Find yourself sitting on a peasant-chic bench under a lamp constructed of white plaster antlers, looking out twelve-foot-tall windows at an Edwardian street scene, and it's hard not to be impressed with B Restaurant. The four-month-old place is austere and dramatic in a Design Within Reach style few other Oakland restaurants have dared embrace, and it's a showcase for the neighborhood Old Oakland yearns to become. Or, rather, it will be -- with a little more polish.
Owners Misty Rasche, Kevin Best, and Don Harbison, friends who moved to the Bay Area from North Carolina together four years ago, already have one successful restaurant in San Francisco, a lunch place in the Financial District called Boxed Foods Company. For restaurant number two (or B, as it were) they traversed the bridge and settled on the corner of 9th and Washington streets, starting with what they already knew -- lunches for execs -- and expanding into full-service dinner.
The space they took over, like the neighborhood surrounding it, has always been gorgeous, but never so epic. The trio restored a mosaic in the entryway, and now it's a baroque flourish to the high-modernist decor. Like spotlights, massive abstract paintings -- one a vortex of golds and grays, the other a square of pure crimson -- illuminate just how high the charcoal-colored walls are. A long black table, just the size for a coronation banquet, dominates the left half of the dining room. Bordering the windows is a fleet of smaller tables, topped with translucent slabs of plastic that trap enough of the room's ambient light to glow softly. Opposite the front doors, a long bar counter looks into the heart of the restaurant, an open kitchen organized around the mouth of a wood-fired oven.
It's a room to make you feel a little taller, a little richer, a little more plugged in. And when you pick the right dishes, you can keep basking in the illusion. Baby artichokes, for one, are coated in extra-virgin olive oil and roasted in the oven until the outer leaves char and the flesh becomes almost creamy. A squeeze of lemon, a few breadcrumbs and Parmesan shavings on top, and the artichokes are potently dressed. A slab of feta cheese came out of the oven heaped with green olives, roasted peppers, and cherry tomatoes, each ingredient more showy than the next.
The grilled Duroc pork chop, as thick as a paperback copy of Bleak House and a rosy medium inside, was possibly the juiciest chop I've eaten in months. It came with sautéed Brussels sprouts and a squash-parsnip hash fried in bacon fat, calling forth an atavistic wild-boar-roasted-over-the-fire contentment that can only have come from my Visigoth forebears. What's Duroc? Well, foodies are making a lot of noise recently about Berkshire pork, a once-common breed of hog prized for its marbling and its hardiness, which was edged out by cross-breeds better suited to factory farming. Duroc is simply another re-emerging "heritage" breed. Most farm-raised hogs contain some Duroc genes, but the purebreds are earning the cachet.
As for dessert, B's chocolate-walnut bread pudding successfully sidesteps the law requiring every restaurant to serve warm chocolate cake. Each bite of the pudding was moist, nutty, and saturated with dark chocolate.
You ask, hmm, can I put together the same meal when I go there? Don't consult the menu -- bring your crystal ball. Good converts to Californianism, B's owners focus on seasonal produce, use as much organic produce as they can, and change the menu frequently. Sometimes they even tweak it between the time you order your food and the time you receive it.
I first stopped in six weeks ago, just as summer's tomatoes and eggplants were fading away. My friends and I spotted a number of discrepancies between our three menus, and asked the server about them. "Oh, the menu's in transition," she said. "Some of these items aren't even correct, because the chefs have changed them." She pointed out a few that she thought were unavailable, then left. A minute later, she sidled back. "I just wanted to add that if the chefs make a change, it's for the better."
But substituting an overcooked, grilled chicken breast for "roasted chicken" without telling us was not an improvement, especially since there was little seasoning and no sauce to dress the tough meat, just a scattering of chopped basil and tarragon by way of an apology. (Side note: newer menus do advertise the chicken as "grilled.") Two plump crabcakes, delicately pressed together and coated in a fine layer of breadcrumbs, were lovely, but the fried green tomatoes that were advertised to be underneath were replaced by sweet ripe red tomatoes that fell apart in the oil and missed the point.
After that meal I decided that the owners needed more time to settle in, and returned a month later, spotting clear signs of improvement. Our greeting was warm and immediate, and our server wasn't quite as cavalier as the last. Open and smiling, she pretended to be low-key but monitored the table closely, checking in at just the right moments. When we noted that the kitchen had pulled another switcheroo, she scared up the part of the entrée that had disappeared.
On balance, though, the cooks don't appear to think through the composition of their plates, so much of B's food muddles its way between okay and good, garnished with whatever vegetables seem to be on hand. One mixed-green salad packed a few too many contrasting ingredients between the leaves, but it was nicely dressed. The flavors of the sautéed mushrooms, corn, grilled onions, and goat cheese on one flatbread fit together snugly, but the bread itself turned out to be a limp crepe. For a roasted vegetable plate, the cooks surrounded a pile of al dente orzo pasta with char-edged red bell peppers, cremini mushrooms, sunburst squash -- and a portobello mushroom sopping with balsamic vinegar. The kitchen does, however, have a particular gift for red meat: A flank steak, thinly sliced and topped with Gorgonzola, was cooked as perfectly as the pork.
B reminds me of Clark Gable, who started off a charismatic actor from the Midwest whose big ears and high-pitched voice resigned him to bit parts. Then he got hitched to an acting coach who made him cap his teeth, get his ears pinned, and wrestle his voice into a more manly register. B clearly wants to be a star, and has the raw beauty and affable vibe to become one. Now all that's wanting is some finesse.