I’ll go ahead and admit that I was skeptical about Duchess Oakland, the new all-day pub in Rockridge that opened in the former location of Café Rustica on College Avenue. The catch-all, eclectic pub menu seems, at first glance, to scream “late aughts dining,” what with its emphasis on fried food and cheese-y, bacon-y excess. And the concept seemed too tailored to young, yuppified families to be more than just a solid neighborhood joint.
I was wrong, of course.
Duchess, in its vibe, is absolutely tailored to the neighborhood, but the food is miles away from boring. It is, in fact, quite good, even in its excess.
Take the fried chicken sandwich ($15). It looks absurd, with an insanely large, flattened chicken breast, heartily breaded and drizzled with hot sauce, sandwiched in a cute little sesame seeded bun. (The sandwich seems a clear reference to the Midwest’s pork tenderloin sandwich, which also has breaded, fried wings of meat.) There’s some slaw and mayo in there too, but really, this is a fried chicken platter, dressed with sandwich fixings. Good thing the chicken is expertly seasoned and perfectly fried. Pro-tip: Attack the overhanging chicken with a knife and fork first before getting your hands dirty.
Another surprise was how, well, refined the restaurant’s signature donut ($9) turned out to be. It’s a savory affair, filled with chicken liver mousse and served with huckleberry preserves. The donut itself is greaseless and light, with just enough mousse inside to taste of the stuff without being overwhelming. Its small size also helps — share the appetizer and you’ll get one or two bites, which happens to be just the right amount.
Executive chef Candice Caris has also managed to make Caesar salad seem fresh and new. At first glance, the salad ($10) appears average, but the lightly dressed baby romaine leaves hide a generous slab of brioche toast, which itself is drizzled with dressing and studded with capers. The flavors are all Caesar, but the “giant crouton” adds a surprising textural dimension to the dish.
Those mourning the loss of the ruben from Stag’s Lunchette (which closed this summer) would be wise to try the 55-hour pastrami sandwich with house kraut and caramelized onions on pumpernickel bread ($16). It’s just a little too salty, but otherwise a highly satisfying take on the form.
And if you happen to like broiled oysters, the Duchess kitchen takes care to just warm them through as their pub cheese and bacon topping melts and bubbles ($11 for 3). (There are also raw oysters on the menu served with hot sauce and lemon — $9 for three.)
Drinks are a strong focus of the restaurant. Co-owners Caroline Conner and Chris Strieter are both wine folks, and they have curated a short, accessible wine list with a focus on food-friendly old-world choices. Beer, which is a more obvious pairing with much of the sandwich-heavy dinner menu, also appears on a short, well-curated list of both local and far-flung brews.
The cocktail list comes courtesy of Christopher Parks and David Curiel (Hideout at Dalva in San Francisco), and it tends towards clear, bracing spirits. The house Duchess cocktail ($12) is a winner, with St. George Botanica gin, Rancio Banyuls (a fortified wine), orgeat, lemon and Orleans bitters. For mezcal lovers, the Bitter & Twisted ($12), a twist on a martini, is likewise a good choice.
We expect to be drinking even more at Duchess once it opens its second floor bar, which will take the place of the Conga Lounge tiki bar. Strieter told us that construction on the upstairs has taken even longer than the restaurant because of the many quirks of the tiki space. It should open soon, he said, and will serve the same menu in a more lounge-like atmosphere.
Want to break out of your comfort zone and try a new place to have dinner tonight? Check out the Nosh Neighborhood Guides to some our favorite eating and imbibing spots.