.

“I was tired of working in giant restaurants, where there’s so much staff and overhead,” he said.

Much of the seating is along a counter facing the kitchen and its wood-burning grill, with the rest at a handful of tables.

Grilled chicken livers with wood sorrel and sesame (Photo/Isabel Baer)
Grilled chicken livers with wood sorrel and sesame (Photo/Isabel Baer)

Mägo is the nickname Liberman earned from his sous chefs while he was the executive chef at AQ in San Francisco (which he and his partner closed in 2017). It means “magician” or “wizard” in Spanish.

“When I was looking for names, I realized it’s original and personal,” he said.

The Spanish name is fitting not only because Liberman is a talented improviser or “magician” — he won on the popular Food Network show “Chopped,” competing against other chefs to create cohesive dishes out of disparate foods in “mystery baskets” — but also because he’s Colombian on his mother’s side.

His father’s bloodline is Ashkenazi, and Liberman grew up in Marin County, attending Congregation Kol Shofar (where he had his bar mitzvah) and Brandeis-Hillel Day School. His family later moved to Sacramento, where their synagogue was Mosaic Law Congregation.

Liberman first showed an interest in cooking when he was 11, and he began by making breakfast crêpes for his parents. They encouraged his passion by buying him cookbooks. Before the Food Network became so popular, he developed a serious PBS habit: Jacques Pépin and the “Great Chefs” series were his favorites.

Wanting to explore the world beyond his home base, he went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, but in so doing, realized that he is a Californian through and through. Though he spent a few years in various kitchens in France and other places, he always knew he’d come back to the Bay Area.

 

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."