Chop Bar is one of the cooler establishments you'll find in the greater Bay Area. Begin with the immediate neighborhood, Oakland's waterfront warehouse district, a once-teeming neighborhood of shrimpers, glassblowers, and freight trains that still offers plenty of retro-funky ambience — urban-renewal cafes and condos notwithstanding. The district's blue-collar heritage is strikingly captured in the restaurant's interior, where reclaimed wooden planks, exposed piping, and unfinished slate-black flooring give the place an industrial-chic vibe. A semicircular polished-wood counter is ideal for single dining, folksy/abstract/jazz-themed artworks adorn the walls, and if you happen to stroll in on a Tuesday evening you just might hear the wail of a saxophone and the plunk of a standup bass floating around the worn wood and the glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon.
It's located in a circa-1926 grocery warehouse where the late, lamented Mono served up noshes and wine until a year ago. The place reopened as Chop Bar, an all-day, everyday breakfast-lunch-dinner neighborhood hangout in early September and has earned a following for its early-morning coffee concoctions, its top-shelf lunchtime sandwiches, and its magnetic, low-key vibe. But despite a seasonal menu of freshly plucked ingredients in cutting-edge combinations and configurations, the food is closer in execution to the stevedore-friendly fare of the old waterfront than to that delicate purple-basil California cuisine stuff one has come to expect hereabouts. Chef Chris Pastena (of the equally hip Coda supper club in San Francisco's Mission District) serves up hearty dishes with lots of vibrant flavors. Sometimes the combinations work, sometimes the approach translates into too much heft, not enough purple basil.
Dinner begins with tapas-size appetizers like marinated olives, roasted almonds, the salad of the day, or (for larger appetites) platters of artisan cheeses, seafood, or charcuterie. The pepitas (tiny squash seeds roasted till crunchy and spiced with cumin and chili peppers) were irresistible, but the house-pickled carrots, scallions, and string beans were too soft and vinegary to stand on their own (they'd make a pretty good garnish, though).
The braised pork shank was our favorite entrée. Tender and luscious, with undertones of pepper and spice, it was served with juicy figs, sweet, spiky apricots, and a light sprinkle of fresh mint, giving the dish a perfectly complementary Mediterranean flavor. A crunchy wedge of nondescript polenta turned out to be the perfect foil for the rich, spicy pork. The other main dishes weren't up to the shank's standards. The braised chicken was tender and tasty enough, with a few al dente carrots tossed in for roughage, but the dish as a whole was overburdened with salt and gloppy caramelized onion. And savory sage-scented browned butter notwithstanding, the ponderous butternut-squash gnocchi were a far cry from the feathery, pillowy dumplings we were hoping for.
A selection of side-dish cazuelas (casseroles) complement the entrées. Especially tempting during the autumn months is a rich, comforting gratin of Yukon Gold potatoes and sharp, buttery Fiscalini, a limited-edition boutique cheddar out of Modesto. There's not much oomph to the crock of white beans and chorizo sausage, a wannabe-cassoulet with an overabundance of salt and not enough rich, slow-simmered flavor. The black kale cazuela was a conundrum: The leafy greens themselves were fresh, crisp, and peppery, but once again a heavy hand (in this case, big, burdensome breadcrumbs dosed with parmesan) overwhelmed a light and promising concept.
Two desserts were on the evening's menu. The crisp was packed with tender chunks of baked apple lightly touched with sugar and spice, but the dry, unexciting crumble on top could've used some extra butter or brown sugar. The Mexican chocolate pot de crème, on the other hand, boasted a light yet luscious texture and a hint of cinnamon that jazzed up the dark, earthy chocolate nicely.
Although the menu changes frequently, meat-free options abide. Breakfast items include vegetarian chilaquiles and frittatas as well as oatmeal, granola, and freshly baked muffins; there are garden salads and an eggplant panino at lunchtime; and the dinner menu might begin with house-marinated olives, a chanterelle-parmesan tart or a Gravenstein-blue-cheese salad as well as the pickles and pepitas. The gnocchi can be supplemented with an array of vegetarian-friendly cazuelas like the kale and the potato gratin, and the daily cheese platter is served with fruit, eggplant mostarda, and Acme sourdough.
The wine list features five selections stored on the premises in oxygen-free barrels and served by the glass, half-carafe, or carafe, a popular "new" trend that eliminates the middleman and all the cork-and-bottle folderol. In addition to the tapped wines (Hyde's 2008 Chardonnay, Miner's 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Preston Estate's 2008 Rhone blend, Diamond Mountain's 2007 Cab, and Saintsbury's 2008 Pinot Noir, a nice accompaniment to the pork) there are five bottles (three available by the glass) as well as a nice selection of beers, including Linden Street Brewery's bright, hoppy golden-hued Common Lager, crafted just up the street half a block from the Embarcadero.
Chop Bar is a swell place to hang out and enjoy a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, and the ebb and flow of the passing populace. (One wing of the dining room converts into an outdoor patio when the building's glass-paned garage doors are tucked into the ceiling.) The service is informed and attentive, and the setting is a delight. Once the cuisine lightens up and attains the cool brio of the setting, this will be a real culinary destination.