At the chef’s counter at Plum in Oakland.
Hey, you busy freaking out about that dang thirteenth zodiac sign? I mean, really, what the hell? And the earthquakes, and crazy reports of birds falling out of the sky and flying into trucks… At least it isn’t Friday the thirteenth. And hopefully not the rapture. But it is time for Good Food Month, and Dine About Town, and the Fancy Food Show, and two “underground” markets this Saturday.
And, perhaps most importantly, it’s time for a drink.
As a thank you for all your support, and to cheers the New Year, from now until January 29th, 2011, you can swing by Dcantr (the wine bar adjacent to Saison) for a complimentary glass of Charles Duret, Crémant de Bourgogne Rosé, on me! (But hey, just one glass per person.) All you have to do is say the password “bubbles o’clock” to get your complimentary glass. It’s delicious, it’s pink, and it goes all too well with their chicken liver mousse. Cheers!
So, as you know, my restaurant reviews are always of San Francisco spots, unless I’m doing a jetsetter getaway piece about, say, Paris. It’s not that I am anti-Berkeley or adverse to dining in Marin—it’s just that there’s only one of me to get this dang column done each week, and try as I might, I can’t be everywhere. But there are many places I really love around the bay, so I thought for the next couple weeks, I’d cover some places in Oakland and Berkeley that I happily cross the Bay Bridge for. Sure, today’s two reviews are for restaurants that have been open for about a year or so, but I know plenty of San Franciscans who haven’t made the trek to them yet. So here’s hoping I can inspire a little cross-bay trip. Hell, I did it!
Oh, and one small note: sorry to report the I-Talian I-Ranian American Spaghetti Feed that was supposed to be at Long Bar on Monday has been postponed until late March—they decided to let the holiday madness subside a little first. FYI!
All-righty then, have a swell weekend (which is a three-day one for some of you!). But whether you have Monday off or not, may we all think of and honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the MLK Day of Service.
Register now to attend the 2011 Winter Fancy Food Show, the largest specialty food trade event on the West Coast. Come and experience 80,000 specialty foods and beverages, and spot the new trends for 2011.
It’s happening this month, from January 16th to the 18th at the Moscone Center. Register today! (Registration open for trade only.)
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!
Hibiscus - 1745 San Pablo Ave. Oakland - 510-444-2626
Before the saturation of San Francisco with quality pizza places hit its current all-time high, I’d have to make the trek to Pizzaiolo every time I was craving one of Charlie Hallowell’s thin-crust, wood-fired dreamboat pizzas. Of course I’d always get distracted by dishes like meatballs, pappardelle, and kickass salads, and order way too much food. Again. And again.
In a way, the menu at BOOT AND SHOE SERVICE, his latest restaurant on Grand Avenue, is a bit of a relief—it’s simpler, so I can do less carb damage. (Yeah, right.) And you also can do all kinds of cocktail damage, because this little hideaway has an awesome full bar in the back. In fact, it’s where I want to eat, sitting at the marble counter, in delightfully dangerous proximity to refreshing bourbon cocktails like the Fata Morgana, which I still dream about, made with blood orange, Amaro Nonino, dry vermouth, and cardamom. Many choice ingredients behind the bar, like the rest of the non-liquid menu.
The place is freaking cool. And fun. It offers a melee of well-chosen (and a bit loud) music, tattoos, friendly staff, a cool modern-rustic look with local art from Creative Growth on the brick walls, a mixed bag of diners, and a wine list that is a pleasure to read. Oh, and about the name: it’s just a tip o’ the pizzaiolo cap to the space’s earlier incarnation as a shoe repair shop—although some will remember it was most recently Di Bartolo.
There are about 10 thin-crust and wood-fired pizzas to choose from, rotating with what’s in season (all the ingredients really shine), and the option to add toppings like sausage and egg (or both). One night I had a pie with tomato ($15), little pieces of anchovy, cured black olive, red onion (not listed, but it was still welcome), and fat flakes of Calabrian chile. The flavors were so balanced, and reminded me of the Southern Italian pizzas I love and miss when I visit my relatives in Calabria. Another pie was with green onion ($16), salty and crispy guanciale, and a runny, decadent egg nestled in a perfect allotment of melty cheese. (I was ready to crawl in it and take a power nap.) Don’t be afraid of the carb/starch embrace of the potato pizza ($16) (and throw an egg on that bad boy), and for clam pizza ($16) lovers, you’ll find a good one here.
These are not the kinds of pizzas you want to share. Sure, they’re pretty big. But you will want to eat the entire freaking thing yourself. With one bite of the lightly charred and elastic crust (with just a touch of bready sweetness), the piggy part of your brain gets fired up, and the next thing you know, you’re not even talking to your dinner guest because you just want to eat the pizza, even if it’s burning the roof of your mouth with the still-damned-hot-from-the-wood-burning-oven cheese. Chew chew chew. “What did you say? I was distracted. Sorry.”
Apps range from chicory salads to burrata to a fritto misto with a thick and rich aioli, while dessert is about keeping it simple (Straus soft-serve with olive oil and fleur de sel, cannoli, pot de crème, and the like). The apps can be a bit spendy (like $12) if you’re trying to watch your boo-jay. It’s hard to get out of there without spending $100 for two (well, unless you share one pizza, but that sure as hell isn’t happening if you’re eating with me). And as we all know, good ingredients and nice cocktails and wines don’t come cheap.
Bummer, no reservations—but bonus, they can take your cell and you can go have a cocktail at the nearby Grand Tavern (or perhaps a divier place on Grand) while you wait. Boot and Shoe might be a little too dark and rowdy for some (if that’s the case, I guess you’ll want to take advantage of their to-go menu), but for the rest of you, party on, Wayne.
Boot and Shoe Service - 3308 Grand Ave. Oakland - 510-763-2668