Sunday, October 31, 2010

HIBISCUS OAKLAND - Uptown’s Tropical Contact High

Salt Fish & Ackee
Hibiscus in Oakland is a warm, inviting trip to languish beside the blue waters of the Caribbean. The interior of the restaurant is a cool blue vibe, with unusual lanterns providing illumination that looks a bit like upside-down orchids glowing just beneath the ceiling, or depending upon the perspective, floating in the sky. The restaurant’s interior is architecturally clean, the wide open spaces of the dining room somehow managing to evoke the sensibilities of a modern resort in Antigua or Trinidad, while remaining slick and urban at the same time.

The menu is carefuly crafted to feature an updated take on Carribean-Creole, and Chef Sarah Kirnon's sense of adventure really comes through in her food. Chef Sarah's menu of bold flavors and innovative dishes is a delicious introduction to the flavor profiles of her childhood---  albeit fine-tuned, and cleverly honed for the palates of today's sophisticated diners. She crafted the menu as an homage to her childhood in Barbados, where she grew up cooking beside strong Barbadian women, her grandmothers.

Having grown up at the side of strong Italians who were my own culinary role-models, I can relate to Chef Sarah’s expression of their passion in her cooking today. In Sarah’s own words “For me the words Caribbean and Creole go together. Due to the region's ethnic diversity, the food is a patchwork quilt of colors, textures and flavors, woven from the cuisines of Africa, Europe, Asia, India and South America. This far-reaching blend puts the food in the realm of gustatory extravagance with our mouth-searing hot sauces, fragrant marinades, fiery spice rubs and perfumed preserves.

Mac n' Cheese
 We dined at Hibiscus twice over the summer, and I can’t wait to get back. The dishes were extremely consistent and the flavors really inviting. I tried several things I’d never had before, including Salt Fish &Ackee. When we ordered the dish, I had no idea what it was, but the waiter was patient and knowledgeable, describing something that sounded a little like a Caribbean ceviche. It’s essentially a fish that has been cured in acids, seasoned and served with sweet peppers, leeks, cherry tomatoes and radishes, along with ackee, a fruit that was brought by Captain Bligh from West Africa to Jamaica in 1793.  The flavor of the fish itself was light, like ceviche, but the spices were more complex. This dish was inventive and inviting.

A more traditional dish the BH and I shared was their Baked Mac & Cheese. Even those who aren’t Mac & Cheese hounds like I am would find Sarah’s take on the dish to be bliss. Hearty with Wisconsin cheddar, torpedo onion & nutmeg, the thick, creamy, melted cheese coats every piece of pasta evenly and the crust atop the “pie” had a heavenly crunch. Half the battle in creating a successful Mac & Cheese dish is consistency. The noodles must be al dente, and the cheese must be creamy without being runny. The consistency here — perfection.

BBQ Pork & Chips
 I love BBQ pork. Every time I see a menu that features a form of BBQ pork, whether pulled or shredded, I feel compelled to try it. Hibiscus' version is a rich, tangy barbeque sauce over the moist meat of the pig, accompanied by a soothing avocado butter, no doubt meant to be a foil to the hot sauce. The sandwich menu was titled simply “Cuttahs” the island name for bread-filled savories. I found my “cuttah” a magical blend of BBQ pork and island seasonings, and my mouth got lost in the flavors of Sarah's hearty and searing house made hot sauce. The lovely house made chips were a nice foil to the rich flavors in the rest of the sandwich.  As for the hot sauce, Chef Sarah’s special recipe, the sauce is made from the fiery scotch bonnets (the hottest of all habanero-type peppers). She uses a base of sweet carrots to give the sauce a nice thick base, and the resultant combination of the carrot and the heat of the peppers is a spicy wake-up treat. I have to say that this condiment is not for faint of heart or culinary lightweights. Sarah’s hot-pepper sauce will definitely kick your ass a little, but in a good way. ... I promise.

The Better Half ordered Miss Ollie’s Fried Chicken. I tasted it — golden and crisp on the outside, the crust resistant to the bite just a little, its meaty interior moist and tender fairly melting in the mouth. The chicken came with a side of buttered new potatoes, that gave a nice “pop” when bitten, like a lovely cherry tomato filled with buttery goodness. The accompanying sides of Riverdog corn and sauteed lacinto kale were likewise toothsome. The corn was sweet and the greens were tender, both exactly as they should be.

Miss Ollie's Fried Chicken, Sweet Corn and Kale
Hibiscus has a vibe all its own. The heart of its appeal is clearly in the passion of Chef Sarah to evoke the flavors of her childhood and instill in generations of her new patrons the love of island food that she enjoyed throughout her life. The authenticity in the flavors, the welcoming decor, all of these things work together to make Hibiscus a unique and repeatable experience. Check it out for yourself, and Bon Appetit!

Oh yeah, and the drinks are amazing!

Hibiscus Oakland
1745 San Pablo Ave.
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 444-2626

Noise Level: Two Bells (Moderate)
Table Size: Adequate
Service: fantastic
Parking: the streets here are tricky, so parking is a bit difficult, but manageable and definitely worth the effort
Dining Time: Can get in and out in a lunch hour