Taste of the Town

Chop Bar Bound


This Eatery Captures an Authentic Oakland Experience

     For a restaurant to become a steady favorite, it has to gratify all the senses (and not dramatically displease any). But in addition to delicious tastes and smells, agreeable visual surroundings and sonic ambiance, and touch-pleasing chairs, linens and flatware, there’s a harder-to-pinpoint sensation that can make all the difference. It’s best described as “ease” — something more than comfort, something less sensational than pleasure. Chop Bar has ease down pat.
     In the two years since Chop Bar replaced the relatively short-lived Mono (and Cuckoo’s Nest before that), owners Lev Delany and Chris Pastena have established just what they were after when they chose their business name. According to the restaurant’s website, “A chop bar, in West African parlance, is a roadside bar/restaurant that also serves as a gathering place for the community.” In terms of the immediate vicinity, the Chop Bar community comprises residents, artists and workers in the emergent Jack London Square warehouse-loft district. During a couple of early evening dinners and a midweek lunch, that demographic filled the house — a cozy dining room made bigger by a large communal table and outdoor seating area.
     But Chop Bar should qualify as “local” to anyone within a 20- or 30-minute drive, thanks to a menu that bridges the homey and the haute, in some cases on the same plate; a bar that serves up choice cocktails, nearly a dozen artisan beers and good wines by the glass and bottle and on tap; and the all-important ease factor, the contentment that allows a diner to experience the more tangible sensory pleasures in the relaxed mode that should be the setting for any meal.
     During our visits to Chop Bar, the sense of well-being began with easy street parking and was reinforced by a friendly greeting and swift seating. It was strengthened throughout the meals by amiable but never overbearing service that made the tiny shortcomings — bland roasted almonds ($4), a chopped salad ($9) that didn’t add up to more than OK, a too-sweet Sazerac ($8) and a few long gaps between courses — inconsequential in the grand scheme.
     Ease arises from the confidence of restaurateurs and chefs. Delany and Pastena and crew don’t take the décor or the cuisine casually, but neither do they overreach. The interior achieves an informal harmony of reclaimed woods (rustic boards on the walls, large-square parquet tabletops), folksy art pieces, quirky lamps and comfy black leather banquettes, high-backed chairs and bar seats (about a dozen of them around the half-circle bar that connects to a counter at the kitchen). It feels like a club that’s open to anybody who walks through the broad and beckoning rollup warehouse door. One evening, we sat outside that door on a narrow patio, at a long wooden counter that faced the street. As the setting sun turned the sky pink and orange to welcome the rising full moon, I thought, these guys know how to capture an authentic Oakland experience.
     Perhaps more critically, almost all the food hits the right notes at acceptable price points. On the cocktail front, we were able to nurse a fine Bulleit bourbon Manhattan ($9) and a rich Zaya 12-year rum mai tai ($10) through entire meals. When it came to dessert, a huge 3-cubic-inch block of warm chocolate chunk bread pudding ($6), crunchy with nibs and dripping with dark, bittersweet sauce, was more than enough for two.
     Generosity was consistently the rule rather than the exception with serving sizes. Take the “starter” dish of slow-roasted pork ribs ($12), served in a mini cast-iron skillet with a caramelized apple au jus. The five meaty, nearly chop-sized portions inspired Robin to break a lifelong ribs fast. It was a conversion moment. The individual PEI mussels ($14) might not have been big, but there were a lot of them in the fragrant saffron–white wine-orange juice broth.
     Then there was the meat loaf ($18), another dish Robin eschews because she’s good about her diet, and because she made an unsurpassable version when she operated Ozzie’s soda fountain. Consider those reservations moot. This luscious, share-able, 1-inch-thick slab leaned against a mountainous cheddar-Serrano chili biscuit, swam in smoky Col. Newsom’s ham gravy and took heart-healthy cover in a side of perfectly cooked seasonal green beans. Right-thinkers will petition Chop Bar to keep this on the menu forever.
     The same goes for the pork confit and Red Flint polenta ($18) and the Chop Bar burger ($12). The former resembles a heap of fatty pulled pork atop a large white bowl of creamy/crunchy polenta, a tour de force of flavor and texture, dotted with cherry and sun gold tomato halves and crowned with pea sprouts. The burger, a thick, juicy Niman Ranch patty nudged over the top with bacon, avocado, heirloom tomato, aioli and a choice of cheese on an Acme Kaiser roll, deserves its rep as one of Oakland’s best.
     During those two dinners and one modest lunch — where I munched a tangy Vietnamese-inspired bahn mi ($8.50) with grilled pork, cilantro, chilies and Thai basil aioli on a soft torpedo roll, while my dining companion downed a classic Reuben ($9.50) with corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese spilling out from between two slices of Acme dark rye — I caught tantalizing glimpses of many dishes I coveted, most notably Fatted Calf charcuterie ($15), tri-tip chimichurri ($18), pan-seared king salmon ($22), crusty macaroni and cheese ($7) and a magnificent strawberry shortcake ($6). And I heard tell of the monthly Chop Bar pig roast held at Linden Street Brewery.
     Because Chop Bar provides both the comfort and the food to make it an immediate favorite, finding my way back to dig into all those offerings should be easy.

Chop Bar. American. 247 4th St., No. 111, Oakland, (510) 834-2467.
Serves breakfast and lunch Mon.–Fri., brunch Sat.–Sun., dinner nightly, pig roast on the third Sunday of every month. $$-$$$. www.oaklandchopbar.com.