Cooking for the Road in Uptown Oakland
Chef Sarah Kirnon Brings Home Real Caribbean Cuisine
The restaurant Hibiscus, at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and 18th Street, stands a distance away from West Grand and Broadway, the intersection at the heart of Uptown Oakland’s revival. The distance is not only physical, but spiritual. While Hibiscus is certainly a player in the neighborhood’s comeback, it wasn’t a restaurant meant to “fill out” a new condominium development, nor was it the second or third location in a chef’s growing empire, or an outlet of a corporate-backed chain. What one finds at Hibiscus is the very personal expression of one woman: chef Sarah Kirnon.
Kirnon, who grew up in Barbados, speaks with a faint British accent. When she was young, her parents lived in a small town in Leicestershire, England, where her mother worked as a tuberculosis nurse. After immigrating, and discovering how depressed the former mining village really was, her parents had second thoughts about their children’s future. “They really didn’t want to raise us there,” says Kirnon. “So I was sent back to Barbados to be raised by my grandmother.”
That early move proved to be an important one in Kirnon’s life. “When I was 8 years old, my grandma had a stroke, so she was bedridden,” explains Kirnon. “I had to cook for the house, which was 12 people,” says Kirnon. “That’s what’s called ‘cooking for the road.’ You cook for whoever may stop in from the road. There were no small pots in my grandmother’s house.” Luckily, her grandmother’s bed had a view of the kitchen, so she was able to guide Kirnon in preparing food.
To this day, Kirnon says she struggles to cook for just two when she’s at home with her partner. She’s had plenty of opportunities to cook “big,” however, in her restaurant career. Since moving to the Bay Area in 2002, Kirnon has run the kitchen at three restaurants: Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack and the Front Porch in San Francisco and now Hibiscus. At the Front Porch, Kirnon developed her own fiery habanero hot sauce, Ms. G’s Pepper Sauce, and began bottling it for sale. She’s brought the hot sauce with her to Oakland, much to diners’ delight (see sidebar).
Habanero chiles are known as Scotch bonnets in the Caribbean and they are one of several of West Indian ingredients that set Hibiscus apart from other restaurants. Kirnon describes Hibiscus’ food as Caribbean-Creole cuisine, and while it has many parallels with American Southern food, its character is unique. Fried chicken, grits, macaroni and cheese and chicken and dumplings are all standards at the upscale Southern and soul food restaurants that have opened up in recent years, but with Kirnon’s Caribbean lilt, hers are distinct.
Take callaloo. The dish of cooked greens is similar to collards or mustard greens in Southern cooking, but callaloo also contains okra. Or pets de nonne, which are almost exactly like beignets, but different in that they are made with French-style choux pastry rather than the yeasted, kneaded dough of the classic New Orleans variety. Or jerk, the West Indian style of spicing and smoking meat over wood fires, which really was the forefather of barbecue in the South.
That phenomenon of being at once familiar and surprising is present throughout Kirnon’s menu. Produce plays a starring role in her dishes, whether it’s crisp fennel and bright citrus flavors in her jerk quail, or wild nettles stewed with her Amerindian oxtails. Kirnon’s gift as a chef is her ability to integrate the various elements, be they Creole or “SLO” (seasonal, local, organic), into a unified total.
“After being here for so long, I was determined to expose Caribbean food,” says Kirnon. “And I mean beyond jerk chicken. With Caribbean food here, I found that I either had to cook it myself, or I was always looking for some little place that had just closed..”
Because Caribbean food in the Bay Area is so scarce or dumbed down to blue cocktails and coconut shrimp, many local diners, even sophisticated ones, are unfamiliar with the cuisine. Luckily, Kirnon does a great job of explaining how region and culture have shaped each and every dish on her menu. If she’s on hand, don’t hesitate to ask her questions directly. Her waitstaff and our glossary of terms (see “Caribbean, De-coded”) should also help.
And while salt fish and ackee, phoulourie and Amerindian pepperpot stew may be new to you, the honest flavors of produce from Star Route Farms in Bolinas or Riverdog Farm in Guinda should be pleasingly familiar. Kirnon, who counts among her influences noted international chefs Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray of the River Café in London and Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit in New York and C-House Restaurant in Chicago, has a light touch with salads such as one of crisp, bitter chicories, a scattering of salty red mullet roe and lemon dressing. Her careful harmonies are also evident in her drinks, such as ginger limeade, which she makes with fresh ginger root, demerara sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon and bay leaf.
Kirnon’s cooking is drawing quite a number of people in from the road. Neighbors, such as Daniel Patterson of the newcomer Plum, and James Syhabout of Commis, Oakland’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, have both been in with their wives. New Parish, the club adjacent to Hibiscus, holds music shows on a regular basis, and the restaurant is also a quick walk from the Fox and Paramount theaters. On Sunday nights, Hibiscus has a DJ of its own spinning funk and soul in its 25-seat lounge. “We get the emo-hip young Oakland crowd,” says Kirnon. Fridays, Oakland’s office workers can get the sort of lunch that makes you want to take the rest of the day off — barbecued Wagyu brisket with beer-battered onion rings, baked macaroni and cheese with California sharp cheddar and “big fries” with tamarind catsup. The restaurant also offers a happy hour for the downtown set including politicos — Mayor Jean Quan is a regular. Wednesday through Friday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. you can get your hands on a can of Jamaican Red Stripe beer for only $2 and Hibiscus’ specialty cocktails, such as the Parish Punch made with 5-year-old El Dorado rum, for $5 each.
The atmosphere of the restaurant, much like its chef’s food, is elegant and down-to-earth at the same time. A palate of gray and white makes the beauty of simple things — a clear blown-glass light fixture, paintings of blooming hibiscus, and an antique copper scale — stand out. With so much happening on the menu in terms of lively flavors, it’s nice that the room lets you concentrate.
Kirnon is certainly focused on her cooking and she makes regular trips back to Barbados to stay connected to the origins of her style. Sadly, her last journey home was to bury the grandmother who taught her to cook. One trend Kirnon says she’s noticing in Barbados is similar to the move toward food carts locally: Tough economic times have hit, and cooks who can’t afford to rent a restaurant space are cooking at home and feeding people right under their own roofs. Kirnon has sampled some of the food at these home-based eateries. “One woman made the most incredible green banana porridge and served it with salt cod and vegetables,” says Kirnon.
Such honest culinary expressions inspire the food at Hibiscus, where you’ll be glad you came in from the road to experience a restaurant that has made its own home in Oakland.
Hibiscus Restaurant, 1745 San Pablo Ave., (510) 444-2626, www.hibiscusoakland.com. Serves lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. (a midday menu follows from 2:30–5:30 p.m.) Friday; happy hour 5:30–6:30 p.m. Wednesday–Friday; dinner 5:30–10 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and 5:30–11 p.m. Friday–Saturday.