Box and Bells Eating House - Oakland
Finally got to Box and Bells last night. Got there early and easily grabbed two seats at the bar. Started with two cocktails -- one tikki like with two rums, another a nice sour. Very good. Grabbed a bottle of cab franc for the rest of the meal, which worked great.
The food was very good. Started with the beef tongue pastrami toasts, sort of an open faced rueben. Super tasty and big for the price. Then got the fried chicken with oyster mayo (brilliant -- that mayonaise should be used on everything), along with some beef marrow roasted fingerling potatoes (nice for also dipping in the mayo, but quite flavorful on their own). We then had the seared trout with fresh peas and clam vinegrette, along with grilled asparagus with grated cured duck egg. Both nice dishes and very much enjoyed after the intensity and fat of the earlier bites. We ended with the potted chicken liver (instead of dessert -- with the brioche toasts, it is practically dessert anyway) -- some of the best around, rivaling my old favorite duck liver in a jar at Adesso.
Overall, we are kicking ourselves for taking so long to stop by. Liked the format of the menu too, with lots of shared plates (we didn't even venture into the entree-sized meats). Definitely will be back and a great addition to the area.
Went last night for a late dinner. I'd been eating vegetarian for a few days, had gotten a lot of exercise, and had eaten a light vegan lunch, so it seemed like a good time to try this place. Had a reservation, table was ready, seated immediately.
The lighting is very eccentric. Tables across from the bar (vertical bar of the L-shaped room) have cold-looking bluish-white light. Tables around the corner where we were seated had red light. Really, truly red, either red-tinted bulbs or red gels like in a theater. I thought it would make the food look strange but that was mostly not a problem.
It was really hard to choose, so many great dishes on the menu. Mussels tikka masala? Bone marrow with bagna cauda crust?
Deviled egg was great, crisp shallots were a brilliant idea, but the bites without them were great too. At $5 for two halves it was the only dish that didn't seem like a good value.
Pork rilletes in a jar with lard on top ($11), as good as I've had in Paris, maybe better. Even the lard was delilcious. Came with plenty of grilled toast.
Mushroom toast ($7), insanely good. There was a black-looking spread on the bread that might have been the cured egg and/or soft garlic. One of the best vegetarian dishes ever (if it was).
We were starting to feel well-fed, so for the second round we got one main course and (on Jonathan Kaufmann's recommendation in his Tasting Table review) three vegetable sides.
Toulouse sausage with lentils and bacon ($23), juicy, fatty deliciousness.
Deep-fried sunchokes ($7), the hit of the meal, crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, with a tangy crème fraîche sauce. Another of the best vegetarian dishes ever (if it was).
Roasted celery root with meat drippings ($7), really great. It was one huge slice, like a chop, garnished with a few carrots? baby parsnips? Forgot to ask. That was one dish where the red light was confusing.
Shredded Brussels sprouts wilted in bacon ($6), good though the least exciting dish on the table and the only one from which we took home leftovers.
We asked for bread to sop up the sauces and got plenty.
Some of the desserts sounded really good but we were way too full. We might go back to try them sometime after sushi or something.
The wine list was close to my ideal. All food-friendly, mostly European, the California wines all favorites of the anti-flavor elites, lots of good values. Had glasses of Forlorn Hope Verdelho ($13) and an exceptionally good Roussillon ($10) and a bottle of good Bourgueil ($36).
Overall a great meal, not one off note, and a very good value. I'm looking forward to going back to try more of the menu. This is the most impressive new restaurant I've tried since AQ or Nick Balla's Bar Tartine makeover.
Bauer gave it 2.5 stars for the food (halfway between good and excellent) despite:
"french fries [in the poutine] were limp"
"the crumbled saltine topping on the Little Gem salad … didn't seem to add anything"
"The aged prime bone-in rib eye ($50), a 17-ounce steak designed for two, was fatty and flabby. I ordered it mostly because I was intrigued by the fricassee of snails that accompanied it, but it was so dark in the place that I couldn't find them."
"the Box burger ($16) … was nearly as disappointing as the steak"
Despite all that, he gave the place the same food rating as Miss Ollie's, about which he had not one negative comment? Would he have given them the benefit of the doubt without the name chef?
re: Robert Lauriston
This must be the reason Bauer gave it 2.5 stars: "We asked for bread and it came quickly."
His review suggests he is rewarding stars for creativity, but with a several execution issues. The mystery to me is less that he gave B&B 2.5 stars, but why he gave Miss Ollies only 2.5 stars.
I agree the resto is low light and indeed if you didnt know what those "spongy lumps" on the steak were, I dont think I'd have been able to tell (although I am not sure I'd have been able to tell in a perfectly adequately lit resto, if they had arrived as "mystery meat") ... but his characterization is hyperbole ... unless he has low vision say due to age or a medical condition.
>"We asked for bread and it came quickly."
the wheels of progress turn slowly, but they turn.
They have one of the better burgers I've had in some time (better than Marlowe, MBC on first taste). Comes on a pretzel bun brushed with aged beef fat which sounds offputting but works well. Very juicy and flavorful, @$16 comes with shaved fries. We also enjoyed the mushroom toast and smashed sunchokes, which had great carmelized crunchy bits. Little gems salad oddly came with saltines (I kept thinking of that pivotal meal in Bastard Out of Carolina). Overall, the food and service is well executed. But I somehow don't love the menu choices--it was hard to compose a meal (lot of starch and meat, not much veg). Lighting is greenish and orange. I felt like I was in a subterranean space.
We went a week or so ago....
Blood sausage poutine - very good
Sea scallops - excellent
Pate de maison - average (but I'm getting burned out on this item)
Mussels tikka masala - my wife loved them, I liked the sauce but the mussels were too big for my personal tastes.
Butter bourbon pudding - good
Pear and fennel cobbler - fantastic
I agree with psb above, some bread would have been very nice with the left over blood sausage sauce and mussel broth. I think at $10+ a small plate they can slide me a couple slices of a baguette.
I really liked the look of the space, the chairs were comfortable, lighting a little dark for menu reading but I'm sure made me look more attractive to my dining companion. The noise was a factor that inhibited conversation. I know it is cheaper to just paint an open ceiling black, but dang it makes it hard to even hear the servers much less your dining companion. All that said, I'm sure I'll come back in a couple weeks.
re: Robert Lauriston
Sure. However "grilled pain mie soldiers" is not what I want to sop up juice with. If I pay $5 for a bread product it better be special and I'm going to enjoy it as its own dish with the garlic confit. Both dishes I mentioned, and I'd throw in the scallops too, were served with delicious sauces/broth that were wasted because there was not an accompanying starch or bread to bring it to the mouth. The few small pieces of flat bread that came with the mussels were too dense to even absorb the broth. Obviously I am not a fan of the restaurant trend eliminating gratis bread and I stand by my assertion that it should be available upon request.
we may have had something else, but picking from the online menu:
>WHITE BEAN & ANCHOVY TOAST
good but awkward to eat (bone was too hot to handle, which was necessary to extract marrow)
>WARM POTATO SALAD
>ROASTED CELERY ROOT
>PEAR & FENNEL COBBLER
very good ... although given it is >3x the price of the burger, i think next time i might try the burger ... although we did split it three ways.
i liked the resto. as U.M. was the first to observe, "the chairs are really nice". i thought the desserts were not the most exiciting selection ... half the stuff involved gelato which i didnt really want. my two associates had cocktails which they seemed to like.
there were a lot of dishes with far-too-excellent-to-waste "fat" or sauce ... whether it was from the ribeye or the buttered turnips ... but we had no bread to use to sop up. we asked for bread and got some kind of a "we cant do that" and a pointer to the pan de mie menu item and some other comment that i dont recall which didnt really make sense. i mean just bring whatever bread comes with the bone marrow or the anchovy toast ... and charge us if you have to. in fact i saw another waiter who appeared to be doing exactly that [as we were leaving]. this may have just been our waitress being kinda lame ... new resto yadda yadda (and she was otherwise friendly/helpful etc).
surely we were not the first -- given the menu -- to have made this request.
we were lingering/chatting after finishing dessert and coffee and they did a pretty professional job advising us "no hurry, but we do have another reservation" ... i know some people feel one has an absolute right to the table they have been seated at but i think your rights diminish quickly after you have finished eating in a crowded resto.
I think psb has covered most of our comments.
Thinking back the celery root and turnips were the flavors I remember the most along with the ribeye and scallops.
So quite a successful meal I think. I also felt the total price per head (about 63) came out to be reasonable (but that may be a function of the non-drinker subsidizing the drinkers as I realized later).
About the bread: even though they have bread on the menu - it sounds all buttered up and flavored - the simplest bit of plain bread was what we wanted. I don't want to pay $5 for bread with garlic butter or whatever - we wanted just plain bread (even if they charged us for it).
And yes super comfortable chairs.
As third in the group of psb's associates, I'll chime in, if a bit late. I generally also agree with psb and Ms. "hinky" except I'd expand a bit on the 17oz ribeye. For my taste, it was perfectly cooked and though memory eludes me a bit, it came with a light sauce which included snails --very interesting and very good. It also had some sort of green on the side. I thought this was the star dish --and it was the one thing that finally satiated our ravenous hunger, as I recall.
I part ways a bit on the turnips. I like turnips fine, but these were quite literally swimming in a sweet butter sauce (doing the backstroke, I believe). Too much for me: I didn't even want bread for that ...
... and on the bread note, it was rather amusing that 2 minutes after we suggested to the server that they ought to have bread available (after having asked for it earlier), our final dish arrived --the bone marrow-- and was presented with, yes, slices of plain good-quality wheat bread. Hello!
Normally I do not worry so much about bread and do not usually want it, but I think because we had so many little plates, most with really tasty sauces/juices, that gripe carried more weight than usual.
Oh, and the chairs were nice, and I think I liked the desserts better than psb, especially the pear/fennel cobbler.
@psb Good to hear that they were professional in easing you out. I've wanted to try B&B since it opened but was put off by a few pointed Yelp reviews (and not snarky, missing-the-point reviews) that dinged sloppy service. How long did you stay? Wondering if B&B expects a quicker-than-reasonable table turnover. We don't get out much and I don't want to risk being pissed at being asked to leave the only restaurant I get to in months!
I dont recall exactly how long we were there, but in my conception the salient issue was: there was zero "pressure" until we were actually done eating. We'd finished dessert and were gabbing and there were still people coming in the door [our RSVP was for 7 so by the time we were done, it was still more or less prime time].
I think if you are there for 4 hrs and are eating the whole time, you're entitled to your time. And I get the sense BB would feel the same way.
I dont know if the YELP reviews you refer to actually said something vague like "sloppy" or "poor" service, but my service issue was "WHY CANT YOU PUT A PIECE OF BREAD ON A PLATE AND BRING IT OUT" [when the meal is above $50/person] ... and it's beyond my ken to speculate on what was behind that ... cognitive failure on the part of the service person, training failure by management, policy decision by management, work environment etc.
I think BOX BELL > PENROSE ... at least foodwise [and chairwise :-) ].