Our troubled decade has presented at least one positive payoff: the return of comfort food. Over the past ten years, mac 'n' cheese, chicken pot pie, butterscotch pudding, and deep-dish fruit cobbler have made a comeback on countless menus. But the new comfort food movement is postmodern enough to employ organically raised, sustainably farmed local ingredients in reimagined old favorites that are as elegant to look at and as complex to savor as they are satisfying to the belly.
Thus enters SR24, one of the movement's tastier new developments. The setting is a former burger joint in Oakland's Temescal Triangle, and although some of the casual ambience remains, the place has been spruced up enough to pass for a classy neighborhood hangout. Striking bordello-red chandeliers drip from a coal-black ceiling. Comfortable booths are accented with vibrantly patterned throw pillows. Drapes and wine racks decorate the nooks and corners, and in the open kitchen one can observe chef Josh Woodall and his team crafting their own bread, pasta, and ketchup, and serving up the protein in general. Woodall, formerly of San Francisco's South Food + Wine Bar, opened his new place in late February and named it after State Route 24, just a block to the west. Like the language on the menu ("supper," "pop," and so on) and the dishes themselves, the name evokes some rural diner where a motherly type bakes fresh pies.
Kick off your meal with green goddess salad, a once-popular, largely forgotten pleasure due for a comeback. Invented at SF's Palace Hotel back in the 1920s, it takes its name from the creamy, verdant, herb-laced dressing that drapes the greens. SR24 employs yogurt instead of the traditional sour cream and mayo in the dressing and makes things even healthier by supplementing the lettuce with a garden's worth of fresh veggies: snap peas, green beans, broccoli, sweet peas, fabulous cream-colored heirloom carrots. By contrast, the pumpkin jojos — butternut squash tempura whimsically served in a newspaper-lined fry basket — were all salty, crunchy, deep-fried texture with a sweet and earthy flavor and a wonderfully peppery dipping sauce on the side. A more elegant appetizer was the mussel chowder, comprising nearly a dozen plump, briny mollusks in a lightly creamy bisque-like broth with a touch of oniony sweetness. Although not precisely a starter, the savory bread pudding was one of the menu's best noshes, a luscious square of complex carbohydrates packed with rich, spicy flavor and chunks of wild mushroom.
It's at entrée time that the restaurant really enters gut-pleasing, down-home terrain. Half an organic Rocky Jr. chicken is roasted until its skin is crackly and its flesh moist and tender, then it's served on a bed of lushly textured, faintly spicy farro studded with diced carrot, zucchini, and smoky, chewy bacon. The platter of Colorado lamb chops was more complex in execution and less successful in outcome; while the chops themselves were tender, pink, and smoky, they (or we) were distracted by the warm potato salad, mint chutney, and hard-boiled eggs that accompanied them. The braised Salmon Creek pork was a triumph of taste over texture: Although the pigmeat was on the dry and chewy side, its flavor was rich and satisfying, and it was served on a bed of velvety greens and creamy grits dosed with sharp cheddar cheese that made quibbling irrelevant. But the evening's best dish was the Kobe pot roast, a slab of brisket slowly braised to the moist and tender stage and served with a juicy, full-bodied wine sauce and lots of new potatoes, garlic cloves, sweet pearl onions, and those earthy heirloom carrots.
Despite its dedication to farm-fresh produce, SR24 isn't the ideal place to take your favorite vegetarian: The entrée menu is one meaty classic after another (although the pizza and pasta of the day might be vegetarian). Still, there are several flesh-free small plates that can be assembled into a satisfying meal: artichoke toasts, tomato-grilled cheese, and potato-leek soup; a couple of salads (including the green goddess); the pumpkin jojos and wild-mushroom bread pudding; sides of grits, mashed potatoes, French fries, mac 'n' cheese, and sautéed greens; and a dish of heirloom carrots and organic local peas. (Be sure to check with your server to find out which dishes are made with chicken broth or other meaty accents.)
SR24's wide-ranging, 45-item wine list rambles from France, Spain, and Italy to Austria, Slovenia, and Argentina with several stopovers in our own backyard. The wines are helpfully organized under headings like "Aromatic," Mellow," and "Heady," and like the restaurant's food, they're on the inexpensive side, with half of them priced under $40 and most of the rest under $60. Eleven are available by the glass. Beer options include San Leandro's own Drake's Blonde Ale on tap as well as $1.75 cans of Olympia ($1 during happy hour) and Eel River's outstanding IPA. There are also two house cocktails crafted from Sutton Cellars' seventeen-botanical vermouth; the Cactus Juice (vermouth with agave nectar and aloe, lemon, and lime juice) was overly snarky at first sip but improved as the evening progressed. Teetotalers can opt for house-made lemonade; nonalcoholic Wine Country sodas in pinot, rosé, and chardonnay; antioxidant-rich yerba maté tea; and an array of Mr. Espresso coffee concoctions.
SR24's primo dessert is the mini rhubarb pie, a single-size serving of the tart, luscious veggie topped with a buttery crumble and served in a flaky crust that melts in the mouth. It came with a small hillock of whipped cream ribboned with sweet, chopped-up strawberries, a perfect accent to the pleasantly puckery pie. The pineapple upside-down cake looked more like an overgrown muffin than the fancy-pants dessert of the Sunset Magazine era, but despite a shortage of actual pineapple it had a nice, dense texture as well as a dollop of feathery caramel crème fraiche on the side. The house-made doughnuts weren't doughnuts per se, but hot, chewy quasi-churros served with a mug of bittersweet coffee sauce ideal for dunking, and tasty for all that. And Nana's chocolate cake was sublime: Nothing fancy, just a light, moist, pillowy confection packed with endorphins and the power to soothe and satisfy. Just the thing for this day and age.