“At the sight of the kilt, with the silver-topped sporran hanging from his waist, the ivory-handled dirk in his heavy sack, the tartan thrown over one shoulder and pinned with the laird’s badge, she heard a lone man playing the bagpipes.”
So reads the first page of Jude Devereaux’s The Duchess, which is available for your perusal along with some other bodice-rippers (as well as Yahtzee and Scrabble) when you’re waiting to eat at Duchess in Rockridge.
And wait you might. The barely month-old restaurant, which as of this writing is open Wednesdays through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., takes reservations for parties of six or more and technically serves only one menu (i.e., what you pick from for dinner on Thursday is what you choose among for Sunday brunch, although individual items rotate). That will change, but during the early-morning hours, it’s largely coffee and pastries for now — which means that by the time the kitchen opens at noon, nearly every seat has a tush in it. Be warned, though, that the kitchen may close as early as 8 p.m., so San Franciscans ought to get on BART by a little after seven. (On one visit, we were the last to be seated.)
Assuming you make it, you’ll find in Duchess a restaurant whose aspirations might be characterized as “neighborhood-plus.” It’s cozy, no doubt, but there’s enough personality to the food that it’s clear this kitchen wants to be appreciated beyond the immediate environs. Apart from the fact that all the meat is cured in-house (and all the bread and pastries are made on-site as well), the most obvious evidence is the “famous chicken sandwich” ($17), for which the meat is pounded so thinly, sticking out in all directions, that the bun looks like a beanie. There’s a zig-zagging seismogram of hot sauce on there, too, dressing up the high batter-to-chicken ratio — it’s double-dipped — with plenty of zest.
If you want to get a little more traditional, the 55-hour pastrami sandwich ($18) aims to give New York delis a run for their money. It was good on one visit, and better the next, the chief difference being the bread, which felt steamed by the meat, the kraut, and the onions. It held up better on the following go-round, retaining better crunch. I’d prefer a whole pickle to three or four chips, but they’re bordering on thermonuclear — and the total package is well-executed, the pastrami salty and lean. A wild pig sandwich ($15) was a bit aioli-heavy for my taste, and would have been all the better if the baguette had been toasted, but the apple and pickled fennel riding atop the prosciutto and arugula balanced everything out.
There are fries. They may be truffle fries nearly cobwebby with cheese ($8), or they may be Dungeness crab fries ($18) with a crab shell sitting atop the heap like a crested gladiator helmet. Either way, they were golden-brown without fail, every time. If you see something called The Donut ($9), go for it: It’s got chicken-liver mousse inside and huckleberry compote beside it, an acid- ic-fatty combo that could never fail.
But for dessert, a humble chocolate chip cookie dressed up with foie gras is all the more decadent for being dubiously sweet. If that’s too much, bread pudding is always the answer, and this $8 number is gooey-saturated, plunged hip-deep in a reservoir of bourbon-caramel sauce.
Considering all the meh, low-ABV drinks proliferating out there, this all-$12 cocktail list punches above its weight. Two bourbon-based drinks, the luscious Bastogne and the acidic Everybody Knows, could not be more different: The former is smoothed down with Nocino (a walnut liqueur) and walnut bitters, while the latter is sharpened by Cynar 70 and a bracing dose of egg white. A Mojave-dry mezcal martini, the Bitter and Twisted is better suited to dinner than brunch — I’m not exactly a lightweight, and it got me pretty sussed — while the Yankee Clipper is a soft, palatable variation on a Negroni, with Maraschino in lieu of Campari.
Irrespective of the materials they chose, something about Duchess’ interior has a DIY, mismatched-dishes feel, more like a cafe some college friends in the ’90s put together. The board games are one thing, but the place is full of walnut and other wood, much of it carved by friends of Duchess. Its lighting is a little helter-skelter — the dining room is prettier with natural light — but in the aggregate, it’s warm enough and friendly enough to be a date spot, with cheery tile and enough sound dampeners to keep the music audible and other people’s chitchat mum. Upstairs, a second room (complete with bar) serves as overflow, but it’s got an outdoor area that makes it suitable for parties.
Co-founder Chris Strieter, who’s also a principal at Occidental’s Senses Wines, might pass through the dining room, schmoozing and offering a taste of his austere, high-acid-and-low-body Pinot Noir from the Sonoma coast. If you find yourself deeply immersed in the game of Settlers of Catan you started while waiting to be seated, you’d do well to look up. This Duchess might not be altogether regal, but she knows how to take good care of you.
Duchess, 5422 College Ave., Oakland 510-871-3463 or duchessoakland.com