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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

It Takes A Village: Chowhaus Charms in the Oakland Hills

Posted By on Wed, Sep 2, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Chilaquiles - NATHANIEL WILLIAMS
  • Nathaniel Williams
  • Chilaquiles

Stepping inside the Chowhaus doorway in Oakland’s Montclair Village is disorienting at first. It briefly feels like you’ve walked onto a movie set, albeit one that’s disguised with an enormous amount of charm: The retro-farmhouse chic is comfortable and inviting, and there are skylights and open windows with sunshine pouring in from every direction. If architectural spaces have a spirit, then the one in residence at Chowhaus is benevolent and welcoming. Once you’re seated and soaking in the atmosphere, it’s impossible not to experience the sunniest sense of déjà vu, the certainty that you’ve eaten here before. A leisurely weekday luncheon with a favorite girlfriend; those family dinners celebrating someone’s accomplishment; a romantic first brunch on the late morning after.

click to enlarge Cinnamon French Toast and other brunch plates - NATHANIEL WILLIAMS
  • Nathaniel Williams
  • Cinnamon French Toast and other brunch plates

Tracey Belock and her husband Joe Schnell opened Chowhaus at the end of May. Both are accomplished chefs with impressive resumés. Since they also live in Montclair with their three kids, they're clearly invested in making the place a long-term success. After months of refurbishing and re-imagining the former Montclair Bistro, they’ve designed a neighborhood restaurant with the credo of Bay Area chefs — Local, Seasonal, Sustainable — imprinted on the skin of every ingredient.

click to enlarge Kitchen - NATHANIEL WILLIAMS
  • Nathaniel Williams
  • Kitchen
The varied brunch menu described a starter of rice croquettes ($9) served with English peas, cheese, and pesto. There were no peas, however. Instead, what that crunchy exterior and luscious, oozy inside contained was corn, napping on a bed of dressed arugula and endive. While not unwelcome, when you're looking forward to the sight of bright green English peas, a yellow niblet of corn is a momentary letdown.

After ordering the chilaquiles ($12), there was sufficient warning given about the profusion of lime cooked within the dish, which was only remarkable if you aren’t a fan of citrus. The farm egg was prepared sunny side up but deserved the option of a scramble or a poach. Fussy diners like the idea of being given a choice, to satisfy the need for an egg of one’s own, to honor a particular approach of adding it into the mix of creamy beans, the tang of tomatillo salsa and slices of ripened avocado. 

click to enlarge Frittata with roasted vegetables - NATHANIEL WILLIAMS
  • Nathaniel Williams
  • Frittata with roasted vegetables
The cinnamon French toast ($11) promised strawberries and maple syrup, arriving á table with said syrup already poured in brodo. Thankfully, the bread itself, made in-house, was not too sweet,
but self-service syrup should be mandatory on any breakfast menu. On the savory side, a frittata ($11) with roasted vegetables was well-seasoned, fluffy and nicely browned on the outside.

These dishes are thoughtful and fresh, executed with some minor, forgivable flaws. They also hint at the pleasures of returning for lunch (BBQ pork sandwich), and, later in the week again for dinner (pork chop, German potato salad). In other words, you'll want to become a regular. Think of Chowhaus, protected from all the urban hustle in its hidden village, as the restaurant the hungry Von Trapp family would find after they climb over that Austrian alp at the very end of The Sound of Music, sans lederhosen and Maria’s endless need to sing.

Chowhaus, 6118 Medau Place, Oakland, 510-339-3395
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