The walls are orange, a pale, watery orange like baked acorn squash. Sunlight oozes through gingham curtains framing deep-set windows, and there are enough old-fashioned kitchen tchotchkes to make the place feel sweet. It's the kind of sweet that comes from funky aluminum coffeepots and 1950s spice canisters, stacks of board games, and vaguely Shaker-y chairs, the stuff you'd find in the kitchen of a gray-haired lady who bakes pies and collects rubber bands on a doorknob.
Mona Personius decorated her two-month-old restaurant like she was dressing a Hollywood soundstage. Call it part of her skill set: In the early '90s she was a set dresser, picking out tchotchkes for Nightmare on Elm Street 5 and Diggstown. But she rolled up her movie career a decade ago to throw herself into cooking. After graduating from a San Francisco culinary school she says failed to teach her how to cook, Personius became a chef anyway.
It's lucky she didn't get hung up on gastriques and napoleons at culinary school, because her place, Mona's Table, plants its feet firmly on the floor of American home cooking: A lot of Personius' dishes are good enough and homey enough to seem like they came from that gray-haired lady's kitchen. They're substantial, glowing with the kind of kitchen fundamentals Personius makes look easy. Perfect for fall, and perfect for Alameda. Whether the island knows it or not.
Personius lives in Oakland, and has spent ten years catering, mostly in San Francisco. She's still trying to figure out Alameda. "I made a wonderful polenta lasagna last week," she says. "But nobody bought it."
With its Victorians and liquidambars shedding gold leaves onto Encinal Avenue, south Alameda looks like a movie set. Only it's hard to pinpoint exactly what decade it's supposed to be. Mona's Table faces Encinal Market across a narrow, old-fashioned parking lot, near a spruced-up '50s diner. It's a busy corner where the air of retro is as thick as the smell of burgers.
The food at Mona's Table seems to have the right old-fashioned vibe, even if the chef is still tinkering to find the right formula. The menu is small, and for now there's only lunch and Saturday breakfast. Her husband washes dishes and works the counter; a guy named Josh helps out. Everything else Personius does herself: catering, working the restaurant line, packing up home-delivery orders for clients in the city. "It's a lot," she says. She even bakes cookies, although the rest of the homey pastries (brownies, pumpkin log, and fantastic coconut-lime bars) are from Braxton's Boxes, a small El Cerrito wholesale bakery whose owner Personius met at Berkeley Bowl. Pure serendipity, since they match the homespun spirit of the chef's savory dishes.
Those dishes risk running out, especially when they're daily specials. Barely into lunchtime, you might find yourself watching the last bowl of lamb stew with creamy polenta going to another table. One day it was us snagging the final portion of the restaurant's signature grilled sandwich, vanilla-brined pork loin with caramelized onion jam. It sounds fancier than it tasted: machine-sliced pork as white and mild as turkey breast, a thick hunk of pepperjack, and lots of transparent, sweet-tasting onion. But the vanilla gave it a warm, old-fashioned aura, hard to locate in a mouth full of onions and mayo, but unmistakable if you jimmied out a slice and tasted it naked.
Personius' best dishes have a subtle glow like that, a combination of simple ingredients layered simply together by an innately talented chef. The approach yields delicious everyday dishes nothing knock-you-out impressive, just straight-up good. Like roasted chicken risotto, a special one day: rice grains nudged to a precise state of toothy, in a sauce that owed its viscous texture partly to reduction, partly to the thickening power of the rice's starch. There were big, moist flakes of light and dark chicken, residual flecks of carrot-and-celery mirepoix, corn kernels, and tiny peas (frozen organic ones, by the way, very sweet and tender). It was spot-on risotto, and at $6.95 an amazing bargain, which included a side salad.
Vegetarian quiche blurred the line between homey and homely. It was a huge slab with a surface baked as dark as coffee beans, delicious despite its craggy top and doughy, undercooked bottom. But the pastry edges were crisp and ruffly, and its firm custard contained soft hunks of sugary pumpkin and black, chewy portobello mushrooms: sweet and earthy, embedded in a matrix of tangy white cheddar.
In other dishes, that subtle glow went cold. A grilled pastrami sandwich oozed mayo from its bland, creamy coleslaw, and the rye slices seemed like beige Wonder Bread. A Chinese chicken salad special was a tad too old-fashioned like, California Pizza Kitchen old-fashioned, circa 1995. It bristled with crispy noodle strips like pieces of deep-fried spaghetti, and though the thick strands of shredded chicken were nice, we were happy that the promised mandarin orange slices were missing. It almost feels as if Personius is reaching out to a certain wedge of locals, older diners with older tastes.
The Asian chicken salad on the regular menu was far gutsier, with personality and bite: Those same chicken strands were tossed with buckwheat soba noodles, a dressing laced with lime and fish sauce, mint, and cilantro.
Personius is more a braise-and-sauce chef than a salad chef. A recent special of seared chicken in a creamy poblano mole sauce was brilliant. The chicken breast was fat and juicy, and the mole was some of the best we've tasted, a rustic, broken emulsion that smelled earthy, like wet bricks. It avoided the worst mole clichés (not too much sugar, no overbearing chocolate), tasting of almonds, cloves, and dried chiles. There was a hunk of refreshingly watery steamed chayote on the plate, and a spoonful of pinto beans stained purple from cooking with chipotles.
But this is the kind of place where you can order a bowl of soup and learn everything you need to know about the chef. One day it was roasted pumpkin, sweet potato, and butternut squash a roughly textured purée with a subtle taste of cider and sweet spices, homey, satisfying, and deep. And the color matched the walls, as though it'd been planned that way.
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