UPDATE: The restaurant closed in January 2018 because of financial difficulties.
Although I’ll go far and wide to try a new restaurant, I’m always excited when I hear about something opening close to my Oakland home. It’s the idea of finding a regular hangout that I always find appealing (that’s probably from my growing up watching “Cheers”).
So I was excited to check out the new Duchess Oakland in Rockridge, which opened in the old Pizza Rustica location on College Avenue. From first-time restaurateurs Chris Strieter and Caroline Conner, who also live in the neighborhood, the bar and restaurant promotes itself as an all-day pub, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The space got a fresh new entrance combined with handsome booths and a bar that serves as a cafe serving Sightglass coffee. I went early last Friday night and ate at the bar. The first thing that struck me was how there was this awkward vibe, like everyone there felt they couldn’t really talk loudly because the overall room was so quiet. Our bartender was so busy that she hardly welcomed me.
I was partly lured to Duchess Oakland by this initial look by Berkeleyside’s Nosh. Chicken liver mousse donuts? I’m so there. But as I perused the menu, there were no chicken liver donuts to be found. In fact, many of the items described by early reviews seemed to have gone off the menu. For example, a Caesar salad described to have a hidden brioche toast serving as a “giant crouton” turned out to be a regular Caesar salad (I kept pushing away the romaine looking for the brioche toast but turning up empty).
I learned through this latest review in the East Bay Express that Duchess Oakland underwent a chef change less than a month after opening. The opening chef and the creative menu is gone, replaced with Matty Napps, a former sous chef for The Dock at Linden.
Along with the Caesar salad ($8), I also tried the salmon tartare ($12), a light and citrusy tartare made with Atlantic salmon with creme fraiche, capers and fried celeriac. I also had the Duchess Burger “aka Royale with Cheese,” which was the cheaper of the entree options at $16 compared to a $21 pork chop and $20 bowl of mussels.
The burger was done medium, although I had requested medium-rare, so it was decent but not necessarily pinkish nor juicy. It came with crispy French fries and even though I’m not a fan of deep-fried foods, I tried a few to see what they were like and some of the shoestring-style fries were crispy while others were limp, so a bit inconsistent.
Side note: My three dishes that I ordered came to the bar all at once. And while as a food blogger this makes for a great Instagram shot of my meal, it made me feel rushed trying to eat all three plates at once. In the back I could hear the chef yelling out for dishes to be picked up, so it really sounded like the kitchen was working at warp speed when it didn’t seem necessary (again, I had an early Friday dinner so the restaurant wasn’t packed yet).
Dessert options that night were only a chocolate chip cookie or a slice of the cake of the day, which I ordered. The vanilla custard cake with blueberry compote and ice cream was good, and the cake was light. But it wasn’t necessarily moist, and seemed a bit like store-bought.
As you can probably tell, I wasn’t necessarily impressed by the food. The items were done well but nothing exceptional or surprising. I forgot to mention that I did start with a cocktail from Duchess Oakland’s menu of six specialty cocktails. The “Everybody Knows” ($12) made of bourbon, lemon, and egg white was a nice balanced drink, and a decent spin on a Pisco Sour.
The last bite
Duchess Oakland seems perfect for the young family crowd in the hood; it’s a spot that’s upscale for the parents but simple enough for the kids. What this means, at least in these early days, is that this pub is decent but doesn’t excite. Oddly, sitting at the bar doesn’t feel very welcoming, which means it’s unlikely that I’ll make it my regular watering hole.
The rating: 2 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Duchess Oakland, 5422 College Ave., Oakland. PH: 510.871.3463. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Mondays. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. www.duchessoakland.com
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