“To the Swinging and the Ringing”
It’s been almost ten years since I started writing about Oakland’s changing restaurant scene. Hard to believe, but it has. One of the earliest visits I made was to my hometown’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, Chef James Syhabout’s “Commis.” This lovely little fine-dining oasis is located in a (fairly) hidden nook past a beer garden and a tiny ally, until one finds a glassy unmarked window along Piedmont Avenue. Hidden and intriguing, like the notion of the Chef cum wizard back in an invisible kitchen preparing magic to eat. Piedmont Avenue itself, is a street that has played a pretty big role in the history of me. Every block a familiar scene of the landscapes of my past. My daughter was born in the old Kaiser Hospital, my highschool pals and I hung out in Eggbert Souse’s before we were quite old enough to be there. Talk about memories.
But memories should never be static, and so Syhabout opened a second place, Hawker Fare, over on 2300 Webster, about a block from my former office space. Featuring the street food of southeast Asia. Over many a lunch break I have enjoyed many a Lemongrass Chicken rice bowl, accompanied by a beer, and those strange and delightful exotic peanuts, and adored each and every bite. Hawker Fare is another home run for this boy genius.
“Through the Balmy Air of Night”
This brings us to Syhabout’s more recent effort, Box and Bells, on College Avenue. College was another youthful haunt, having spent many hours shopping in the “head shops” that used to line it’s almost-in-Berkeley, almost-as-cool landscape. The change of culinary scenery along this familiar strip over the past several years has been fascinating.
Although it’s well into its second year, I’ve only just recently visited Box and Bells, the third establishment opened by Oakland’s own Michelin man, soon to be followed by an installment of Hawker Fare across the Bay Bridge. Oakland has gotten so fancy we’re exporting our talent into San Francisco. Boo yah!
Our daughter was free and so she joined us. She too, had been dying to experience the fare at B&B, so we snagged a reservation and headed off to a lovely family dinner. None of us were disappointed, as the restaurant, at this stage of the game, is great dining in full stride. There’s a rhythm that comes with experience, after the kinks have been ironed out and all the best dishes perfected. It can benefit the diner, to wait for this perfected bliss before trying out a restaurant’s menu. Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I’m unfashionably late to the party.
“To the Molten Golden Notes”
But regardless of when one arrives, parties are fun, and Box and Bells was no exception. I like to try a new restaurant with as large a “party” as I can muster, to allow the largest sampling of menu offerings. There were only three of us on this occasion, but we pretty much have it down. Joey Chestnut has nothing on us when it comes to eating as much as we can in one sitting. We began with some Oysters. They were alluringly fresh, topped with a frozen mignonette, properly briny and packed with the taste of the deep sea. Right after our oysters, our Blood Pudding Poutine arrived, a concept I thought could be interesting. It presented as a magnificent concoction of a rich deep succulent gravy, with an umami all it’s own, spilling delectably over a plate of crispy golden French Fries, finished off with a sprinkling of chopped green onions to throw in a little acid to lighten the dark flavors of the blood pudding and add the necessary balance. The flavors were spot on.
Another favorite of the evening was a delectably caramelized pork on a flawless bed of pillowy polenta. There is something thrilling about the basic
combination of a beautifully seared pork, its juices spilling into the soft, buttery, polenta, that makes every bite delightfully memorable. We also had the day scallops, bathed in a complex broth of varietal mushrooms, and likewise superb. Each of us tasted the beef our youngest companion ordered to offset her annoying allergy to all things fishy with scales, and it was cooked perfectly, arriving well rested with its center a rosy pink, and its juices intact. Each dish danced onto the table in an endless ballet of spectacular sights, scents and flavors. All in all, it made for a glorious evening of food.
We had a lovely evening. Our shared favorite pastime is exploring lovely new flavors with one another, and it has yet to result in anything but full-on food coma bliss. Part company, part skill of the Chef, part effortless service. Add good conversation and some well prepared cocktails or a skillfully curated glass of wine, and everything falls together. These things all collaborate to keep the dinner on track and the company sated. If any one of them fails, the evening can’t rise to the level of that which makes for a perfect memory indeed.
Check it out. Bring your own party to the party, and make some memories of your own.
POSTSCRIPT: As of the posting of this article, BOX AND BELLS HAS CLOSED. The experience was still blissful, but that will teach us all not to be late to the party. Follow Chef Syhabout’s further exploits and get in right away. Given the climate and competition, one never knows how long we can keep a restaurant there to serve us. Wish the staff and ownership all the best.
BOX AND BELLS
5912 College Avenue
Oakland, CA 94618