For a restaurant that took months to come together because of delays, you’d think the new Box and Bells would have a clear, focused format.
But from the beginning, I couldn’t figure out what Box and Bells is supposed to be. The restaurant in the former Somerset location in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood is the highly-anticipated venture of James Syhabout, the Oakland-grown chef who has made a name for himself – first with his Michelin-star Commis fine-dining restaurant and then the Asian street food spot, Hawker Fare.
Looking at the restaurant, which has been opened for about a month, the font of the signage looks like an old school barber shop, but the décor is sprinkled with industrial pieces like the heavy-metal studded door and exposed light bulbs in iron-net boxes.
I visited the restaurant for dinner with my foodie friends, Christina of East Bay Dish, Sandy of Foodhoe’s Foraging, and new food blogger Brenda of Bites and Bourbon. The menu is broken into four sections – “nibblings,” small plates, meats and sides.
Syhabout has said that Box & Bells is supposed to be an eating house, serving up dishes chefs would like to eat at staff meals. So there are definitely touches of cheffy food, which means lots of rich dishes such as bone marrow, rillete, lardon, and oxtail.
In fact, with a section called “meats,” you know this isn’t the spot for vegetarians, with only two green salads on the menu. The menu weighed heavy on the small plates, making it seem more like a gastropub with dishes designed to make you order one of the restaurant’s specialty cocktails or beer.
Flavor and Fried Stuff
Many of the dishes had lots of flavor, and some with a twist, like the fried chicken (more like chicken nuggets since they’re boneless chicken bites) served with raw oyster mayonnaise ($15). Everyone raved about how dipping the chicken nuggets into the sauce was like eating fried oysters.
The dishes were confusing with some rustic like the country pork rillete ($11) that was on the chunky side, while other dishes were presented like a fancy restaurant dish, such as the warm potato salad ($12), served as slices topped with smoked salmon slices and dill.
The pricing seemed off too, not what you would expect for staff dishes. The Toulouse sausage tasted great but was basically a grilled sausage on a plate with a scoop of lentils for $23.
Desserts weren’t that impressive, with the enticingly named butter-bourbon pudding ($8) tasting like it was thickened with cornstarch and the seasonal spiced pumpkin walnut cake ($8) just had squares of cake submerged with what seemed like more pudding.
The Last Bite
While Box & Bells offer bold flavors in its dishes, the selection seems challenging to pull together a balanced dinner. If you’re a fan of fried foods, meats, and bacon, you’ll be happy to order a few small plates and beer. (Or maybe it’ll be destined to be a late-night hangout for chefs.) Syhabout may be able to draw a crowd simply on his reputation, but an evolving menu that broadens the style may be welcomed by the neighborhood.
Box and Bells, 5912 College Ave., Oakland. PH: 510.923.2000. Open Wed.–Thu., 5:30–10:30 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.; and Sun., 5–9:30 p.m. Closed Mon.–Tue. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. boxandbells.com
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