The Upscale Comfort Food at Duchess Is a Work in Progress 

But the pastries are sublime. Our critic reviews Rockridge's new all-day pub.

The fried chicken batter was extra-craggy and extra-crunchy.

Bert Johnson

The fried chicken batter was extra-craggy and extra-crunchy.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Duchess, the new all-day pub in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood, is the design.

Handsome, custom-made wooden dining chairs must weigh fifty pounds each, even if they look like they're sized for children — a curse for the ample-bottomed. Along one wall, arched lamps that resemble droopy flowers light up a row of diner-style booths. The place has a kind of storybook motif, if the curlicue lettering of the restaurant's logo is any indication. Everything looks very, very expensive.

Duchess is a collaboration between two first-time restaurateurs: Chris Strieter, a wine-industry entrepreneur, and Caroline Conner, who has worked in wine distribution and as a private cook, and did a brief stint as a pastry chef at Nopa in San Francisco a couple years ago. Initially, the two wanted to open a small wine shop in Rockridge — but then the two-story Pizza Rustica and Conga Lounge spot became available, with its "unicorn" full liquor license. And so Strieter and Conner, who lives just three blocks away from the restaurant, started plotting something more ambitious: a hybrid cafe-pub that would serve house-made pop tarts, bake its own bread, and pretty much stay open all the time.

As it turns out, I caught Duchess at a particularly awkward moment in its infancy: the early weeks of a chef change that took place just one month after the restaurant's December debut. Gone, then, were all of the splashy dishes I had read about during the restaurant's pre-opening PR barrage — the "55-hour" pastrami, the doughnuts stuffed with foie gras, the "crab fries," and the comically oversized fried-chicken cutlet served on a dainty burger bun.

Instead, I'd describe my meals at Duchess as tidy, upscale California comfort food. Much of it was reasonably tasty, if quite a bit more restrained than what I was expecting. The Caesar salad riffed on the original by replacing the usual croutons and chopped anchovies with anchovy bread crumbs — a subtle innovation that added a big, salty-briny flavor punch. It was served bracingly cold, as any good Caesar ought to be.

The Duchess Burger was squat and compact, served on a house-made bun. Most of the burger's flavor came from the caramelized onion topping. The beef patty itself had a slightly gristly texture and wasn't particularly juicy or flavorful, especially considering its 30 percent fat content and the fact that the kitchen grinds the meat in-house. The side of "crispy fries" weren't particularly crispy.

And the old fried chicken sandwich had been replaced by a new version that was the spitting image of a kind of sandwich you'll find all over Oakland. Call it the "Bakesale Betty," if you will: a (standard-size) fried chicken breast with coleslaw and Sriracha aioli on a torpedo-shaped sourdough roll. The most enjoyable part was the chicken batter, which was extra-craggy and extra-crunchy, and had a whisper of curry flavor.  

Everything was competently executed, down to the enjoyably lemony and herbaceous vodka-and-Lillet-Blanc cocktail that rounded out the meal. And the menu checked off enough boxes to win a game of American Gastropub bingo: the nice-ish burger, the fried chicken variant, and the obligatory salad. And yet the whole time, I couldn't shake a feeling of uncertainty about what exactly the restaurant was trying to be, who it was for, and under what circumstances you'd choose to have a sit-down dinner there.

Part of that is par for the course for any eating and drinking establishment that straddles the line between bar and restaurant. On the one hand, the level of service was much more fastidious than I'd expect at a pub, and included such attention to detail as the sweeping away of stray crumbs between courses. On the other hand, we were sitting in those tiny chairs, and the dinner menu was limited — the only non-sandwich entrées were an eggplant parmesan and a salmon-and-quinoa dish — and expensive for what it was. You could chalk the $15 and $17 price tags, for the burger and fried chicken sandwich respectively, to the cost of doing business in Rockridge. Then again, Oaklanders have the option of going to a place like Kronnerburger, where you can get a more memorable burger and fried chicken sandwich at a slightly lower price point — or, if you prefer, to spend that same $15 on two-and-a-half (superior-tasting) cheeseburgers at Good Time Fixins. When you're serving the same kind of elevated comfort food as every other bar in the city, how much do you have to elevate things if you really want to stand out from the crowd?

A necessary caveat is that my meals at Duchess came at a time when the new chef, Matty Napps, a former sous chef at The Dock, had only just begun putting his own stamp on the menu. The burger and the fried chicken sandwich were updated versions of holdovers from the previous kitchen regime. The current dinner menu (which you can view on the restaurant's website) includes a full array of entrées and non-bar-snacky appetizers. There's salmon tartare, a pork chop plate, farro risotto, and more.

According to Conner, the quick chef change was sparked, in part, by a feeling that the neighborhood wanted them to serve more vegetables and less fried food than they had during the first month they were open. For now, it's probably better if you think of Duchess as an upscale neighborhood watering hole rather than a destination restaurant. Conner explained that the all-day aspect of the place was a big part of the vision for the place, born out of her sense that this particular stretch of Rockridge, well south of the BART station, had a shortage of places that served lunch, or American-style breakfast and brunch, or nice third-wave coffee. (Duchess, for its part, brews Sightglass coffee beans.)

Given Rockridge's reputation in some corners for being "Stroller City," Conner and Strieter also wanted to create a kid-friendly pub — one that, despite the preciousness of the decor, has a full slate of board games available for kiddos and grown-ups alike. That's part of the reason why they're thinking about rebranding their happy hour as more of an "after school hour" when parents can swing by for a bite after picking up their little ones. Conner noted that it's a rather lucrative niche market to tap into, too: "The moms around here drink wine at lunch."

Indeed, a subsequent breakfast visit convinced me that Duchess's daytime offerings are what set the place apart. It was a rare treat to walk in to have breakfast tacos at 9 a.m. on a Sunday and not, at least for now, have any line to contend with. (Strieter pointed out that there's a whole separate bar area upstairs, in the former Conga Lounge space, that can serve as an overflow area on days when it does get busy.)

And it was probably no coincidence that all of the best things I ate were the pastries and desserts, which Conner oversees along with baker Hugo Peralta. For dessert, there was, for instance, one of the better bread puddings I've had in recent memory — oozy, crisp-edged, and wholly decadent even before accounting for the butterscotch sauce drizzled on top.

Meanwhile, in the mornings, the thing to get are Conner's Rock Tarts, which were like a flaky, square-shaped cross between a pop tart and a turnover. There was a sweet version with the same kind of filling as an apple pie. Even better were the sesame seed-flecked savory ones, which were filled with bacon and caramelized onions, and reminded me, somehow, of the char siu pastries served at dim sum restaurants.

Available every morning that the restaurant is open, these kid-friendly pastries, as much as anything else, are a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

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