Hibiscus: Caribbean that's unconventional but awfully good

As much as I never turn down a meal at Zuni, Camino, or Nopa, it's something of a relief to read the menu at Hibiscus in Oakland. There are no burgers. No pizzas. No wood-fire-roasted meats with preserved lemons or mushroom-studded farro. Hibiscus is as California-minded a restaurant as they come — just as clear-eyed, just as giddy over the seasons — but it's chef Sarah Kirnon's childhood in Barbados that informs her food, not Richard Olney cookbooks and glassy-eyed wanderings through the Tuscan hills.

The chunks of Dungeness crab she served over velvety grits ($9/$16) one night, for example, came from the Pacific Ocean, the spring garlic, leeks, chiles, and carrot coins sautéed with the meat from local farms. The dish was elegantly seasoned, almost naked in its affect, and you'd be forgiven for thinking it referenced Judy Rodgers' polenta at Zuni as much as it does Caribbean breakfasts. (The crab has since phased out of season, replaced by lamb.) Even dressed in a sauce au chien from Martinique, potent with garlic and allspice, a salad of frilly arugula leaves, bright blanched green beans, and creamy-centered baby beets ($8) tasted as familiar as the contents of a weekly CSA box.

Kirnon first came to the public's attention as chef of Emmy's Spaghetti Shack, upping her rep when she became the opening chef of the nearby Front Porch. In January, Kirnon and Omar White (last of Pizzaiolo) paired up to open Hibiscus in the Uptown area of Oakland. With each move, more and more of what Kirnon calls “Caribbean-Creole” influences emerged. Now they reign dominant, though she uses them to exact effect; she incorporates traditional dishes and flavors with the timeliest of Bay Area ingredients — ox tongue for the explorers, “farm eggs” for the urban homesteaders — to pique the interest of foodistas.

I had two fascinating meals over the past month: the first with excellent food and excruciating service — the meal lasted at least an hour longer than it should have, largely because we could never get the attention of our server — and a second with pleasant if less inspiring food and a prompt, witty waiter. Hibiscus has some polishing to do, but the eclecticism of Kirnon's food is so personal and so richly layered that it captured my imagination.

Sitting in the dining room as the sun goes down feels like dining in two separate restaurants. When the light from the wraparound windows is still bright and penetrating, the room comes across as open and airy, its poured concrete and plaster washed in pale blues and fog grays. As night fills up the space, the blues ebb away and the edges soften, leaving rich grays punctuated by the glow of blown-glass lights and a double moon: two spotlit paintings of hibiscus flowers. The mood remains relaxed but not casual. There are men in fedoras at the bar, women in linen shifts and chunky beads in the banquettes, and more sensible shoes than a Keen outlet store. Even when the tables are filled, they're spaced far enough apart for noise to disperse, and the room never electrifies the way a packed San Francisco restaurant does. One night, the restaurant was full of bearded, striped white kids lined up for the Why? show at the New Parish next door. Rather than spoil the view (there's not much to spoil), they seemed to complete it: the mixed, buzzy downtown Oakland city planners have been promising us for decades.

Kirnon keeps her menu tight, shifting things around daily. One night the pepperpot stew may appear as an appetizer, the next as an entrée. Jerk Cornish hen will morph into jerk quail for a few nights, then back again. A vegan entrée is a constant, as is her fried chicken. The drinks are as timely as the produce: The wines focus mainly on small European producers and local “natural” winemakers like Lioco and Donkey and Goat, the cocktail list on small-batch rums and mixers like allspice dram and ginger limeade. (And the after-dinner shrub, an aged rum infused in-house with spices, sugar, and orange zest, is exquisite.)

Her influences span the entire region. The table may include an Indian-Trinidadian dish like pholourie ($7.50) — nubbly, light split-pea fritters that look like a splatter frozen in time, accompanied by kumquat slices and a sweet-tart tamarind sauce — and a side of sweet plantains speckled with chopped garlic ($4). That last bit is a tweak on the mojo Cubans and Puerto Ricans usually serve as an accompaniment to starchy plantain chips; Kirnon's pairing is unconventional, even irregular, and awfully good.

Kirnon works at her best when she takes brawny, even bombastic dishes and sharpens their focus. Her salt fish and ackee ($9.50) pairs ripe plantains and slices of cured fish — not pungent so much as potent — as well as custardy knobs of ackee, a Caribbean fruit. The savory and sweet come together thanks to a vivid sauté of peppers, onions, and a little oregano. Kirnon's pepperpot stew is braised down to the point where you'd think it would congeal into sludge: The oxtail and beef cheeks have all the toughness of the inside of a baked potato, and the skin on the pig's feet has melted into pure collagen. Yet the sweetness of the dark-brown sauce — courtesy of cassareep, a cassava-based syrup — never cloys, the cloves and cinnamon never overpower, and the deep meatiness is bracketed in just the right amount of Scotch-bonnet heat.

The simpler the dish, the more likely it seems to fall short. A salad of Little Gem lettuces larded with nickel-sized curls of pink shrimp, sliced olives, and hard-boiled eggs ($10) left me wanting. Sweetly braised beef shortribs ($20) with beans came off as one-note, and her take on escoveitch fish ($19), perhaps half that. It started right: a pan-fried whole fish with the moistest, mildest pale flesh. Rather than letting the cooked fish soak up a vinegary marinade, she merely scattered a half-cup of sharply pickled vegetables on top; the contrast between the meat and the garnish was too stark. (The herbed-up rice and beans on the side, though? Amazing.)

And then there is Miss Ollie's fried chicken ($20.50). Using a family recipe, the chef brines a split chicken, then stuffs a mix of herbs into slits in the meat. The chicken is fried until the skin forms a permanently crisp shell, yet the moment you bite through, the meat itself is aromatic, its tenderness surreal. There is a whispery heat to the seasoning on the chicken, which blares brassily with the addition of one precise dot of Kirnon's homemade habanero sauce. It's a dish with its own gravity, one so good you orbit it on the menu, pretending to be tempted away by other dishes until the waiter takes your order. It's a dish so good that Kirnon will be damned to repeat it until the end of her days.

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