The onetime “sister” restaurant to Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe becomes Sister and is so much more than a pizza restaurant.
Sister makes a statement. It’s not loud but it’s clear: We are no longer Boot & Shoe Service. Rebranded in August with a new name and new signage, Sister took the final step it needed to assert an independent identity. Jennifer Cremer and Richard Clark had purchased Boot & Shoe over a year ago from Charlie Hallowell, the chef-entrepreneur who’d been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of employees in his three restaurants, which also included his original flagship, Pizzaiolo, on Telegraph Avenue in the Temescal neighborhood, and Penrose, on Grand Avenue across the street from Boot & Shoe.
Cremer had worked as an assistant general manager at Pizzaiolo, and Clark, a certified sommelier, had managed the Trappist in Oakland and helped open and manage Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco. The married couple, who spent their first date at Boot & Shoe, began putting their own stamp on the restaurant well before getting around to the name change. Given the consistent popularity of Boot & Shoe since its opening in 2009, easing through the transition was understandable. But by the time “Sister” was painted on the front window of the brick and black trim storefront, with graphics by Oakland designer Lauren Jochum, Cremer and Clark had instituted a new, respectful workplace culture, and the kitchen team of head chef Martin Salata (Café Fanny, Pizzaiolo), sous chef Justin Wright (Almanac Taproom), and baker Jarren Wilkinson (Tartine) had significantly tweaked the California-Italian menu to align with their own sensibilities.
When Robin and I made our dinner visits shortly after the name change, it was hard to disengage our “comparing minds.” Physically, all rustic brick and wood and open ceilings, Sister is the spitting image of its predecessor. A large open kitchen faces the dining room. The café space runs down the left side. The back room contains the bar/lounge. And the patio, one of Oakland’s sweetest outdoor hideaways, is tucked into the rear courtyard between high walls of brick, plank, corrugated tin, and cinder block. A cursory glance found the menu echoing Hallowell’s. But the close attention we paid during two leisurely paced meals revealed significant departures. Let’s start with the wood-fired pizza, a hallmark under Hallowell. It’s even better now. Salata improved on the previous Neapolitan crust by adding sourdough starter to his dough, making it sturdier, chewier, and more conducive to enjoying as a leftover taken home. Ours was topped with pecorino, fennel sausage, and black pepper ($22). Other combinations included tomato, fresh mozzarella, and basil; tomato, anchovy, and garlic; tomato, aged mozzarella, Calabrian peppers, and Gouda; tomato, salametto picante chorizo, mozzarella, and spicy honey; and squash blossoms, zucchini, and stracciatella cheese.
In real time, we started both dinners with cocktails ($13), soft drinks ($4-$7), and items from the “Small” and “First” sections of the menu. To my great delight, bar manager Alex Phillips (Locanda, Camino, KronnerBurger) maintained the tradition of house-made tonics for mixing with gin, vodka, tequila, or mezcal. My gin and tonic was as eye-poppingly beautiful as it was buzz inducing. So was the Plastic Sun, a fine balance of rye, burnt honey, absinthe, maraschino, and bitters. The seven other specialties — including variations of daiquiris, mai tais, and sours, and inventive concoctions with rum, almond, and vanilla bitters, or gin, lime, chartreuse, and fermented pineapple — beg further investigation.
An ample jumble of mixed marinated olives ($5) and a serving of “our bread” (more about that later) with soft butter and mushroom salt ($4) were terrific small starters, and we heard a rave report about the artistically and starkly plated summer vegetable crudités with yuzu-seaweed butter and citrus-sesame za’atar ($12). Among the “First” courses ($15-$17) were chicories with sour orange, Medjool dates, and pecorino; cured local halibut with avocado, caviar, and wild fennel; and Burrata with snow peas and mint. We found the salad of celery, raisins, walnuts, and broad shavings of Fiscalini cheddar both novel and brightly refreshing. I had the lamb ribs all to myself (because Robin is that way about ribs). Beyond the elegant composition of the presentation, I relished how the tender meat gained deep complexity from the accents of fresh fennel, lime, honey, mint, and the spicy-fishy kick of XO sauce.
We sat inside on our first visit, where the sound system playlist included Allen Toussaint and Steely Dan, but made a reservation for the patio nine nights later, when the summer evening was ideal for outdoor dining. Another 20 or so folks were on the same wavelength. We were surprised to see few pizzas being brought out. We were eschewing in the interest of research. But once we dug into our “Second” courses we understood. Sister is so much more than a pizza restaurant. Diners around us were opting for the handmade pastas and such protein entrées as steak with summer squash and morels, and Liberty duck breast, cherries, and maitake mushrooms. We shared a shallow bowl of perfectly al dente bucatini tossed with pickled local anchovies and oil and topped with crunchy toasted breadcrumbs and a bit of lemon ($22). It was nearly as heavenly as the king salmon ($32) that succulently yielded to the fork. Eggplant, cooked soft and topped with explosive orange BBs of trout roe, sidled up to the fish, which was garnished with bittersweet purple fig leaves.
Of the four desserts, we tried the invigorating float of strawberry sorbet doused with pét-nat (naturally sparkling) rosé ($10). We could have had a salted chocolate chip cookie, a scoop of preserved yuzu ice cream with toasted coconut and genmaicha, yellow cake with wild blackberries and sweet corn mousse, or a dessert cocktail of amaro, espresso liqueur, vodka, and cream.
What we found ourselves craving was more of the extraordinary seeded levain that opened our second dinner. So we paid a visit to the bakery café during weekend brunch hours — when the fare includes frittata, avocado toast, buckwheat waffle, sweet or savory porridge, granola, sandwiches, square pizza slices, and more — to pick up a loaf. Not surprisingly, the levain sold out before noon, but we took home a loaf of oat porridge bread. It was worth every penny of its $9 price, and we wasted no time plowing through it, both fresh and lightly toasted.
In every way, from food to culture, from pizzas to anti-harassment policies, Sister has stepped away from being anybody’s little sibling and forged a family of its own, beyond compare.