When news got out that Chez Panisse alum Richard Mazzera (also of César) and Corso GM Terumi Shibata were working on a new project in Richmond, the city was abuzz. Would this be the restaurant that would embody the "Richmond renaissance" and show people another side of this much-maligned town?
As it turns out, the restaurant itself can't be considered "destination dining" -- Mazzera has kept the menu and the prices too accessible for that -- but Assemble could definitely be part of a destination afternoon. Located on the lovely Richmond Marina, with its sweeping views of San Francisco, and adjacent to the new Rosie the Riveter museum, it's a great place to indulge in a bit of history and relaxation.
Depending on when you go, you will see older couples dropping by for dinner after an evening stroll along the water, young families having lunch before touring the SS Red Oak Victory (built by Kaiser when it was known as a shipbuilder, not an HMO), or cyclists pulling off the Bay Trail to reward themselves with weekend brunch.
Assemble occupies the boiler room of the former Ford assembly plant, which produced Jeeps and tanks during World War II. Giant iron boilers and pipes still stand solidly anchored in the 120-seat dining room, giving the space an authentic industrial feel. The bustling and efficient servers and the activity from the open kitchen create a lively vibe, while the giant windows and high ceilings keep the place airy. For views of the Bay, make sure to nab an outdoor spot or a place at the bar. (And for a quieter dining experience, call ahead on weekend nights to check what's on at the adjoining Craneway Pavilion, where events range from rock concerts to the Oakland East Bay Symphony to girls roller derby.)
Assemble's throwback Americana menu features items such as Crab Louis ($20 for a large portion) and General Eisenhower's Old Fashioned Beef Stew ($20) -- yes, Eisenhower actually was known for this stew. At weekend brunch you can go classically San Francisco with the Hangtown Fry ($14) or get in a New Orleans mood with the Eggs Hussarde ($12).
During one lunchtime visit, we tried one of Assemble's many sandwiches, the Triple Club ($13), with grilled chicken, smoked turkey and pepper bacon. The addition of a fried egg, along with a shmear of rich avocado aoli, made me wonder why slipping a nice oozy egg into the stack wasn't part of the standard club canon.
The burger ($12) was also quite decent: well-seasoned, cooked just the way we specified and covered with a thick layer of house-made pepperjack cheese. It was encased in a buttery bun and served with a pristine and perfectly dressed salad. Also on the menu: Fish and Chips ($15), straightforward but piping hot and crisp, served with wedge fries that resembled the patas bravas at César.
There is quite a bit of overlap (and no price difference) between the lunch and dinner menus, but at night they roll out some specials and heartier options, such as the popular Chicken Pot Pie ($16). While many of Assemble's retro dishes are faithfully rendered, the pot pie definitely gets a modern twist: the veggies, including sweet whole cipollini onions and three kinds of mushrooms, were roasted and caramelized before being folded into the velouté sauce, the heat of which hinted of poblano peppers. And the thick cheddar crust was blind baked before the stewy, chickeny goodness was ladled into it, which kept it crispy. The whole lot was served with an extra helping of velouté and baby vegetables on the plate, which kept the crust-to-filling ratio perfectly in check.
I wish they had shown the same flawless technique in a couple of the other dishes, which although tasty, lacked the same finesse. The Tasso Ham Corn Chowder ($8) was light and brothy, with potatoes, bursts of fresh sweet corn and celery. But the smokiness of the Tasso ham was a touch too assertive, and the creamy soup had broken, probably the victim of overboiling. Similarly, the Pork Shoulder ($23, a nightly special) came smothered with a deep, luscious-tasting sauce that could have used some skimming to reduce the fat, which had separated.
One nice thing about Assemble, though, is the way the owners and staff have thoughtfully curated the complementary parts of the menu, such as starters, drinks and desserts. For dessert (all $8), favorites like Key Lime Pie, Bread Pudding and Seasonal Fruit Crisp (which admittedly could have been crispier) are available; and they have a full bar, including local brews and creative mocktails.
The appetizer selection rivals the entree list, and includes Frito Pie ($8), with chili and toppings actually served inside a Fritos bag -- a preparation you probably haven't seen since you were 6.
At dinner, they offer the Assemble Relish Tray which, at $14, seemed a little steep. But it's a generous and shareable platter (suitable for a table of four), and includes thinly shaved Virginia ham, a so-so pimento spread, handmade seeded breadsticks, warmed marinated olives with lemon peel, deep-fried pickles and crudité. Another "just don't see this everyday" starter is the Spicy Boiled Peanuts ($4). Assemble's juicy, jalapeno-topped version is doctored up with coriander, fennel and a little shot of hooch for added punch.
Assemble may make some modern interpretations of old-time favorites, but it doesn't stray too far from the originals -- no foams or precious plating here. With plans for a victory garden reportedly in the works, the restaurant gives a respectful nod to its World War II environs and remains faithful to a time when food was the real deal, sourced from reputable purveyors, made without a lot of fuss and served at a decent price.
* * ½
WHERE: 1414 Harbour Way South, Richmond
CONTACT: 510-215-6025, www.assemblerestaurant.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily, 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including Mushroom Pot Pie and macaroni and cheese
BEVERAGES: Wines by the bottle and glass, beer and full bar
RESERVATIONS: Not required
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Large parking lot
KIDS: Several options, such as Frito Pie and fried chicken
PLUSES: Great chicken pot pie, and fabulous historic surroundings
MINUSES: A few glitches in terms of culinary technique
DATE OPENED: March
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