Royalty in the Making

Duchess tries winning over Rockridge with something for everyone.


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Chicken and waffles and Berkshire pork chops.

Photo by Lori Eanes

When Duchess opened in December 2016, it knew what it wanted to be: a cafe and pub for all seasons—and all times of day—serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and, as touted on its website, “Comfort food in style.” During the first quarter of 2017, however, owners Caroline Conner and Chris Strieter were tweaking the Duchess format as they adjusted to the dining and drinking patterns of the Rockridge neighborhood. On our first two visits in February, for instance, we arrived before the 5 p.m. start of dinner service to take advantage of the late-afternoon happy hour, with bar snacks and discounted drinks. But by the beginning of March, happy hour had been discontinued, and when I popped in to check out the morning offerings, I discovered that breakfast and lunch had been combined into one “Brunchess” menu, available from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Photo by Lori Eanes

The Ship of Theseus (left) and the Bastogne.

The operational experimentation notwithstanding, Duchess consistently made good on its motto. “Style” was evident everywhere as soon as we walked in the door. The space that formerly housed Pizza Rustica (its Montclair branch is still open) was made over by VerSacrum Design (Trick Dog, Shakewell, Huxley, and other notable restaurants), with the hard edges of ultra modern metal chairs and fixtures balanced by the seductive warmth of cozy booths and walnut walls, frames, railings, tabletops, and bar counters. Other unique touches—a shelf of cookbooks for perusing near the front door; a lavender, silver-flowered wall behind the downstairs back-bar—added elements of hominess and sophistication. For a small restaurant, seating maybe 40 at full capacity at booths, tables, and the bar, with an upstairs bar open on weekend nights and available for special events, Duchess presented us with a lot of eye-popping details.

The same sense of style informed the presentations of comforting food on custom ceramics. A Berkshire pork chop was gorgeously plated with a chunky hash of apples and fingerling potatoes, a heap of dark collard greens, and a pool of seeded mustard and maple pork jus. The Duchess Burger AKA Royale with Cheese (named with a nod to Pulp Fiction) came on a lovely house-made sesame-seeded bun and a pile of crisp, classically cut (not thick, not shoestring), cayenne-and-paprika-spiked fries. A mound of salmon tartar sat in an oversize bowl, amply drizzled with olive oil and citrus, and elegantly garnished with capers, crème fraiche, and strips of fried celeriac. Corned beef hash was elevated to Instagram worthiness in its deconstructed arrangement of shredded beef in a light gravy with roasted potatoes, caramelized onions, and two perfectly poached eggs decorated with chopped scallions. Even chips and guacamole, and a chopped Caesar salad (dusted with grana padano, and tossed with roasted anchovy bread crumbs) were presented with impressive artistic flair.

Photo by Lori Eanes

Executive chef Matty Napps and sous chef Balkarn Singh (and the Duchess bartenders) gave us as much reason to cheer the actual cooking as to laud the food’s good looks. My pork chop measured up to best I’ve had; Robin would gladly revisit the burger, the fries, the guacamole, and the eggplant Parmesan; and my friend Byron deemed the salty and slightly sweet corned beef hash the best he’d ever eaten, an opinion I shared. And given that Duchess is almost as much a bar as a restaurant, it must be emphasized that two cocktails hooked us immediately: the Bastogne, with balanced rye, Braulio (an alpine amaro), Nocino (green walnut liqueur), and walnut bitters (yes, walnut is a Duchess theme); and the Ship of Theseus tingled the tongue with vodka, Lillet Blanc, lemon, and ginger shrub. Robin and I repeated our indulgences at our second dinner.

Given Duchess’s newness and attempts to find its footing, a few inconsistencies were to be expected and were experienced. One server couldn’t have been friendlier or more spot-on with her menu descriptions, suggestions, and timing; another couldn’t get us our dishes in the order we’d asked for, left us with paper napkins instead of cloth during dinner service, and didn’t clear our finished plates while we worked on others. That evening, there seemed to be more staff hanging around the bar and kitchen than attending to diners.

Photo By Lori Eanes

Salmon belly tartare.

One morning, the corned beef hash came with toast; on another, it didn’t. Robin would have preferred the Caesar with the added texture of croutons, and I like mine with whole anchovies, which I noticed were noted on a later menu. At $19, a small leg and thigh seemed a paltry portion in the buttermilk fried chicken and waffles (a circular waffle cut in quarters), but the honey butter, black pepper béchamel, and maple bourbon gastrique were exceptional. For fried chicken, I might opt for the more bountiful-looking $16 sandwich at brunch. Most egregious was the miserly $16 pour of a superb 2012 Pinot Noir from co-owner Strieter’s own Senses winery in Sonoma. If that was typical, I’ll probably stick to cocktails, straight spirits, or an ale, stout, IPA, cider, or Saison from the diverse and intriguing beer menu.

I look forward to many happy returns to Duchess, sampling more of the bar bites (padron peppers, buffalo wings, Brussels sprouts with bacon and garlic), brunch specialties (fish tacos, the mushroom-and-eggplant or daily-changing grilled cheese sandwiches), such dinner mains as seared salmon, vegetarian farro risotto, and PEI mussels with chorizo, the Bitter and Twisted (mezcal, white vermouth, Salers aperitif), and Connor’s various tarts and sweets (she was a pastry chef at Nopa), including grapefruit olive oil bundt cake, bacon and onion rocktart, bread pudding, and warm chocolate chip cookies. Whether its American, upmarket-but-informal, something-for-every approach will win over the neighborhood remains to be seen, but even during its period of adjustment, Duchess showed serious signs of achieving Rockridge royalty.

Photo by Lori Eanes

Duchess

American. 5422 College Ave., Oakland,  510-871-3463. Bites $6-$12, salads $9-$15, sandwiches $15-$16, main courses $16-$22, pastries and cookies $3-$5, house cocktails $12, beer $7-$15, wine by the glass $9-$16, by the bottle $34-$62. Serves brunch and dinner Sun. and Tue. 10 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m.; Wed. and Thu. 10 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m;. and Fri. and Sat. 10 a.m-3 p.m., 5-11 p.m., DuchessOakland.com CCG☎$$–$$$$

 

Published online on April 14, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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