Chowhaus Elevates Dining in Montclair

What is a Chowhaus? It’s something akin to the roadhouse chop bars of West Africa and the gasthäuser of Germany, both important as community gathering places. Based on our experience over three visits, Chowhaus could become that for Montclair.


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Chowhaus, where gasthaus meets chop bar, offers Scotch eggs, left; padron peppers, melon, and tasso ham, right.

Photo by Lori Eanes

Taco Tuesday caught us by surprise. It was Tuesday, but the restaurant was called Chowhaus, and even if Robin and I didn’t quite know what a “chowhaus” was supposed to be, we were expecting dishes more consonant with the name—a Niman Ranch bone-in pork chop with German potato salad, perhaps, or a robust sandwich with smoked “haus” sausage and sauerkraut or pastrami with aged cheddar on a “haus” milk bun. After all, those were mentioned on Chowhaus’s minimalist website. Taco Tuesday wasn’t.

But when you find yourself limited to entrée options of nothing but tacos, with such fillings as crispy pork belly, blackened rock cod, grilled Kobe steak, braised Mary’s chicken, and tempura-fried avocado, you go with the flow. Robin would have preferred the fish breaded and fried rather than seared but soft and moist. I was elevated to ecstasy by the great pork belly. In both cases, the soft corn tortillas were amply endowed (as they should be for $15 to $17 per pair of tacos), and came with silky mashed refried beans, bright salsa fresca, and lots of house-made chips. The menu did include several snacks and starters, so we opened with a beautifully executed salad of watermelon, cantaloupe, ribbons of fatty tasso ham, padron peppers, queso fresco, cilantro, a drizzle of balsamic, and lime. The full cocktail menu, we were told by our buoyant server, Luke, would not be in place until the end of the week, so we washed down our tacos with light and dark Modelo beers.

When we returned, eight days later, the bar program, developed by Craig Lane, of Bar Agricole in San Francisco, still hadn’t launched, but there were two mixed drinks available. I opted for the Ohio Cocktail, a refreshing, balanced blend of Wild Turkey 101, absinthe, triple sec, bitters, sparkling wine, and a twist. It made me impatient for the arrival of innovative adult beverages in Montclair Village, where culinary innovation is more measured than in other parts of Oakland.

Which brings me to the most important point of this review: For too long, Oakland Hills residents have had to settle for what we could call “Montclair good,” which Chowhaus eclipses. Food-and-drink-wise, Chowhaus is the best thing to happen to the Village in a long time, at least since the opening of Farmstead Cheeses and Wines in 2008 and the advent of Kakui Sushi about four years later.

The husband-and-wife team of Montclair residents Tracey Belock (Tribune Tavern, Disco Volante, Quince, Farralon) and Joe Schnell totally revamped the space long occupied by the pleasantly old-school continental Montclair Bistro. What is a Chowhaus? It’s something akin to the roadhouse chop bars of West Africa and the gasthäuser of Germany, both important as community gathering places. Based on our experience over three visits, Chowhaus could become that for Montclair.

There have been some mixed messages in the Chowhaus early going, especially with online details and the full cocktail service debut. But a little discombobulation seems appropriate for a business bursting with ambition and quirks.

Belock’s kitchen puts out a startling variety of food based on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients and “haus”-made everything else: breads and pastries (to go with Four Barrel coffee), salumi and sausages, salsas, and pickled vegetables. There are corn fritters made with risotto and three cheeses, crispy polenta with tomato-braised beans, chickpeas, and fried peppers, and creamy polenta with spring vegetable succotash, olives, Parmesan, and a farm egg. There’s Mary’s chicken potpie and a grilled Kobe bavette steak.

Brunch offerings (15 mains and 20 snacks, starters, sides) include cinnamon brioche French toast; grilled dates with “smokey magic spiced” pork belly and watercress; cheese, veggie, bacon, or sausage frittatas; a crispy Scotch egg with fennel sausage, frilly mustard greens and pickled vegetables; chilaquiles; steak and eggs; a Chowhaus burger; and pulled pork, smoked sausage, chicken salad, blackened cod, and other sandwiches.

This is a place for serious eating and snacking. In addition to the aforementioned melon, padrons, and tasso fantasia, we ate two spectacular salads, one with runner beans, roasted cauliflower, quinoa, squash, pea tendrils, and mixed nuts, and another with heirloom tomatoes, blue cheese, bacon, bread crumbs, basil, and herb vinaigrette. We shared a velvety roasted tomato and pepper soup garnished with sour cream, salsa verde, and cherry tomatoes. I took a couple of cholesterol challenges—the “knuckle sandwich,” a slippery, juicy combination of smoky pastrami, aged white cheddar, and pickled white onion, served with pickled asparagus and house spiced potato chips, and the chicken schnitzel (boneless white meat breaded and fried to an amazing crunch) accompanied by grilled broccolini and pickled shallots and most importantly, mashed potatoes and a sausage gravy that made me exclaim, “Please tell me that you have biscuits and this gravy for brunch!” Our server, Kevin, brought me more, and Robin and I ate it by the spoonful.

The sophisticated but whimsical approach to comfort food—you can add chicken “nugs” or pork belly to just about anything—continues into the desserts: berry cake, fruit crisp with house-made ice cream, caramel pot de crème, and cookies and milk.

Sound like fun? Wait till you see the place. If cartoon genius Rube Goldberg built a restaurant, it might look like Chowhaus, a deliberately designed split-level hodge-podge of ramps and steps, ranch-style fences, mismatched chairs and chandeliers, thick plank tabletops mounted on antique Singer sewing machine frames, a playfully speckled concrete bar, open ceilings and exposed ducts, walls painted white or scraped and sanded to rustic sgraffito effect, vintage advertising signs, a brass plaque that reads “Hands off Our Barmaids,” and a table of crayons and coloring books for the kids. A cross between an Escher-designed ice cream parlor, a curio shop, and a funky-chic café, Chowhaus has a million ways to make you smile.

 

Chowhaus

American. 6118 Medau Place, Oakland, 510- 339-3395. Snacks and sides $3-$7, starters and salads, $7-$12, sandwiches $14-$17, main dishes $11-$29, beer, wine, cocktails $4-$12, desserts $6-$7. www.ChowhausOakland.com. Serves 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Tue.–Sat. and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun. 

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