Oakland’s New Dining Destination 

Plus, California’s olive shortfall and an Oakland chef’s TV debut.

For all of its virtues — sweeping bay views and old-fashioned charm — Oakland's Montclair neighborhood has hitherto not been known as much of a dining destination. Two longtime Montclair residents, Tracey Belock and Joe Schnell, hope to change that when their new restaurant, Chowhaus (6118 Medau Pl.), replaces Oakland Hills stalwart Montclair Bistro this fall. Mostly though, the husband-and-wife team hopes to create something they believe their neighborhood has been missing: a family-friendly community gathering place.

According to Belock, best known for her recent gigs as head chef at Tribune Tavern and the now-shuttered Disco Volante, she and her husband drew inspiration from the chop bars (roadhouses/neighborhood hangouts) of West Africa and the gasthouses (family-owned, community-oriented taverns) found in many small German towns. And so Chowhaus will be a seasonally focused restaurant in the typical Northern Californian farm-to-table mold, but it will also be a place that's available to the community from morning to night. "We want the place to be open all day," Belock said.

Belock will run the kitchen, and Schnell, who most recently worked as a private chef, will man the front of the house. In the mornings, the restaurant will serve coffee (courtesy of a well-regarded Bay Area "third wave" roaster, still to be determined), house-made pastries, and some other light breakfast fare. The lunch menu will feature interesting sandwiches made with house-made bread and the products of what Belock says will be a fairly extensive in-house charcuterie program.

Belock said she plans to build upon her recent experience in elevating bar- and tavern-style food, but that the Chowhaus menu will also draw on German, Italian, and Southern influences. Likely dishes will include Belock's takes on pork schnitzel, chicken pot pie, and a Scotch egg (crispy house-made sausage wrapped around a soft-yolked egg).

Craig Lane, the bar director at San Francisco's Bar Agricole, will create the cocktail list.

Belock and Schnell expect to open by mid-November.

Olive Shortfall

California's prolonged drought has claimed one more victim: this year's olive harvest.

The Fresno Bee reported that the drought and other weather-related difficulties are expected to cause California's 2014 table olive crop to be roughly 45 percent lower than last year's — 50,000 tons, down from 91,000.

Here in the East Bay, purveyors of California olives and — perhaps even more saliently — of California olive oil will likely see some impact. Nate Bradley, manager and master blender at the Berkeley-based olive oil shop Amphora Nueva, said he doesn't expect the supply of olive oil olives to be affected quite as much as that of table olives, which, because they're meant to be eaten, tend to be larger varietals that require more water.

Still, as Bradley noted, "There's definitely going to be an impact one way or another, and it's going to be reflected in the prices of California olive oil to some extent."

For Amphora Nueva, however, there are a couple of silver linings. Because the shop sources its olive oils from all over the world, and because Europe's most famous olive-producing countries (Spain, Italy, etc.) harvest their olives at the same time as California, Bradley said he might just wind up carrying more of the European oils this winter — especially if California's prices prove to be exorbitant.

Also, counterintuitively, the drought might actually increase the quality of the olive oil that does get produced.

"When olives get less water — when the trees get distressed — the polyphenols go way up," Bradley explained.

Olive oil junkies know, of course, that polyphenols are the antioxidants that help make olive oils so healthy and that give certain varietals their distinctive peppery kick, especially when the oils are very fresh. Californian olive oils, on the whole, tend to be relatively low in polyphenol content — in part, Bradley believes, because California's olive trees are typically over-watered. This year that certainly won't be the case.

Hopscotch Chef's Knife Fight

This week's episode of Knife Fight, Esquire TV's testosterone-fueled cooking reality show, featured a familiar face for fans of Hopscotch (1915 San Pablo Ave.), Oakland's Japanese-inspired diner: Chef Kyle Itani was one of the featured contestants.

This was Itani's first time dabbling in the world of televised cooking competitions. Itani said that while he's watched a few episodes of each of the best-known exemplars of the genre, he'd always found them too gimmicky for his liking. "I don't know when I'm ever going to cook with Skittles or gummy bears," he said.

But in the case of Knife Fight, the producers promised Itani that the show would focus on good ingredients and real cooking — not the interpersonal drama that other shows tend to emphasize. And according to Itani, the show, which is hosted by the brash Top Chef alum Ilan Hall at his Los Angeles restaurant, The Gorbals, mostly lived up to that billing.

Itani said there were only two mild surprises: One was that producers kept asking him to talk trash about the opposing chef ("Say how you're going to beat him so bad!"), which he didn't want to do. The second? Instead of, say, a cash prize, the winner of each episode only wins a big meat cleaver. (The loser gets a little cleaver.)

The episode, "Live Halibut" — in which Itani squares off against SoCal chef Jason Paluska in a battle involving collard greens, flowering cilantro, and, yes, live halibut (killed onscreen) — premiered Tuesday, August, 19. If you're curious to find out whether Itani was able to take home that big cleaver, check your cable listings to see when it will re-air.


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