On a recent chilly evening, we finally satisfied our curiosity about Duchess, the cozy spot in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood. The former home to Rustica and the upstairs Conga Lounge, Duchess has claimed its place in the neighborhood for almost a year.
The downstairs restaurant and bar, transformed into an attractive and intimate setting, has a combination of high tables, booths, regular tables and bar seating. The restaurant features a red-and-white geometric patterned floor, dark wood tables and rear wall, and a large chalkboard that lists daily specials. The room upstairs, open for brunch on the weekends, is also available for private events. All the tiki trappings are gone, however.
We’d done some advance research about the bar menu created by Luis Ramos, and our expectations were high. As we skimmed the menu for cocktail choices, we stopped in our tracks when we came to the Open Season: duck fat washed High West Rye, Griffo Stout Whiskey, maple scotch syrup, bitters and sea salt ($10 on Mondays, $12 otherwise).
We were not familiar with the idea of fat washing, so we asked our server a few pointed questions. Subsequently, we learned that fat washing (not unlike infusion) adds flavor to spirits in a process that involves adding fat to the spirit, then freezing and skimming so the fat is removed and only the flavor is left behind. (The first reference we found to this technique was from about 10 years ago: Don Lee, a well-known New York bartender created the Benton’s Old Fashioned with bacon fat washed bourbon. What can’t bacon do?)
Rather than go with the tempting and popular Isn’t She Lovely (vodka, elderflower, blanc vermouth, grapefruit, lime, cucumber and soda; also $10 on Mondays, $12 otherwise, as are all the house cocktails listed on the menu), the Where Are We? (bourbon, Spirit Works Sloe Gin, sweet vermouth, Senses Chardonnay, walnut tincture), or the other house favorite, The Duchess (Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, dry vermouth, grenadine, lime, peach liqueur, bitters, egg whites), we took a leap of faith and asked to try the Open Season.
We were advised that our choice of cocktail was “spirit forward,” and this proved to be true. The drink arrived, served over a single ice cube and garnished with an almost sculpted piece of lemon peel perched on the edge of the glass, vaguely resembling a duck about to take flight. How to describe the taste? Smokey and smooth, a tiny bit salty and sweet, with an unmistakable savory element that we found difficult to describe: not the flavor of duck exactly, but something out of the ordinary. With each sip, the flavors deepened, allowing us to appreciate the complexity that comes from the infusion of a distinctively rich flavor into the rye.
Duchess offers a selection of classic cocktails as well, and when we return, we will probably try one of our favorites, the Sidecar (brandy, Grand Marnier, lemon; $10), or perhaps the Bobby Burns (scotch, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine, also $10). With the chill in the air, cozying up to a cocktail at Duchess is a pleasant way to spend an evening. The room is intimate and inviting and the creative cocktails go beyond the expected.
The Crowd: Locals, industry folks, families, Rockridge regulars
The Drink: Open Season
The One to Try Next Time: The Sidecar or the Bobby Burns
Good to know: On Mondays, all house and classic drinks are $2 off (corkage is free on Mondays as well)