Remember when Chow opened on Church Street in 1997? It offered reasonably priced, unfussy American food to savvy diners who might not have been able to afford regular outings to Zuni. The neighborhood embraced the place. Everyone claimed to be a regular, and everyone had a crush on the waiter with the star tattoo.
Twenty years later, Chow is still standing, and the restaurant group has expanded into the suburbs, having survived a host of imitators. (Does Home ring any bells? It was demolished this year after lying derelict for some time, at one point becoming “home” to several homeless individuals). But Chow is no longer the destination, the first place you think of when going for a last-minute bite to eat — especially when you can get so distracted by the latest thing.
The second iteration of Mockingbird qualifies as the latest thing to be distracted by. Recently reopened in Downtown Oakland, its new and larger space speaks to the ambitions of the co-owners and chefs, Melissa Axelrod and William Johnson. The friendly spirit of the place hearkens back to those early years at Chow, and so does the menu’s comforting familiarity.
Fried Brussels sprouts ($12) top the starters list. Between a soup of the day ($9) and a duck liver mousse ($11), they were the dependable, if obvious, choice. The server emphasized the presence of saba — a pre-balsamic vinegar made from grape must — as a cooking ingredient and selling point. It added an almost-indiscernible touch of sweetness that dissolved on contact when speared with pebbles of blue cheese.
It’s the height of summer, and not having an appetizer with seasonal vegetables — an heirloom tomato salad, perhaps — felt like an ill-considered omission. There are, however, several entrée salads that should rightly be considered compensatory: a Caesar salad with steak, trout, or shaved vegetables ($12-16).
For something heartier, try the farmers market vegetable sandwich ($12). Eggplant, yellow squash, and red peppers have been grilled, roasted and pickled; the focaccia spread with a basil sauce and chickpea puree. Best to order them with a side of French fries ($6), because, as the menu puts it, “We take them seriously.” By this they mean crisp and golden. There wasn’t a greasy fry in the bunch.
The star of the entrees had to be the overnight pork sugo ($19). The chefs made polenta toast, a refined use of cornmeal that was an excellent vehicle to soak up the sauce. Arugula, pickled red onions, and a sheep’s milk cheese all lightened the dish. You could taste the season, of produce grown under the sun, right on the plate.
If only the desserts had been prepared with that same genuflection towards summer. Instead, they turned out to be cold intellectual exercises disguised as the real thing. In cookies & cream ($10), the crème diplomat was as solid as a rock. It’s meant to be a whipped cream folded into a custard, what you’d find in an éclair or profiteroles. The ganache was either absent or entirely undetectable. Crumbs of a black cocoa biscuit were glued into the domed crème, while a small, delicious fan of macerated strawberries weren’t given the attention they deserved. The dessert should have been a strawberry shortcake, made to accentuate the fruit.
The conception and execution of cake & ice cream ($10) also didn’t work. The angels’ food cake was terribly dry; the lemon thyme ice cream chalky and over-churned. In this respect, Chow’s plain and simple desserts remain infinitely more memorable (that ginger cake, or the flourless chocolate). The Mockingbird chefs are making clean, robust plates. They’re not reinventing salads, sandwiches, and steak-frites. A welcoming slice of pie a la mode doesn’t need to be reinvented, either.
Mockingbird, 416 13th St., Oakland, 510-290-0331 or mockingbirdoakland.com