It Hurts So Good

Josh Sens | February 14, 2013 | Story Restaurants

Hunting for a hot sauce that suits your taste is the food world’s equivalent of S&M. On one extreme of the pain-pleasure continuum, a tepid, one-note condiment like, say, Tabasco offers far too little in the way of titillation. On the other, a weapons grade concoction such as Blair’s Mega Death Sauce is apt to push your palate beyond its outer limits, showing no sign of letup even as you’re blurting out your safe word.

In a happy place somewhere in between lies the pepper sauce at Miss Ollie’s, the new counter-service-for-lunch, table-service-for dinner Afro-Caribbean restaurant in Old Oakland from Barbados-raised chef Sarah Kirnon. A turmeric-tinted blend of sugarcane vinegar, carrots, and assorted chilies, the sauce is stored in large glass bottles, its color the aggressively glowing orange of a pumpkin grown on radiated ground.

The first time I had it, I poured it on lamb patties in puff pastry, half moon–shaped appetizers whose shells, more moist than flaky, absorbed the sauce in a neon Rorschach pattern. The ground lamb in the middle was seasoned with allspice—a fragrant perfume amid the gamy flavors—and the sauce, seeping toward it, did what a good sauce should do, embracing the dish without smothering it. The duality of the lamb patties (homey, yet unabashed about their high breeding) is something of a signature for Kirnon, one of the rare Caribbean chefs around these parts to represent her native cuisine as something more than leathery jerk chicken. As she did most recently at the white tableclothed Hibiscus in Oakland’s Uptown district (and before that at southern-inflected Front Porch in Bernal Heights), Kirnon pays homage to her roots—Miss Ollie’s is named for her grandmother—but aligns those traditions with the Chez Panisse–y ethos of her adopted home.

You taste it in the freshness of the chopped salad, a jumble of greens with hearts of palm, cucumber, avocado, fresh pimento, and olives, tossed in a coconut vinaigrette. It also comes across in the beautiful braised oxtail, black-eyed peas and collards basking in its fatty runoff, and in Kirnon’s curry chickpeas with bara bread and tamarind sauce. The latter is a combination reminiscent of chana masala with naan and chutney—though this bread is much denser, and the chickpeas are less intensely seasoned than their Indian counterparts.

The fact that I splashed Kirnon’s pepper sauce on almost everything is not to suggest that her cooking needs extra kick. Caribbean cuisine isn’t shy about its heat or its spiciness, and neither is the menu at Miss Ollie’s. But unlike at Hibiscus, where the chef ’s liberal use of chilies contrasted jarringly with the formal setting (and overwhelmed any accompanying wines), the food here meshes well with its surroundings. The restaurant fills a corner of Swan’s Market, a space with lofty ceilings, generous windows, and enough tropical touches (festive graffiti art, Caribbean-blue plates) to lend the otherwise industrial backdrop an undercurrent of island warmth. You order at the counter and grab a number and a seat, but even before you do, staffers drift by to ask if you have questions.

This is your chance to learn—if you haven’t already—that a “side of pikliz” is not a “side of pickles” written in pidgin English, but a feisty, habanero-flecked cabbage slaw; and that “christophine” is another word for chayote, the watery gourd that, along with carrots, pumpkin, yam leaves, and cassava, studs a lush, delicious split pea soup. Perhaps nothing on the menu draws more inquiries than ackee, the lychee-like fruit paired with salt fish in a classic Caribbean offering that is often piled over rice and beans at breakfast. Kirnon deftly re-creates the dish as she had it as a child: The shredded fish and fleshy fruit are scattered over fried plantains whose sweetness tempers the Scotch bonnet chilies.

Every day brings a daily special, and not all of them are created equal. Thursdays feature braised oxtail, and I’d rather show up for that than for fried-fish Friday: The cornmeal-crusted redfish is thick and bland, and the accompanying clear fish broth will test anyone’s tolerance for tidal flavors. The fried chicken, on the other hand, which earned Kirnon a cult following at Front Porch and which turns up here on Tuesdays and Saturdays, deserves its crispy, tender encore.

I visited Miss Ollie’s early on, when it had no liquor license and was serving only lunch. Dinner service was added on February 5, and though the restaurant’s not serving any liquor yet, it does feature a beverage list that includes ginger limeade and a sorrel cooler that’s heavy on the sugar and the clove.

In short, some things have changed since my first visit, including, very likely, the pepper sauce, which Kirnon initially made with Scotch bonnets that a friend had brought from the Caribbean before switching to less fiery, local habaneros. I preferred the former sauce, while my wife favored the fast spreading heat of the latter. But to each her own. Hot sauce doesn’t always have to be the same-old. And, as Miss Ollie’s reminds us, the same goes for Caribbean cuisine.

The Ticket

A recommended dinner for two people (before drinks, tax, and tip).

Lamb patties in puff pastry...$7

Fried chicken...$11

Salt fish with ackee...$8.25

Curry chickpeas...$6

Plantains with garlic oil...$4.50






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