The last time a man looked at me and said the word “destiny,” it was part of a bad pickup line. My server at Block & Larder used the word to much better effect. Noticing my furrowed brow as I pondered pages of whiskeys, tequilas and beers at this four-month-old spot in Berkeley, he detoured across the dining room, offering advice and mentioning the bartender’s passion for Old-Fashioneds. “Well, then,” he said, after I told him they’re my latest weakness, “consider it destiny.”
Destiny, indeed. The Old-Fashioned was just the way I like it, with enough sparkle from bitters and the right amount of sugar (actually, syrup from brandied, candied cherries), so that it tasted like whiskey, not sweetened spirits. But aside from that drink and the laughs I shared with a friend, much of what followed that night was something I wished I’d turned down, like that guy with the line long ago.
Founded by Aaron, Lucas and Jason Forgy, the band of brothers behind Freshcraft, Block & Larder should not be seen as Freshcraft Jr. Prices — and therefore expectations — run higher; food is more of a focus here. With a pressed-tin ceiling, exposed brick walls and bold canvases that add a Lichtenstein-like jolt, the place feels more like an eccentric uncle than progeny. Still, you can tell by how quickly the bar and seats near it fill up that an appreciation for beverages runs in the family. I’ve passed memorable hours at the bar myself, eating oysters and getting drawn into a better conversation about the book I’d brought — A River Runs Through It — than I’ve had at many a book club. (Turns out one of the guys next to me was once a fly-fishing guide in Alaska.)
Atmosphere, then, is a strong suit, as are bartenders, who are as capable of pouring stiff drinks as they are of talking knowledgeably about the merits of washing down sweet West Coast oysters with hard apple cider, a pairing that worked surprisingly well. But the food? Well, during several visits, it seemed to be doing its own version of a pickup dance, trying a little too hard to impress.
Named for a butcher block and a larder, or old-fashioned pantry, Block & Larder follows a steakhouse model, with an emphasis on proteins butchered in-house. True to form, sides cost extra; so do sauces, if you want more than one. We often did, curious about the curry cream and the red-wine demi-glace and the choron (a tomatoey variant of Béarnaise) — but as they were two dollars a pop, we decided to stick with what we were given, since the steaks already ranged from the mid-$20s to the mid-$30s, with sides adding another $5 to $8. By comparison, steak frites at Freshcraft costs just $17, fries included.
Steakhouses, of course, are the masters of nickel-and-diming. I’ve never been a fan of this format, not even in places where steaks are so perfectly sourced, seared and seasoned that they make you stop in spite of yourself out of sheer autonomic respect. The entrees were good at Block & Larder, but never that good — never able to swing the pendulum from “This costs how much?” to “Oh, what the heck!” Hanging beef tender, another name for hanger steak, was supremely beefy without crossing the line into liverish (as this hard-to-find cut can), but it was unevenly cooked, with such a faint smear of sauce that the brandy-peppercorn was gone long before the ten ounces.
Dabs of harissa barbecue were also no match for the bison short ribs, which should’ve been called tall ribs given how long they were, with fat, protruding bones that would’ve pleased Fred Flintstone. The fried half-chicken, at least, was amply sauced with Louisiana hot honey — a good thing, because the crispy shell fell off after the first bite, and we needed the entire condiment cup to flavor every last bit of moist meat.
Plating was straightforward, just meat and a garnish. But what the presentations lacked in artistry they made up for in size, with entrees served on white dishes so ostentatiously large they could’ve passed as serving platters, making for a tight squeeze at two-tops with sides and glasses also competing for space.
Snacks (listed under Nosh), soups and sides tried just as hard to impress, coming out with a tweak here, a variation there, signs of a kitchen trying to be clever. But when cleverness doesn’t work, it’s just a bad joke. Which is what my pork rillettes seemed like, served on bread as soft as rolls rather than the traditional toast points or crostini. Texture, especially textural contrast, really does matter, even if plate size doesn’t. One exception to the texture rule: The smoothness of oysters doesn’t benefit at all from the crunch of shell fragments, which I had to spit out one night.
In its quest to stand out, the kitchen also forgot that panzanella is a summer salad, designed to showcase the ripest of tomatoes; this version made an airtight case for why winter tomatoes are inedible things, as off-putting in this instance as the disintegrated focaccia with which they were paired. The curried-pork consommé was so concentrated that I felt like I was lapping soy sauce with a red-curry profile. Coffee salted steak fries sounded intriguing, but the spuds were all bluster, with no hint of java under all that salt. A blueberry doughnut caught our eye, but the cake was oily, and its lemon frosting suffered from chunks of cream cheese that weren’t fully blended.
Even the simply named “house-grind burger” was turned into something fancier than it needed to be, with a tasty pork-beef blend lost under arugula chimichurri on the top bun and garlicky citrus aioli on the bottom, with pickled tomato, blue cheese and mushroom duxelles in between. Food doesn’t have to be showy to be sensational; the most basic of ingredients, properly handled, can make for unforgettable meals.
Servers seemed genuinely interested in ensuring that customers have a good time, full of personal anecdotes and opinions on the menu, noticing a near-empty cocktail glass even before we did. But in describing various dishes, they came up with a few choice lines of their own, which simply didn’t pan out. The chickpeas that the kitchen used in place of lima beans in the succotash — another poorly timed dish, given that corn is out of season — weren’t smoked, though the possibility had sounded appealing. And those pork rillettes weren’t finished with duck fat. Were the servers trying to pull a fast one, or were they just so eager to please that they got carried away? My bet is firmly on the latter. That’s also my hunch about the kitchen — which is run by Lucas, the chef in the family — considering the pains that the brothers have taken to create an easygoing, appealing atmosphere.
Ultimately, though, destiny is destiny. Why try to be something you’re not? It’s always better to be yourself, to play to your strengths. This laid-back spot is a good place for a casual evening. But before making a long-term commitment to this menu, the kitchen should do a little soul-searching. Otherwise, dinner here might never be more than a one-night stand.
Block & Larder
4000 Tennyson Street
Select menu items:
Coffee salted steak fries $5
House grind burger $12
Bison short rib $28
Hanging beef tender $26
Fried half chicken $14
Blueberry doughnut $8
Block & Larder is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday, 9 a.m.-midnight Saturday and 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at blockandlarder.com.