Nora Dunning, the chef at the brand new West Oakland café Drip Line, isn’t exactly sure how to describe her food. “It isn’t Singaporean,” she said. It’s not really Californian food either.
Her colorful dishes, which run the gamut from fried chicken sandwiches dripping with herb aioli to comforting, healthy vegetable congee, do have Singaporean flavors — spicy, sour, funky and bright.
Most have a base in a version of her mother’s sambal, a heady chile paste laced with shallots, galangal, lemongrass and countless other aromatics. Dunning makes use of other Singaporean and Indonesian staples, like kecap manis, a precursor to ketchup, and pandan, an aromatic leaf that adds nutty, grassy, Jasmine rice-like flavor to many dishes.
But Dunning also makes abundant use of local, very local, ingredients. Much of her produce comes from nearby City Slicker Farm (she’s planning to bring seeds of new-to-Oakland Asian vegetables to the farmers to up her vegetable game) and the actual dishes themselves span multiple cultures and countries.
There’s the aforementioned fried chicken ($13) that takes a 24 hour dip in a tenderizing marinade made with koji, the mold used to make miso and soy sauce, before being sandwiched between two lofty pieces of housemade brioche. It is not hawker stall chicken, by any means.
Then there’s Dunning’s shrimp and grits: Nubbly and nutty Anson Mills grits simmer with coconut milk to form the dish’s base, which is topped with saucy coconut sambal shrimp and a fried egg ($13). It is, Dunning said, Singapore’s nasi lemak (coconut rice with toppings), as seen through the lens of the American South.
And there are the croissants — demure in size but bold in flavor, they’ve got a thick, shattering crust that gives way to a buttery center. A very slight tang hints at the pastry’s leavener — sourdough — which gives all of the café house-made breads their lift.
The menu at Drip Line could be considered, then, fusion of the best sort. Dunning pulls in many different ingredients and techniques to play with the food of her Singaporean upbringing.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What on earth is a “drip line” and what does it have to do with food? And why are so many food bloggers clamoring to get to the brand-new slip of a café a block off of West Grand?
Drip Line opened on Feb. 14 on a very industrial block in West Oakland. It was designed and opened by architects Carrie Shores and Josh Larson, who have an office upstairs. The partners met Dunning while she was working at the now-closed Monkey Forest Road in Grand Lake and trying to introduce Singaporean flavors into the food in the store’s café space.
Dunning then went on to work for Farley’s and Blue Bottle Coffee before Shores and Larson brought her on to run the kitchen at Drip Line, which is named for the path over which water travels as it runs off buildings and onto the ground. (As I said, the café is owned by architects.) “Drip Line is about providing a place for unexpected paths to connect,” said Shores in a statement. “We want to create a place in Oakland, outside of the closed off warehouses for those connections to happen.”
True to this idea, the café itself is extremely warm and welcoming, despite its minimal decor and stark surroundings. Dunning is a cheerful presence, walking through the space and chatting with guests.
She learned how to cook behind the stove with her mother in Singapore and later attended the San Francisco Baking Institute. At once a product of Southeast Asia and the Bay Area, Dunning makes use of as much local produce as possible, while also experimenting with new techniques and flavor pairings (see: koji marinated chicken).
Dunning invited Nosh in for a complementary lunch this week, and we were generally very impressed. Both the fried chicken and the shrimp and grits were favorites, as was the congee ($9), which was made with brown rice and a colorful array of perfectly cooked vegetables.
Less successful was the chicken rice ($13). Dunning has made an intentional from traditional Hainanese poached chicken rice, which is often served at room temperature with white rice, just cooked skin-on chicken, a cup of broth, and a dipping sauce. Dunning’s rice, on the other hand, is whole grain and stained yellow with turmeric, and the chicken pieces are boneless thighs slicked with a soy-based glaze. Both the rice and the chicken are cooked in chicken broth, as is traditional, but I missed the slick of fat coating the grains of rice, as well as the wobbly poached chicken skin that tops most other versions. (I do acknowledge that I may be in the minority of American diners when it comes to wobbly chicken skin.) The flavors are bold and satisfying, and the chicken itself is cooked perfectly, but it didn’t quite come together as a singular dish. Even just a little more fat would have done wonders.
From the bakery counter, we also tried a thick slice of vegan banana bread in addition to the (delicious) croissants. The banana bread hit all the right notes — slightly sweet and crumbly, with a nice nutty topping to contrast with the soft bread. I couldn’t tell it was vegan.
Dunning said she is still running in soft opening mode and experimenting with the number of dishes on offer each day. I was sad to see that beef rendang — coconut-y slow braised beef — had rotated off the menu. Dunning had also just run out of kaya, a pandan-infused coconut butter that she serves with toasted brioche and a coddled egg ($9). (If Instagram is any indicator, the dish is crazy popular.) And she’s working on laksa (coconut noodle soup) recipe that she hopes to roll out soon.
Drip Line also serves a breakfast menu that includes a breakfast sandwich, granola and that kaya toast. Coffee comes from Four Barrel and tea comes from Berkeley’s Leaves & Flowers.
(Side note: All of Dunning’s food seems tailor-made for Instagram. Garnished with flowers and fried purple potato chips and countless colorful vegetables, it is, frankly, beautiful. The dark wood tables and white clay bowls from Jered’s Pottery add to the aesthetic.)
As with any other new restaurant, there are kinks to work out. We stopped in right after the kitchen finished fulfilling a massive to-go order, to everything was backed up. And, Dunning said, the café has been getting more and more crowded with each day. Keeping up with its quickly forming popularity will be a challenge for the small team, but Dunning seems happy about it.
I just hope the next time I come in, I can see what all of the kaya fuss is about and perhaps get to try the rendang.