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Box & Bells and The Dock: Oakland Star Restaurateur James Syhabout Has Two More Hits on His Hands 

Tuesday, Sep 30 2014

The meal starts with something innocuous, a dish of spiced almonds or a small bowl of popcorn ($5 each), a few bites designed to whet the appetite as you sip your cocktails and decide what to eat for dinner. But the snacks quickly commandeer the attention of the table. The smoked almonds are coated in pepperoni spices, the popcorn tastes like a freshly made Caesar salad. These plays on typical American flavors are a big part of the draw at chef/restauranteur James Syhabout's two most recent Oakland restaurants, Box & Bells and The Dock at Linden Street. If only the rest of the menus fully lived up to the promise in their first few bites.

Syhabout is to Oakland what Thomas McNaughton (flour + water, Central Kitchen, Salumeria) is to San Francisco: a restauranteur whose expansion hasn't hindered his dedication to excellence. The chef made a name for himself early on when his first restaurant, Piedmont's Commis, was granted a Michelin star despite only having been open for a few months. Syhabout's second restaurant, the Thai-focused Hawker Fare, won the hearts of Oaklanders for its homey, simple food that showed the chef's roots in Thai culture and cuisine.

His third restaurant, Southern-ish gastropub Box & Bells, opened last fall to great fanfare. It's a nice space in the heart of Rockridge, if a bit gloomy in some corners thanks to its preference for dark wood. But there are big windows looking out onto College Avenue, a long bar for people to congregate, and a lovely back patio for taking advantage of the East Bay's mild weather.

The menu is long, but you can order a lot because most of the items are small plates, basically tapas. Two of us ate our way through six of them and were ready for more, making this a good spot for nibbly fare and cocktails as you're waiting for a table at nearby Zachary's or Ramen Bar, though you can also gorge yourself on bigger-ticket items like a Gruyere and caramelized onion burger ($17), or massive pork chop with a whiskey-brown sugar glaze ($28). The prices are high, especially considering the small portions; it's easy to rack up a sizable bill in a hurry. At least you're eating inventive and well-balanced food while you're doing it.

In particular, I was struck by a beautifully composed salad of seared local albacore, tender cauliflower florets, smoked date, mint, and preserved lemon vinaigrette ($13). It was bright and briny, wonderful for a warm afternoon. A watermelon salad laced with cayenne walked the sweet/spicy line with confidence ($12), while an order of poutine with velvety blood sausage gravy was intensely meaty ($15). And those smoked almonds with pepperoni spices were as zesty and satisfying as a meat stick from an Italian deli, without any of the pork-infused guilt.

My only real disappointment was the fried chicken ($15), hunks of boneless-skinless meat that could have used a minute more in the oven (they were cooked through, but still had a whisper of that telltale jiggly texture). They were accompanied by a raw oyster aioli dipping sauce which tasted intensely of the sea, and not in a way that I wanted to pair with my fried chicken. But it was a rare misstep on a menu that takes lot of risks.

I encountered many of the same pleasures at The Dock at Linden Street, Syhabout's latest restaurant and a partnership with West Oakland's Linden Street Brewery. It's an odd triangle of a restaurant inside the old brick brewery, replete with our age's requisite Edison bulbs and reclaimed wood. Next door is the Beer Shed, which sells Linden Street's excellent brews and a few menu snacks, like that garlicky, lemony, anchovy-rich Caesar salad popcorn. The small-plates menu is meant to complement the beer, and again, the portions are small for the prices. A few dishes overlap with Box & Bells, but there were more missteps here, maybe because it's only been open a few months.

There were still many beautiful things. Grilled Monterey squid, firm but not rubbery, was cut into ringlets and served in a ramekin with purslane and a lusty puttanesca-like sauce ($11). The lingcod po'boy ($13) had perfect fried fish ­— the flesh firm, the crust shatteringly crisp, the line between them blurred ­— and vinegary slaw on a soft bun. And I loved the flavors in the lamb riblets ($17), with their earthy curry sauce sparking off a lime pickle. I could have eaten it all night, except the lamb ribs had way more fat than meat, and picking through it all took an annoying amount of time and attention.

I wasn't as enamored with the fancy take on onion rings, alternating slices of onion and fennel deep-fried and served with a crème fraiche dip topped with trout roe ($12). The sauce seemed to have no seasoning and the rings had too much batter and oil on them; after one bite, the rest of the plate sat uneaten. I also didn't agree with the booze pairings. A too-sweet Belgian triple was recommended for the lamb, but was so malty that it muscled the curry flavor out of the way instead of complementing it, and an enthusiastic recommendation for orange-flavored rum to pair with a caramel ice cream sundae was a disaster.

Then there's the restaurant's location, which is romantic for the same reasons it's inconvenient — it's deep in industrial Oakland, surrounded by warehouses and soundtracked by the occasional lonely whistle as a train goes by. The restaurant hums with self-generated energy, though, and the many Linden Street beers on tap are a draw of their own. Lucky them, to have Syhabout's food as a wingman.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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