Lake Chalet, the latest high-profile restaurant to open in the burgeoning, rejuvenating city of Oakland, has set out to do for Lake Merritt what its sister establishment, the Beach Chalet in San Francisco, has done for the Pacific Ocean: showcase it as the central motif of a grand yet congenial dining experience. In Lake Chalet's case this meant converting a hundred-year-old boathouse into a handsome Mission Revival getaway with an outdoor deck, an open kitchen, two fireplaces, adjacent dining rooms extending over the water, and romantic panoramas of the light-bedecked lake itself, complete with working quay and an honest-to-God Venetian gondolier. The result: an enchanting, convivial dining destination where you can take in the swell and the sailboats over a beaker of suds and a platter of kumamotos while the grill sizzles, the ice tinkles, and the moon rises over the water. And if the food doesn't always live up to the vistas and the rustic-moderne setting, it's a pleasant enough accent to the chalet's more aesthetic attractions.
The building's been around since 1909, first as a pumping station and municipal boat house, then as parks department offices and Lake Merritt Rowing Club headquarters. After extensive renovations under Gar and Lara Truppelli, proprietors of the Beach Chalet and the Park Chalet, the Lake Chalet opened in mid-August. The low-slung tiled-roof building is made up of four distinct dining areas: the Pump House, a casual bistro at the entrance with an open kitchen and an impressive eighty-foot marble bar; the Dock, which extends over the lake and features an outdoor grill and its own bar as well as the services of a gondolier named Angelino; and two dining rooms, the Gondola Room (site of private parties and buffet brunches) and the Lake Room with its hearthside lounge, Arts and Crafts detailing, and clubby, welcoming vibe.
The starters are the best part of the meal, offering a freshness and wit more or less lacking from the rest of the menu. The English pea soup combined a light broth-like texture with the taste of freshly shelled sweet peas and ample shards of ham hock that added a rich, smoky flavor to the whole. The Dungeness crab cakes were meaty and juicy and sweet and succulent, with just enough filler to bind the seafood together and bits of daikon and pickled onion accenting things nicely. Dungeness also starred in the crab-orange consommé, which wasn't a consommé at all but a mosaic of orange and grapefruit segments, avocado puree, Meyer lemon oil, and generous fingers of crabmeat so sweet and luscious you'd swear we were in the middle of Dungeness crab season. The tuna ceviche resembled tartare more than ceviche, but who could object to a tall glistening mound of ruby-red ahi with the creamy texture of a good porterhouse?
The entrées are competently prepared and absolutely unobjectionable, exactly what you'd expect from a restaurant with a terrific view and little inclination to rock the (figurative) boat. The petrale sole's light, crisp breading kept the fish moist and tender, but the lemon-caper sauce that accompanied it delivered too much salt and not enough citrus. The upscale fish sticks — brandade of whitefish formed into four largish Lincoln Logs, then breaded, fried, and served with (not enough) watercress and malt-vinegar reduction — were on the cumbersome side. The baby-back pork ribs were perfectly moist and tender but lacked that smoky, snarky oomph you want from a platter of barbecue. The most successful entrée was the "risotto" made of shredded potato instead of rice and served with a thick filet of salmon. While the fish was overcooked, it still boasted plenty of flavor, and the tender strands of potato were tastefully accented with meaty, earthy mushrooms and a smoky bacon-laced vinaigrette.
At the end of a long lazy meal, it's nice to be able to nibble something sweet without committing to a big platter-sprawling dessert, and Lake Chalet offers a choice of five "mini" meal-closers along with four regulation-size desserts. The larger sweets included a coconut cream pie made up almost entirely of whipped cream unburdened by the flavor of coconut and a hearty and respectable if largely uninspiring apple crisp with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But the tiny ramekin of burnt cream was lush and silky beneath its broiled-sugar chapeau, and the miniature pineapple upside-down cake was as luscious and as buttery as it's supposed to be and almost always isn't.
The seafood-centric menu doesn't offer much in the way of vegetarian dishes. Veggie burgers are available at lunchtime. Starters include hummus with cucumber, tomatoes, and olives, and a seasonal selection of cheeses with fruit, almonds, and honey. There are two meatless salads: baby greens with goat cheese, pears and pumpkin seeds; and heirloom tomatoes with basil and fresh burrata. And the one flesh-free entrée, vegetable pot pie with Yukon potato gravy, can be supplemented with sides of polenta, french fries, or sautéed spinach.
The wine list is made up of 42 (primarily California) chardonnays, sauvignon blancs, pinots, merlots, and cabs, most of them in the $30 to $50 price range. (Pine Ridge's subtly spicy Napa Valley viognier is a nice match for the Dungeness crab with citrus and avocado.) Twenty-two wines are available by the glass. The restaurant also serves five specialty beers crafted at Beach Chalet's microbrewery in SF including a Pumphouse Wheat, a Regatta Red, and a Lake Merritt IPA. Among the house cocktails are the Gondola Sour, a staggeringly sweet concoction of rum and amaretto, and the more copacetic Lakeside Crush, vodka, lime, sauterne, and fresh grapes stirred into a bright, refreshing cocktail. With the Bay Area entering its balmiest half-season you could do a lot worse than a comfortable chair on Lake Chalet's dock, libation at hand, brunch approaching or dusk descending, Neapolitan love songs stroking the breeze.