Salt fish and ackee with plantains.
Spicy crab and grits.
Miss Ollie’s fried chicken.
Update (01/24/12): Chef Sarah Kirnon has departed.
[Imagine Caribbean accent]: “Oooooh, chile! So good! And spicy! Wooooo! That’s what me hoped it was going to be!” It’s pretty much what my brain was squawking over a couple delicious meals at ~HIBISCUS~, sounding much like Miss Cleo in my head. But you don’t need the power of the tarot to get you through the Caribbean-Creole menu, although you may need to ask your server to explain a few ingredients, like phoulourie and ackee (no, chile, they’re not ailments—although you can read up on Caribbean and Creole culinary history in this handy-dandy PDF from the Hibiscus website).
Chef Sarah Kirnon—whom I came to know through her previous cooking at Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack and the Front Porch in Bernal Heights—has created a menu I’d totally sit in some Bay Bridge traffic for, knowing that her fried chicken awaited me at the end of the journey. Who needs the pot of gold anyway? She has created a chic little Barbados island (which is where she grew up) on San Pablo in Oakland, with plenty of Scotch bonnet heat to go around for everyone.
If you’re going to catch a show at the Fox, this is your pre-show spot—it’s literally blocks away (and The New Parish is just next door). I love the eclectic-funky bar and lounge, with a cocktail list featuring many rum-based drinks to get you into an easy, island frame of mind. The Parish Punch, with housemade ginger limeade, was a refreshing start, while the Calypso was more on the fizzy and boozy side. And, both were priced nice at only $7. The dining room has a welcoming and easy-breezy style, with wispy curtains, colorful artwork, white tablecloths covered with crisp white paper, woven chairs, and hand-blown glass fixtures made from recycled glass.
On both visits, I couldn’t pass up the salt fish and ackee ($9.50), flaked pieces of salt cod tossed with the ackee, an unusual fruit with the silky texture of fluffy, almost custardy scrambled egg. The dish is bolstered with some brilliant fried plantains, and hit all the marks of salty, sweet, and SPICY. Total voodoo.
Kirnon is a champ at grits—you won’t believe the rich, smooth, creamy consistency of the grits here. (She could teach a class.) Now, pile some Dungeness crab on all that creamy goodness, with sweet carrots, chives, and leeks, and it’s the business. While I was excited to try the phoulourie ($7.50), which are traditional split pea fritters, I was pretty sated after just eating a couple of ‘em. (And I wanted more of the tart and sparky tamarind sauce that came with them.)
Let’s all just salute Kirnon’s grandma, Miss Ollie, who inspired her namesake fried chicken ($21) on the menu. It’s a remarkable exterior, crisp and flaky and a beautiful burnished brown, with notably juicy (and herbaceous) chicken contained within—and just wait until you shake some of the house habañero hot sauce on there, which charmingly comes in reused glass soda bottles. But proceed lightly, because that stuff is high octane. (And in another salute to the ladies in her family, the hot sauce recipe is from her great-grandmother, Miss G, who taught Sarah how to cook.) The chunky potato salad, sexy-mysterious Black Knight carrots, and Blue Lake beans made it a kind of dream picnic plate for dinner, although the pieces of Hobb’s bacon sprinkled in there were a bit overdone.
Kirnon changes the menu daily as she keeps up with the seasons, and features excellent sourcing and ingredients, so it’s the kind of place you’ll want to keep returning to. Trust me, I’m already plotting another visit, soon. And with main dishes clocking in at the max at $22 (well, besides a New York steak, but that’s not a dish I’d personally pick at Hibiscus), you can afford the return ticket. Call Miss Cleo now!