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Fire island

Josh Sens | May 21, 2010 | Food & Drink Story Restaurants Eat and Drink

Salt fish and ackee is Jamaica’s national dish: a hash of briny cod and bulbous ackee, the lychee’s Caribbean cousin, with a blast of weapons-grade Scotch-bonnet chilies. This island breakfast staple is now served for dinner in Oakland’s Uptown district, the oft touted symbol of the city’s rejuvenation. Sweet plantains underpin the fish-fruit medley, but the chilies still strike with scorched-earth heat. It’s as spicy a starter as you’re likely to encounter in a restaurant with a wine list and white tablecloths.

That restaurant is Hibiscus, and its chef is Sarah Kirnon—born in England, raised in Barbados, and most recently the chef at the Front Porch, in San Francisco. In Kirnon’s new venture, she makes an adult journey through the culinary landscape of her childhood, reviving memories of callaloo, phoulourie, and other dishes whose names read like the building blocks of Seussian rhymes. Her menu is an homage to Caribbean and South American cooking—tamarind and taro, coconut milk and cassava—with nods to West Coast tastes. Kirnon spikes pepperpot stew with sautéed escarole and studs soulful grits with spicy Dungeness crab, and her feisty rendition of salt fish and ackee gets a second kick from garlic oil.

Bold and sometimes bewildering, but never boring, Hibiscus is not just another braised pork–and-burger bistro. Even when it missteps, it stands out as a lively, personal restaurant and an energetic portal into the chef’s past.

The building it inhabits has a history, too. Until just a few years ago, it was home to Sweet Jimmie’s, a landmark nightclub that doubled as a meeting place for community organizers—a spot for thoughtful rabble-rousing and R&B, it was part of old Oakland, now a vanishing world. For all the many upsides of Uptown’s revival, it has given rise to a mini-skyline’s worth of bland, high-end construction: lofts and condos that provide safe haven for new restaurants but lack much character or context. Hibiscus doesn’t have that problem. It feels rooted in the neighborhood.

The bones of the building remain intact, but they’ve been fleshed out in casually elegant style. You enter through the bar, a small, homey space with square wooden tables and built-in shelves adorned with books and bottles. A large still life of hibiscus peers down from one wall, and one of the windows looks not out but in. Through it, you can see into the dining room, an irregularly shaped space with glass pendant lights, scoopneck white curtains, and a partially raised floor. Though the atmosphere feels just dressed up enough for a special occasion, you’d never mistake its formal­ity for fuss.

Matching her menu to the ambience is a delicate task for Kirnon. While the food she celebrates has mostly humble roots, the setting calls for dishes with a faintly refined gloss. So the chef seeks balance in small, creative ways: She makes jerk-style chicken out of Cornish hen, then builds a light, bright nest of Japanese cucumbers beside it. She flanks phoulourie, traditional Trinidadian split-pea fritters, with a biting dandelion-and-Treviso salad. Like many deep-fried foods, the fritters taste, well, deep fried. But the greens add interest, as does a splash of tangy tamarind sauce.

Kirnon’s approach works—except when it doesn’t. Her fried chicken is an unpretentious star, its meat moistened with buttermilk and its skin stuffed with parsley, cilantro, and thyme. Paired with a side order of callaloo, spinachlike taro leaves stewed with coconut milk and okra, it seems almost exotic, a tropical twist on comfort food. But the kitchen’s misses underscore the perils of Hibiscus’s high-low tack. Pulled pork with speckled grits seems like a no-risk combination, yet the mixed-herb salsa sprinkled on it (a kind of gremolata gone bad) was overdosed with lemon zest, which gave the dish a cloying, unpleasant taste. Pepperpot stew, a beefy braise thickened with cassareep (a condiment made from ground cassava root and spices), came so heavily heated by Scotch bonnets that one bite was like a blowtorch to the tongue. Such intense fires are fine with a beer or on the beach, but they’re jarring at a restaurant that has subtlety in mind.

The service, though friendly, is somewhat flabbergasting. Glasses go unfilled; entrées arrive long before the silverware. On each of my visits, a waiter blamed the lags and hiccups on a sudden rush of patrons—Hibiscus shares the building with the New Parish, a music venue, so concertgoers often drop by. When small crowds wandered in during my evenings there, the front-room staff responded as if they had been ambushed. But the shows are scheduled in advance, so the only surprise was that Hibiscus was surprised.

Yet if you grumble about such things, you risk exposing yourself as a grouch. Better to dwell on the smooth rum cocktails and the superlative desserts, particularly the buttermilk panna cotta with muscat-poached guavas that are apt to trigger spoon fights over your plate. Another option, called shrub, pairs a shot of herb-infused cachaça with dates and salted almonds. It’s an electric trio, very different from the folk band playing next door. Bite into a date, nibble on an almond, and raise a glass of seasoned moonshine to a restaurant with a sweet, imperfect soul.

Hibiscus: 1745 San Pablo Ave. (at 18th St.), Oakland, 510-444-2626, dinner only, reservations recommended, wheelchair accessible, $$$, 2 stars


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